Visionaries, workers, and minimal Christians

In our days, all absurdities and anomalies imaginable are sold like hot bread to the (or I should say especially to) the Evangelical world, being nicely packaged with slogans like „get out of the anonymity”, „be original”, or, to be even more original, „The Lord calls you to a unique and distinct ministry”. And it is surprising how fast we accept these philosophies not realizing how quick and how far we depart from the Word of God. When talking about „unique, distinct ministries”, you only need an elementary dose of Scripture to realize that, in spite of the Christianity being filled with such “unique, distinct” visionaries, our planet sinks deeper and deeper into darkness, while the only Great Commission of the Savior remains a mere topic for the textbooks on Christian history.

Opposite to this select group of “unique visionaries” we have the great „mass” of believers who act and live as if they would have no call and no ministry or work to do. Absolutely nothing. They are the “minimal Christians”, if I may use Spurgeon’s label for them, people who were educated that they don’t and can’t make any difference. And this for several reasons. One of these reasons is that, in order that they would be something else than “minimal Christians”, then they would need a special call; another reason is that they would need degrees and seminaries, or that they would need to get ordained. There may be other reasons, even more delicate. Such as that they might generate a storm in the current (and almost eternal) status-quo of the congregation. Or maybe that the pastor or the elders might feel offended because, isn’t it true, “We are responsible for this, and we are taking care for this already!” (in other words, „How dare you be so arrogant to pretend you can do this better than we know how to do it?”)..


Well, another reason, and on this I want to develop more here, has much in common with the work ethic, with immediate application to the spiritual ministry. And this has to do with the idea of the “work-a-holic” (or somebody who is obsessed with work). But, oh, don’t think that, in any way, ministers and workers in our Evangelical churches should be work-a-holics. No-no, that’s not the idea. Au contraire! Nowadays, our worker got emancipated. If he somehow swept the floor of the church this Sunday, he needs two months of Sabbatical to re-charge himself. If he passed out two or three evangelistic tracts, he needs a one-year break. He is tired, don’t you understand? If he preached at both Sunday services, to ask him a private meeting over the next week for counseling looks like an affront to his personal time, an invasion into the forbidden land. The servant of the Lord needs to re-charge himself…

Friends, don’t get me wrong! First, I do not target anyone with an á propos. After all, there are so many examples of such people in our days and our churches, that one does not need to hit the horse into the right direction. Second, yes, I totally agree that all of us need rest. Yet for bodily rest, our Lord left us a specific time of the 24 hours, and that is night. Not during the day! While it is still day, we have a work to do, because, if I may paraphrase, soon comes the night, when we can no longer work. But from this to where many of Christians went in our days it is a very long way.

Is Spurgeon the idol of the Christian work-a-holic?

Some years ago, I translated an article describing the work ethic of the great preacher Charles Spurgeon. You can find the link at the bottom of this article. The “Gurus”, who have always an explanation for everything, they come and argue: “Yeah, yeah, but Spurgeon was an exception, a man who was richly gifted by the Lord, in an unusual way, with a kind of activism in ministry which you cannot find in others in the history of Christianity”. WRONG! And I am going to give you a few examples of simple Christians, almost unknown to the contemporary Evangelical Christianity, but I can assure you they were well-known to God. They are examples who clearly demolish all this theory of the “work-a-holic Spurgeon”, and even the idea of an “work-a-holic Christian”.

A parish the size of one country

My first example is Amanda McFarland, the first missionary in Alaska, USA, who served in that part of the world between 1877-1897. I do not enter into details, but briefly the story of our sister in Christ – now rejoicing in glory, in the presence of the Lord – says that, as soon as her husband died on the mission field, he hears of the missionary and exploratory work of Sheldon Jackson and of the urgent need for missionaries in Alaska. And she responds, embarking on a dangerous journey. Alone. Thus, Amanda McFarland came to toil and work alone in Alaska for about 20 years, most of the time lacking that minimal financial and spiritual support from her home church. The area of her ministry was something like… 90,000 square miles (approximately the size of Romania), where she was for the natives of Alaska, as written in a biography of her, “midwife, doctor, undertaker, preacher, teacher, mayor, and governor” of that area. Yea-yea, your reading is correct – and preacher. Obviously, some will counter-attack – “she stepped over the biblical mandate for women”. Some other will give us the final explanation: „she afforded that, she was a widow”. It is worthless to comment on such attitudes.

19 sermons a week and a million miles to travel

My second example refers to Sheldon Jackson, exploratory and missionary, who was used by God in the furtherance of the Gospel in a variety of areas in America, Alaska being one of these. Due to his weak bodily constitution, predisposed to frequent sickness, Sheldon received from the American Presbyterian Mission Board an “insignificant” area of ministry, now where Wisconsin and Minnesota states are located. Now this “insignificant” parch stretched over an area of… 13,000 miles. But what is more important is that Sheldon had to preach every week In 19 places in the state of Minnesota only, some congregations being about 100-120 miles distant one from another. Piece of cake, would say some. Not for the one who had to cover this area on foot or, best case, on horse, and that EVERY WEEK, irrespective of weather, season, and disposition.

In a short biography made public at the beginning of the 20th century, it is said that “the way Jackson escaped freezing, cold winter storms and abundant snowfalls that were so characteristic to the area would need a whole book. Sheldon was not able to freeze. I mean not completely, but only his fingers and nose”.

When he then accepted to coordinate the missionary enterprise for an area of 2,863,000 square miles (about half the size of the US) in the Western part of the country, Sheldon Jackson did not imagine himself laying comfortably in a sofa and tweeting with his field workers. No-no! But he started what was in the end the longest missionary trip of the century in America – one million miles. And, nota bene, it wasn’t a recreational adventure.

His biographer summarizes the experience of this trip aiming at evangelism and encouraging the local workers and churches:

„He went on horseback or on foot over unspeakable roads, bumping along in ox carts, by buckboard, stage, with mule team, by broncho, reindeer sledge (sled), lumber wagon, ambulance, by freight or construction train, by dugout (a boat made by hallowing out a large log), launch, steamer, canoe, revenue-cutter, or cattle-ship. Five times the stage was robbed just before he passed over the route. Once there was only the motion of a finger between him and death, as a half dozen revolvers were pointed at him. Once he escaped scalping by the Apaches by a few hours; again he went unharmed, when his steamer was fired into by hostile Indians; again a fanatical papal mob threatened his life. And once he was imprisoned for the Gospel’s sake and set free by the President. Under the trees, under the stars, in log huts, in miners’ camps, in dugouts and sod houses, the missionary went preaching and visiting, and organizing churches”.

Ministry is … cool

My third example is of Egerton R. Young, a pioneer missionary in Canada, between 1868-1909. The field where Young and his family served had, when they started, was 1,000 miles long and 300 miles wide. Here is a quick look over a few things describing their ministry circumstances:

„During his trips, Egerton slept in holes dug in the snow, while the outside temperature was going down to almost minus 60 degrees. Other times, his face and legs were so severely affected by freezing, that he had deep bleeding sores. Scarlet fever and other diseases broke out at times, yet as soon as he recovered a little, he used to get back to work and continued his trips. Many times, the reflection of the sunlight on the white snow was so strong, that he was unable to travel over the day, but had to cover long distances during the night, under the stars.” 

And when the day broke out, he was ready to preach, to encourage, to bury, to evangelize… Maybe he was a work-a-holic, after all…

Windolf’s faithfulness

The fourth and last example I want to give you was discovered (not very difficult though) in one of the issues of the Sword and Trowel magazine, which was edited by nobody else but the “work-a-holic” Spurgeon. No, this example does not refer to Spurgeon. He was “special” anyway, right? No, but it refers to a brother named H. Windolf (I was yet unable to find his complete name) from Hamburg, Germany. Due to the special friendship developed between Charles Spurgeon and Johann Oncken, the leader of a Reformed Baptist revival movement in Germany, it looks like brother Windolf was financially supported by Spurgeon’s congregation for the ministry of “colportage” (that was a name given to a book and tract distribution ministry, whereby Christians dedicated their whole lives to selling and giving away of Christian literature, mostly evangelistic, though, as you will see, their ministry was not limited to that).

In one of his letters to Spurgeon and the congregation in London, brother Windolf was presenting the ministry he was convinced he was called, underlining humbly his passion for soul winning, and presenting the spiritual need in the harbor area of Hamburg, and giving warm thanks of gratitude to the congregation for their generosity.

But what captured my attention was not necessarily the letter Windolf wrote, but a short portion of his ministry journal (yes, they used such things), which was added by Spurgeon to the letter published in the Sword and Trowel. For the contemporary believer, ever feeling like too tired to do something, this may very well appear like the perfect portrait of the “work-a-holic” Christian. This passage speaks for itself:

„The journal of this missionary for the months of January, February, and March of this year is before us; it shows a great amount of labor and records many instances of usefulness, especially among soldiers and sailors”.

„In this quarter, he writes, I have made 263 visits in families, and 165 on board vessels; I have disposed of 10 bibles, 55 testaments, books, and have exchanged 250 books; I have distributed 1,100 tracts and monthly messengers; conducted 34 meetings and 3 prayer-meetings; administered the Lord’s Supper 4 times; and given 24 lessons in religion in our day-school.”

German-like, right? Maybe you are already thinking we have to do with a guy obsessed with the ministry, a “legalist” who did not know what it means that the servant of the Lord need to take at least a short break to breathe. Do not rush to that yet. After the first trimester, it looks like brother Windolf changed his plans, and, obviously, implemented them. Here is the result after the first week of April:

During the first week of April, I visited 223 ships, and disposed of 9 Bibles, 35 Testaments, 27 books, and 810 tracts. After the long winter, navigation is again flourishing Hundreds of vessels are arriving in one day at Hamburg and Altona.

Sure, you will say that our brother saw the need, and responded to it, but most likely he should have had no family to care for, no obligations, since he dedicated so much time to the ministry. You’re rushing to wrong conclusions again. Here’s the final part of Windolf’s letter to Spurgeon:

I request, therefore, more particularly the prayers of the Church which cares for my temporal welfare, that the Lord would give me great grace conscientiously and faithfully to proclaim the good news of redeeming love. I require much bodily strength also, and the gracious protection of the Lord, having to row about in the boat for six or eight hours a day, besides mounting one ship after another, in which there is danger of my foot slipping, and my family being left orphans. But I comfort myself with the promise that not a hair of our heads shall perish without the will of our Father. It is precious to know how many dear children of God pray for me, and for the work in which I am engaged.

And if you still think Windolf was a super-man, I will offer you a short insight into what it meant to be a “colporteur”. In one of the reports Charles Spurgeon made to his church, I found a very brief presentation of the colportage ministry at Metropolitan Tabernacle Colportage Association. Here it is: „During the year 1880, the 79 colporteurs employed by the Association have distributed 7,801 Bibles, 10,675 New Testaments, 96,073 books, and 272,698 tracts and magazines. In addition, they visited 630,993 families and conducted 6,745 religious services”.

Do you think you can afford a bit more of this? Here’s the last one – in brief, the typical journal of a colporteur for a normal Sunday:

Visited about 50 homes with tracts, and spoke a few words where I could. Sunday School, 2.30, gave an address to teachers and scholars. Preached at a Lodging House at 5.30 and at Gospel Hall 6.30 and again in the Market at 8.35; then visited some sick people.

Giants and pygmies

What? „I request, therefore, more particularly the prayers of the Church… that the Lord would give me GREAT grace conscientiously and faithfully to proclaim the good news of redeeming love”??? I mean 223 ships visited in ONE WEEK (take care not to confuse that with taking photos of them and posting on Facebook) and brother Windolf asked for faithfulness and to be conscientious???

My friends, we are PYGMIES compared to these simple and unknown believers!!!! No, they were not work-a-holics. Neither those (very few) whom we see these days in our congregations and at their sight we puff in an elitist manner or murmur in our minds, “I used to be so zealous in my first week after conversion”. No, they are not exceptional, and not at all work-a-holics! But they were and are those who truly understood three essential things about living out their faith:

  1. To whom much it was forgiven, loves much.
  2. Those who love much, find it impossible to refuse obeying wholeheartedly the greatest desire and commandment of their Savior. And to do it with all their might, as if everything would depend on them, yet knowing all is His.
  3. When eternity is at the door, there is no time to spend on trifles.

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