Strategy. It is the catchword of our work these days. We and our fellow laborers are thinking more globally, planning more comprehensively. The need for strategy surfaces naturally as we seek to avail new opportunities and keep pace with the world.
But in some cases, it takes over. Gradually, what started in service to Gospel ministry becomes a goal in itself. The problem is not with dreaming big; God’s people have always done that. It’s not with seeking to understand the times or to work in efficient and culturally relevant ways. The problem comes in when strategy becomes an object of our hope, our loyalty, and our praise. In short, it becomes an idol.
This temptation is not surprising. God’s glory is displayed in missions, and wherever his glory is clearly seen, the spiritual forces warring to steal it will convene. This is an appeal for watchfulness, to see that our labor is God-driven and not strategy-driven, Christ-exalting and not strategy-exalting.
This is not a small matter for those who long with their whole hearts to see the Spirit work mightily among their adopted peoples. The Word tells us that Jesus “could do no miracle” in Nazareth, because of their unbelief. Misplaced faith in strategy is the equivalent of unbelief, in that it keeps hearts from glorifying God for doing what only He can do. The God whose words “I will not give my glory to another” resound through the prophets does not choose to work in such a way that the glory due Him will be given to a strategy, an organization, or a missionary.
Here are some symptoms that may help to reveal an undue focus on strategy:
- Strategy requires its own vocabulary and is difficult to explain in biblical terms.
- Strategy usurps the biblical principles it was meant to serve. For example, we might teach “three thirds” discipleship (i.e. meetings divided equally among accountability, new teaching, and goal setting) not as one method to encourage biblical accountability, but as “the way to disciple.” Eventually, the method is seen as a goal in itself, and is used and taught even by those who are unsure of the biblical purpose behind it.
- Strategy causes us to see the kingdom as divided into “insiders” (those who “get it,” who “think strategically”) and “outsiders.” It may cause us to say of certain members of the body, especially existing indigenous churches and leaders, “I don’t need you” (1 Cor. 12:21).
- Strategy is determined via methodology borrowed from the social sciences (e.g. “What factors correlate with the most productive church planting movements?”) rather than from the Word and prayer.
- Strategy becomes a source of division and competition among workers – “You can’t just start teaching (x strategy) in my (y strategy) area.”
- Strategy becomes the main talking point in gatherings of laborers.
- In times of confusion or discouragement, we run back to consult our strategy rather than our Father.
Investing our hope in strategy offers the temptation to reduce the complexity of our biblical calling. It’s much easier to follow a set strategy than the dynamic Creator whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours; sometimes imcomprehensible. Focusing on strategy promises faster, more measurable results. For example, a widely-used vision casting tool espouses rapidly-reproducing “rabbit churches” over slower “elephant churches.” By contrast, the biblical analogy of birthing a church is a human child (Gal. 4:19). Compared with rabbits, human babies are complex, time consuming, and infinitely more valuable. When we recruit people to reproduce rabbit churches – those with an undue focus on reproduction over other aspects of discipleship – we’ve called them to something less than the biblical task. Church planting and kingdom building can never be reduced to a simple, reproducible process; beware the strategy that says otherwise. Kingdom growth involves reproducing not a process, but a person: Christ. It is irreducibly complex.
But God-given vision begs implementation, and we can’t just jettison strategy with the proverbial bath water. If strategy has begun to take center stage in our ministry, how can we go about correcting it? We need to get back to basics of our calling, which is to make disciples and teach them to obey all Jesus commanded; to help the church grow up into the full stature of Christ, the head (Eph. 4). We need to continue as we’ve begun, by dependence on the Spirit and not on works (Gal. 3:3). Here are some helpful checks for strategy:
- Does our strategy address the right task? The farmer labors, but “he himself does not know” how the growth comes (Mark 4:27). Any strategy that claims to hold the key to kingdom growth is suspect. Reaching the world is God’s task. Going into all the world and making disciples is ours.
- Does our implementation seek to strengthen all members of the body, and not just those with gifts of evangelism and preaching? The body grows as it is fitted and joined together by what each (and every) joint supplies (Eph. 4:16).
- Does our strategy include the existing church?
- Is our strategy biblical in its origin and evaluation? Are we committed to humble ourselves to work with biblically-derived rather than scientifically-derived methods?
- Does our strategy require ongoing dependence on God’s leading? Or does it try to account for every eventuality through oversimplification of the task?
- Does our strategy require ongoing dependence on God’s power? If the church explodes in growth around us, will God be glorified in the eyes of many? If we would be able to write a book telling others how to duplicate our results, our strategy fails the test: we’re building on the wisdom of men rather than the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5).
We serve the God who has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and the foolish things to shame the wise. He works through foreigners (us), and in the foolishness of the Word preached by stammering tongues. He reveals his manifold wisdom to the rulers in the heavenly places through the church (Eph. 3:10). His strength is made perfect in weakness, his Word does not return void, and he finishes what he begins. Without faith it is impossible to please him. These are the truths that must take root in our souls, and the first principles on which our strategies have to rest.