Christian workers must clearly understand the role God plays in evangelism, discipleship and other aspects of ministry. Unless we consciously operate out of a God-centered model of ministry, we will automatically default to a human-centered model, and all the defeat that comes with it.
A moment’s reflection tells us that what we propose to accomplish in Christian ministry is supernatural. To reach people’s hearts with conviction of their need for Christ, to train them up in the faith, to impart the deep things of God in a life-changing way, to oppose and defeat powerful evil spirits—these are acts that no human can hope to accomplish, no matter how intelligent and competent that person may be. The key to ministry success is always the same: That God moves through us “leading us in his triumph.” (2 Cor. 2:14) Spiritual failure in ministry is predictable when leaders try to supplant the power of God with human charisma, ingenuity, marketing skill, force of will, or social manipulation, even when these are supplied from the best of motives.
Although no real ministry will go forward without the power of God, we should not deny the human part in this process, which would be “super-spirituality.” Paul declares that he and the other apostles are “God’s fellow workers.”(1 Cor. 3:9) Yes, “neither he who plants nor he who reaps are anything but God who causes the growth.”(vs. 7) But this is a figure of speech meaning that compared to God, the planter and reaper are nothing. We should not understand this hyperbole literalistically. Do we really think that everything would have come out the same even if Paul had never gone to Corinth to plant? We hold that his planting did make a difference, and Paul argues this as well, as the whole point of 1Corinthians 3 is that every Christian leader should “take care how he builds.” (vs.10) An honest reading of the Bible reveals a strong doctrine of human agency in ministry. God has elected to work though human beings, and therefore our actions are important.
What, then, should we anticipate God will do from his side in our ministry?
In the first place, God directs our ministries. Leaders are to come to the scriptures, and to the Lord in prayer, seeking to know his will for our ministry. Ministry that departs from the direction God wants may bear some kind of fruit, but becomes “wood hay and stubble” the further we depart from the leading of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, God seems willing to continue using ministries that are off-target, apparently because he places a higher value on reaching the lost than on complete fidelity to his leading. Paul observed this phenomenon in Rome. (Phil. 1:15-18) This is probably the meaning of Mark 9:38-40 as well. Even in 1 Corinthians 3, the “wood hay and stubble” may be used by God, but it will not be rewarded. In fact, the Bible abounds with examples where God continued to use leaders who went astray, sometimes very badly. What are we to conclude?
On one hand, since it is God’s will to direct our ministries, we should seek that leading often and earnestly. Even though God may continue to use off-target ministries, we assume that we will bear more spiritual fruit the closer we are to God’s ideal. This is increasingly obvious as time goes on. In the short term, human-based ministry may look good, but it tends to deteriorate over time or bring disgrace upon the Lord’s name. On the other hand, we should never become paralyzed by the notion that “Unless I know exactly what God wants in each situation, I can’t move forward.” We can move forward based on the general knowledge of what God wants, and in areas we are unsure, we can remain open to any correction in our course that God may want to show us, knowing that he will not let us come to irreversible harm (Phil. 3:15).
The direction of God extends not only to major issues like whether to preach the word or to practice church discipline, but to more subjective areas like when someone is ready for leadership, or with whom to invest our discipling time and effort. Teachers have to consult God on what slant to take when teaching a particular text. Evangelists must ask when to make a more direct call on the lost. Leaders must plead for insight as to how much to expect from a particular disciple. All believers need discernment as to Satan’s next move. In all, there are thousands of decisions in ministry requiring divine guidance.
Secondly, God empowers our ministries. Jesus’ declaration that “apart from me you can do nothing,” is again a figure of speech. He doesn’t mean we can do nothing at all, but that we can do nothing of spiritual value apart from him. As Christian leaders, we realize that we depend absolutely on God for things like:
Evangelism. While a warm demeanor, patience, good arguments, and heartfelt pleas matter in evangelism, only the Holy Spirit can finally convict a person of their need for Christ and bring them to repentance. (John 6:65)
Conviction. We can preach truth, but we depend on God to convict people’s hearts to follow the truth. Apart from spiritual conviction, people will listen to the truth with passive curiosity. This is likely the power Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 4:19,20.
Development of Christian character. No amount of blustering and Bible thumping will transform human lives, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
Overthrowing demons. How could any human hope to impact a spiritual being like Satan apart from the power of God? (Rom. 16:20)
Filling Christian meetings with spiritual power. Paul asks his friends to pray that he be “given utterance”when preaching. (Eph. 6:19) He knew that preaching must be anointed by the Holy Spirit in order to be effective.
Failure to understand or believe in God’s role in ministry will always have negative results. These results include arrogance during “in season” times, as well as panic, pushiness and discouragement during “out of season” times. On the other hand, reliance on God’s role in ministry will promote thankful humility during “in season” times, and stable perseverance during “out of season” times. Those who depend on God’s part have confidence in God’s adequacy through us.
The effect of a God-Centered Perspective on our Attitude
Consider the likely effect that a proper outlook in the area of God’s role will have in each of the following areas. On a three column grid, describe the outlook and actions of the human effort minister on the left, the God-centered minister in the middle, and the reason for the difference on the right.
1. Less fear of rejection because we know they are not rejecting us, but God. Unlike the man-centered witnesser, we realize God must quicken people’s hearts, and if they don’t respond, there is nothing we can do about it.
2. Less tendency to push because human or social pressure would not result in conversion anyway. The God-centered minister learns to wait on the power of God.
3. More likely to use the Word. God-centered ministers know that God works through his word. While using the Bible with one who doesn’t believe the Bible may seem absurd to the natural mind, God says his word “will not return void.”
1. No fear of sin. Instead of reacting out of fear that sin will ruin our church, the God-centered minister has a settled confidence that Christ will build his church. We become free to discipline sin for the good of the sinner.
2. No doubting of God’s ability to change lives. Man-centered ministers are tempted to become fatalistic about those in chronic sin, thinking “they’ll never change.” The God-centered minister knows God’s power is great.
3. Less apt to try to force people. Again, human pressure is not an adequate motivation for permanent and real spiritual change. While the Bible does prescribe pressure in certain extreme situations, God-centered leaders are less prone to jumping to this conclusion.
4. More patience. Human-based ministers lose patience because they are waiting on fallen humans to change, rather than waiting on God to bring change.
C. Teaching and preaching
1. More boldness and confidence. God-centered teachers and preachers know that God infuses our utterances with power, and that it is his will to bless the church. Instead of relying on self-confidence, which often withers, these rely on God-confidence which is reliable.
2. More tendency to pray against the Devil. The God-centered speaker knows that each talk is a spiritual battle that must be fought with the weapons of righteousness.
1. The God-centered discipler tries to get in line with what God wants to do with particular lives. They realize that God’s gifting of individuals is an indication of his will for their lives.
2. More emphasis on discernment, and less on program. The key becomes recognizing what God is doing, rather than having the ultimate method that can’t fail.
3. More relaxation, leading to more trust from disciples. Since the God-centered minister sees himself as a facilitator of God’s development of another’s life, people sense that they aren’t being made to follow the discipler’s will, but that both are trying to follow God’s will.
4. More willingness to teach in-depth Bible study. Those who conceive of discipleship in sociological terms see little reason to waste large amounts of time learning God’s word. They prefer to teach techniques and formulas and consider deep critical issues in Scripture a waste of time. The God-centered leader knows that people are sanctified through the word of God.
5. Less likelihood of bossing. God-centered disciplers know that convictions to follow the Lord must come from within disciples as they respond to the Holy Spirit. Change that results from external pressure would be pseudo-change.
1. Easier to admit problems in the church. Unlike the human-based leader, who is ego involved with the well-being of the church, the God-centered ministry has no reason to avoid looking at bad news.
2. Easier to avoid pessimism. At the same time, God-centered leaders don’t become negative, because they know God has the power to handle even severe problems.
3. More inclination to raise up others– less need to “hog the ball.” Human-centered leaders secretly think their own competence is the key to the success of the church. Since they interpret the growth of the church in terms of cause and effect on the natural level, it makes no sense to have a less-experienced, less competent new leader speak and lead. The result is a man-centered ministry, where the significant public roles are always filled by the great man.
4. More time and effort devoted to prayer. The God-centered minister knows that only God can build the church, and that every advance requires his power.
Many more examples could be cited. This perspective affects every area of ministry. As in personal sanctification, learning to rely on God’s power instead of our own power is a process which takes time. No leader can claim to have this area down completely.
One of the main ways we learn to depend on God is by experiencing failure (see II Cor. 11:30-33; 12:9,10). As we respond properly to these failures, we gradually learn to minister in dependence upon God’s power.