Almost seven years ago, I saw God perform a miracle. I had just graduated from seminary, and was called to pastor a small church in the foothills of the Appalachians. The congregation consisted of about 40 people who were pursuing a God-sized dream: to build a gospel-based medical clinic whose mission was to provide high quality, affordable medical care to a poverty-stricken region overrun by drug addiction and paralyzed by welfare. The vision was to weave the gospel into every patient visit.
When I arrived in the spring of 2008, the clinic did not exist. Six months later we had a building staffed with six full-time providers, not to mention a full complement of nurses, medical assistants, office personnel, and a sizable board of directors. We all knew that we had just experienced a miracle. Within two years we were serving thousands of patients per year. Within four years the Lord opened two additional satellite clinics. Within five years, all of the Christian providers had been forced out, the gospel was disconnected from patient care, and the clinic was dependent on federal funding to sustain its existence.
Whoa. Back up. Did you read that last sentence?
That is not how miracles are supposed to end. But that is exactly how this one ended. How could something like this happen in such a short time period? As one of the founding board members, I can say with some authority that it happened one small strategic decision at a time – each driven by the desire to expand the clinic’s gospel mission, each derived from the combined wisdom and experience of the Christians who populated the board: CEOs, CPAs, attorneys, small business owners, medical professionals, and pastors. All were wonderful people. All were committed to the mission of the clinic.
So you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with youth ministry?” Good question. You may not work in a medical clinic, but you do have at least one thing in common: your mission to advance the gospel is driven, at the root level, by strategic decisions. Don’t believe me? Stop for a moment and count the number of decisions you’ve made in the last week – schedules, programs, curriculum, counseling, sermons, resources, strategies. Granted, they may not be earth-shaking decisions, but there’s one thing for sure: when ministries drift off coarse it is rarely due to a single, knock-your-socks-off decision.
It took some time, but I finally realized what went wrong at the clinic. As decision-makers, we understood the content of the gospel – the message – but we did not understand the method of the gospel. I’m talking about the fact that, as Paul says, “the gospel is the very power of God Himself” (Rom. 1.16), a power that has the capacity to do things (like saving anyone who believes). As youth leaders, this is the power that fulfills our callings, otherwise all we have is a club for teens. The method of the gospel both describes and prescribes how the gospel accomplish such results. While we, as humans, have our own ideas of how to get things done, God’s modus operando is unique to Him.
Here are three features that define the character of the gospel:
- The gospel is intended to achieve results that are humanly impossible (things like conquering death, setting people free from the power of sin, and conforming them to the likeness of Christ Himself).
To accomplish these impossibilities, the gospel requires methods that are:
- Radically nonsensical (i.e. to wait on His timing, although we are eager for action. Recognizing His provisions, although ours may seem abundant).
- Deeply offensive (i.e. it compels us to do things we do not want to do: serve others, forfeit our rights, take up our cross).
What is most extraordinary is the fact that God Himself makes these keys freely available to anyone. For example:
- The key to accomplishing the humanly impossible is that we depend on God to do what we cannot.
- The key to doing what is radically nonsensical is that we believe that what God says is true, even if it doesn’t make sense to us.
- The key to doing what is deeply offensive is that we obey what God says is right, even if we don’t want to.
Depend. Believe. Obey. Using anything less than all three of these keys explains why so many never access the true power of the gospel – instead we trade the impressive for the impossible, the sensible for the nonsensical, and the pleasing for the offensive. The sad fact is that these features of the gospel do not play well even to well-meaning Christian leaders who keenly feel the pressure to produce impressive results. Fast. No matter how you dress up Jesus’ call to come and die, it always seems to lose out to the appeal of the popular culture.
At the clinic, we understood the message of the gospel, but we were slow in understanding the method. We had great intentions, but the key to growing by the power of the gospel required that we depend on God to supply what was needed at the time of His choosing. Unfortunately, God is a slowpoke in the world of modern commerce. Why wait for God to provide when the federal government is dangling millions of dollars (I’m not exaggerating!) to purchase equipment, hire staff, and refurbish buildings; these dollars always come with strings attached, strings that prohibit the sharing of the Word.
As bearers of the Good News, it is essential that we intentionally factor in these three features of the gospel when faced with decisions: depend, believe, and obey. If we don’t, then our decisions will be based on common sense, capable of achieving impressive results that may win us acclaim. On the other hand, God is glorified not by the impressive, but by the impossible, the nonsensical, and the offensive.
In the end, decision-makers must come to see that the very act of making gospel-based decisions is a death-to-self endeavor. You may have to give up size, reputation, and advancement in exchange for unleashing the slow-growing power of the gospel, a power that does not fully yield its fruit until eternity.
Make no mistake: this will be hard. It is easy to tell the parents of your teens that you plan to accomplish the impossible – humans are suckers for such claims. But tell them that you intend to do it by training their children to live by values which (to the world) make no sense and offend them deeply? Well, you might start to understand how the Lord felt the day most of His followers abandoned Him (John 6.66). Paradoxically, that’s a good place to be.
May God grant us the wisdom to keep our strategic decisions centered on the gospel, so that we may experience the miracle of the gospel’s power unleashed – all to His glory. Amen.