Test everything... 1 Thessalonians 5:21
It was 1975 and I was a very young and inexperienced minister. A couple came to me with an idea that made me think hard - in a nutshell: “We feel God wants us to open a Christian bookshop in this town.”
The town in question was Scunthorpe in north Lincolnshire, famed for its steelworks. The husband was a shift-worker in the works, the wife a housewife and mother of small children. I don’t think they would be offended if I were to say that they knew very little about books, even Christian ones, and nothing at all about shops and how they are run.
Things like this, judging by my experience, do happen from time to time to ministers. People come to share a conviction that “the Lord has told me...”. Sound familiar?
I remember a group that was convinced God had called them to set up a hostel for people with addiction problems. They even knew the address of the house which God had in mind, and had gone and knocked on the door and told the poor unsuspecting owner that they would soon be buying his house for this purpose. I think he just dismissed them as “a bunch of religious nutters”, but it must have been unsettling.
Another couple were convinced not only that they were going to be missionaries at some unspecified date in the future, but exactly what country God was calling them to work in.
A blind Christian was visited by a healing group convinced that, after praying for her and laying on hands, her sight would be restored.
A minister arrived new in a town and announced that he believed his small, struggling church would become “the largest church in the town”.
And a more personal reflection: my wife and I lost what would have been our first child; it died in the womb. During the anxious period leading up to this we had lovely, well-meaning Christians assuring us that the baby would be fine. How did they know? - why, the Lord had told them, of course.
You can probably guess where I am heading... That hostel never got opened. That couple never went abroad as missionaries. That blind lady never saw (until she died and saw Jesus face to face in glory). That minister left within a year. And I’ve already said what happened to our baby.
So what about that Christian bookshop?
Well, a few weeks ago I received an invitation to a celebration party marking its fortieth anniversary.
Yes! It did get started; and, yes, it is still there. It’s in a slightly different location, it has a different name, and its ministry has expanded beyond only books. But it is still there, a quiet Christian presence in the heart of the town. And I can tell you that that party was one of the most moving and wonderful experiences I can remember.
When the work began, in the original location, a man came in who ran a rather disreputable shop next door. He had a look round and told my friends Ian and Mary “I’ll give you six months.” Well, he and his shop went out of business in no time at all; and if a period of forty years and counting doesn’t qualify as standing the test of time, I don’t know what does...
I don’t mean to criticise the good people I mentioned earlier who got it wrong - God bless them for their faith and enthusiasm. After all, Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t treat prophecies with contempt.” Amen to that!
But then he adds something massively important: “Test everything”. Yes, enthusiasm needs to be tempered with wisdom.
That’s exactly what happened with the shop - a vision, a conviction, a whole lot of prayer, of discussion, of research, not to mention sheer back-breaking hard work. And only then was a wonderful new ministry born.
It’s only right to say that there have been bumps along the way and periods of uncertainty. But is a true work of God ever easy and trouble-free? Not if the witness of Acts is to be believed!
So? I can only encourage us all to be men and women of deep faith, believing that with God all things really are possible. But never forget those two little words: Test everything.
Oh, and next time you find yourself in Scunthorpe (what do you mean, you don’t expect to?), get yourself along to the shop (details below). You can enjoy a coffee, perhaps pick up a bargain from the charity shop, perhaps even buy a book or two.
There’s one thing I can guarantee: you will meet some very beautiful Christian people working out a vision that, forty years ago, looked a mere pipe-dream.
And if, sadly, Scunthorpe isn’t on your “must visit” list, well, why not stop and offer a prayer right now - a prayer of thanks for past blessings and of intercession for blessings still to come.
Lord God, help me to be a Christian of both soaring vision and hard-headed realism. Amen.
74-78 Frodingham Road
North Lincolnshire DN15 7JW.
Telephone: 01724 865410