I argue repeatedly that the key to success in ministry, as God defines success, is getting in line with what God wants to do, or is doing. The biblical concept of ministry is serving God or other people in a way that furthers God’s will or purpose. Further, true ministry must be empowered and directed by God. God is clear that "it is the Spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing." (John 6:63) He warns in the Old Testament that, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they do labor in vain that build it." (Psalms 127:1) Paul said the apostles were those who "glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh." (Phil. 3:3) These passages and many others all suggest the same thing: If God’s power moves through us in ministry, spiritual fruit will be borne. If his power is not animating our ministry, nothing we do will help the situation. (We have discussed the central role of God in ministry in the paper, "God’s Part in Ministry.")
Over against the biblical teaching about the centrality of God in ministry, the Bible teaches that human agency is also significant. In each case where a church is planted in the book of Acts, one or more humans went to that city and were used by God to plant it. Paul teaches that God presents members of the Body of Christ with gifts, ministries, and effects for his glory, and for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:4-7) Paul goes so far as to say that people cannot believe unless they hear, and they can’t hear unless someone preaches. (Rom. 10:14) He also says God has "committed to us the message of reconciliation." (2Cor. 5:19)
In other words, God wants to work his will through the agency of cooperating Christians servants who understand his ways and actively move out to become "fellow workers with God." (1 Cor. 3:7) The degree to which God has delegated the task of reaching the world to humans is remarkable. One important function that God expects many Christians to carry out for him is leadership. From one end of the Bible to the other, God worked through human leaders. Most of the great heroes of faith from Abraham to Moses to David to Paul were leaders. In the New Testament the role of human leader is expanded further. No longer is leadership reserved for kings or priests. In the Body of Christ, the apostles regularly appointed leadership in every locality from common people.
Jesus' observation that "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few," and his call to "Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field," both imply that God's intentions on earth may be thwarted by a shortage of qualified leaders. (Mat. 9:37,38) In order for home churches to replicate themselves, leaders must be raised up. Therefore, for those of us who are concerned about following God and seeing his will done on earth, the matter of finding and establishing human leadership is urgent.
Obviously, if human leadership didn't matter—if all ministry is up to God alone, all groups would be the same. But this is not the case. How often we see God’s power restricted in groups with poor leaders! Meanwhile, other groups seem to flourish both inwardly and in outward growth. God sends leaders into his flock to galvanize and excite people, reminding them of their mission, and firing their imagination for the future. Our tasks can seem routine and uninteresting when carried out without the benefit of leadership. Yet when a good leader arrives, those same tasks seem exciting and worthwhile.
Consider some of the implications that flow from this understanding of leadership:
- It would be pointless to formulate plans, exert effort, take risks, or spend money on a ministry project that is not empowered by God. Any such project is doomed to fail spiritually, no matter how much outward "fruit" it appears to bear.
- Humans can do tasks, including attracting a following, without any help from God. However, for those of us with a biblical perspective, such a following would be not only unimportant, but actually dangerous to our own spiritual lives and the health of the church. Those who understand the divine component in ministry don’t want any more following than what God has in mind for them.
- Leaders who understand God’s part in leadership become more watchful, and less forceful. They realize the futility of sociologically-based change (changing because of group pressure or manipulation) and instead realize that the key to successful ministry is finding out what God is doing. Then the leader can cooperate with God’s direction and often maximize results.
- Leaders who see their roles as God does are less shattered by failure and less elated by success. Years of serving God as leaders teach them that what appears a great success is often not as great as people think, and what seems like failure may not be as bad as supposed. In the face of failure, God always seems to find a way through eventually. At the same time, nothing is ever as easy as we thought it would be. The realization that ultimate responsibility for the kingdom lies with the king leads to stability and consistency in leadership.
- The nightmare of presiding over a huge, carnally motivated ministry may haunt spiritually-minded leaders, while leading a small flock in the true power of the Spirit seems increasingly appealing. Of course, a spiritual leader will go where God calls him or her, whether to large or small flocks.
- While techniques and scholarship can be increasingly mastered in our lives, discerning the hand of God in leadership never gets all that easy. As a result, long-time leaders develop an increasingly careful and circumspective approach when deciding on direction, while carnally motivated leaders tend to become "know-it-alls." Of course, all good leaders know how to move strongly and decisively once God’s direction has been discerned.
- Biblical leaders are constantly scanning the people in their sphere of influence, watching for signs that God is moving someone ahead. They know the divine election plays key a role in leadership development. God’s gifting of believers is an indication of his plan for them in the body, according to 1 Cor. 12. Likewise, people often have underlying personal problems that are secret to all but God. These issues often come out only after a person is in leadership and may cause widespread damage. In retrospect, we sometimes realize the signs were there all along. Godly leaders see that the key to leadership replication involves a combination of faithful feeding of the flock on the one hand, while trying to discern who God is designating as his chosen leaders for the future. (See the paper "What Makes Someone a Leader?")