Jeremiah or Jonah?

Guest ColumnistCommunity News

By Mike Milway

Editor’s Note: Mike Milway was one of the first two worship leaders of SBCC and was the fourth appointed elder of our church.

It’s been a while since I last read Community News.  About 25 years, I think.   So imagine my surprise yesterday when Katie and Brendan (my wife and son) brought the latest issue here to Boston.  They visited SBCC during a quick tour of potential West Coast colleges, as Brendan, a rising senior, wanted to see Westmont College.  They couldn’t have brought me a nicer gift.

I started at SBCC when the church was a mere handful of wide-eyed twenty somethings, meeting at a restaurant/bar on State Street.  Reed Jolley had dark hair.  Steve Jolley had some hair.  And Krista Jolley was the only child in Sunday School.  Times change.

The church is now celebrating 33 years.  A third of a century.  Enough time to make a difference for the Kingdom, you would think.  Jesus lived that long.  But how should SBCC evaluate its impact?  What index would God use?  One answer to that question dawned on me as I read the last page of Community News.  It reminded me of the difference between Jonah and Jeremiah.

Jonah was the most successful, if least faithful, prophet ever.  God used him to convert the entire population of Nineveh in just three days.  The flourishing capitol of a vast Assyrian empire, Nineveh was teeming with people hostile to God.  Imagine Billy Graham converting every man, woman and child in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia during one short weekend.  That’s the picture.  If successful ministry could be measured in growth and size, Jonah would stand today without peer, the Michael Phelps of Olympic prophets and preachers.  But he was also brash, reluctant, and unreliable.

So I’m not sure SBCC should evaluate its impact by measuring success, impressive though that be.  None of us 33 years ago dared to imagine three services, nineteen staff and dozens of thriving ministries.

Jeremiah was the opposite.  He was the most faithful, if least successful, prophet ever.  For more than thirty years, without evidence of changed lives or fruitful impact, he preached of the justice, love and mercy of God.  He believed the promise of God toward Jerusalem so strongly that he purchased property in the city even as Babylonian warriors camped nearby to sack it, which they eventually did.  Imagine buying stock in Lehman Brothers as Wall Street ticker tapes predicted its imminent bankruptcy.  That’s the picture.  If successful ministry were measured in growth and size, Jeremiah would have been forgotten long ago.  He lost the whole farm.  But he remained constant and faithful for more than three decades.  And God honored that.

Nineveh soon turned from God and fell to ruin, becoming the New Testament model for urban desolation.  Today, it’s a war-torn, God forsaken dust-bowl near Bagdad.  But meanwhile God returned Jerusalem to his people.  He came to live and die there, inaugurating his kingdom on earth as it was in heaven.

Christians celebrate success.  We love the kind of statistics reported by Jonah in Nineveh.  But God honors faithfulness.  He celebrates the kind of constancy modeled by Jeremiah in Jerusalem.

So here I am reading the last page of Community News, 33 years after starting at SBCC and 25 years after leaving it for other worlds.  What strikes me most is the number of people still at SBCC who remind me of Jeremiah.  Five of the staff profiled (and no doubt others, too) were with us decades ago in that fancy restaurant/bar on State Street:  Bonnie Fearer, Reed Jolley, Steve Jolley, Tricia Popp and Kathy Roberts.

In a community as transient at Santa Barbara, at a time when church hopping is the new normal, when pastors cycle through ministries as quickly as New Yorkers through revolving doors, please do yourself a favor.  Rejoice that God honors faithfulness.  And be thankful for leaders who are more like Jeremiah than Jonah. (I love your photos, Bonnie, Tricia and Kathy: you haven’t aged in 25 years!).  Celebrate the last 33 years, not by measuring success, but by honoring the faithfulness of those who equipped you for it.  And what better way to honor faithfulness than to imitate it.