We live in a world that expects results. Nobody wants to waste their life or spend their time on things that don’t matter.
That’s part of what makes it so devastating when our ministries feel fruitless—no one gives their life to Christ, the financial troubles never end, or the sermons fall flat. It feels as though all our efforts have been for nothing, or a wrong choice put us in the wrong place. We don’t have stories of transformed lives, people meeting Christ, or God’s hand in our work.
One man, who claimed he’d failed more than 10,000 times before achieving his greatest success, said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” That man was Thomas Edison.
In 1707, another man encountered his own series of failures in a different struggle—a mission that shows that God can, and does use even “fruitless” ministries to advance the Kingdom.[Tweet “God can and does use even “fruitless” ministries to advance his Kingdom.”]
A lost colony
Pastor Hans Poulsen Egede was a young Lutheran pastor assigned to a remote archipelago, hundreds of miles into the Arctic Circle. The isolated region of Lofoten, Norway rested at the feet of a breathtaking range of mountains skirting the Norwegian Sea. Here, Egede first heard rumors of a twelfth-century Norse settlement of Greenland. Intrigued, he undertook an investigation and discovered that the settlement had fallen out of contact with Europe nearly 300 years earlier.
Imagine the weight of that discovery: an entire colony of people, forgotten by the country that sent them. And no one knew what had happened.
Hans became restless and was plagued by questions. What became of the settlements? Were the Christians who colonized Greenland still following Christ, or had they lost their connection with God as well? Sensing God’s call, Hans obtained permission from Frederick IV of Denmark to re-establish a Danish colony in Greenland. It took 10 long years to raise funds but at last Hans led his family and a band of 40 colonists to resettle Greenland.
A lost cause
When Hans arrived in Greenland, he was crestfallen; nothing remained of the the old Norse colonies. What Hans did find, however, were the native Inuit. Reinvigorated, he undertook a new mission: share the Christian faith with the Inuit people. For 10 years (making a total of 20 years devoted to this mission), Hans and his family labored to bring them the gospel, but the Inuit expressed little interest in the stories of the Bible—except for those of Jesus miracles. “If you are the priest of such a mighty God,” they said, “You must perform similar miracles.” They mocked the Lutheran minister, dismissing his message.
After 12 years of labor with no visible fruit from his ministry, Hans suffered a devastating blow—his wife died without even a hint that her life’s ministry was fruitful. That same year, a smallpox epidemic ravaged the Inuit villages, leaving thousands dead. But Hans demonstrated the same commitment to the Inuit as he had to his late wife. He worked day and night, tending to the sick and sitting by the beds of the dying. He conducted the same funeral rites for the Inuit as he had for his wife. He whispered the words of God’s self-giving love to the dying, in the Inuit language he struggled to learn and teach his sons.
In these desperate moments and compassionate acts of service, Hans showed the Inuit people what he’d been trying to tell them for over a decade.
An eternal legacy
After all the years he invested in the Inuit people, after all the hardships he faced in his ministry, Hans suffered a final tragedy. The country that sent him ordered him to leave.
But before he left, the surviving leaders of the very people who had mocked him said, “You would have done for us what not even our own kinfolk would have done. You have fed us when we were famished. You have buried our dead who otherwise would have been the prey of foxes and ravens. Above all, you have told us of God, and we may now die happily in hope of a better life hereafter.”
A reason to keep going
Hans had every reason to give up on his mission. Every external sign, every metric for ministry success would have indicated that his time would be better spent elsewhere.
But God doesn’t use our metrics, and he doesn’t follow our timelines.[Tweet “God doesn’t use our metrics, and he doesn’t follow our timelines.”]
Not every pursuit produces fruit, but we also can’t confuse “not yet” with not ever.