Crafting Strategies for a Disciple-Making Ministry
“In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23
Over the last ten years, I have had a growing interest in making the biggest impact I can. I want to use my time, resources and talents in the most effective ways possible. This has driven me to seek out the best strategies to incorporate into ministry. I have scoured leadership books (both Christian and Secular) as well as the Scriptures, and worked to implement strategies into my life and ministry in pursuit of making an impact for Christ. In this article, I want to share two popular ideas that need to be held in tension that can backfire if they are not held in balance, as well as an effective approach to craft reliable strategies into your ministry.
Tension #1: Looking to immediate results
You may have heard it said that “All organizations are perfectly engineered to get the results they are producing.” There have been many variations of this quotation; but it is typically quoted at seminars that are trying to get the crowd to evaluate their strategy and adopt the speakers new and improved strategy for running their ministry. Upon first hearing this, it can seem like a sobering exhortation to take ownership for the results you are getting, but this is only one side of the coin.
While it is true that we must do our best to evaluate our strategies, the same strategy can produce different results depending upon a number of outside variables:
1. The People: People are all different and unique. While there are things that are generally true about all people, there are many things that are different. Even within the same demographic, there are many differences from person to person. In our campus ministry, we have found that the same strategy will produce different results depending on the people who we have reached in that season of ministry.
2. The Current Circumstances: Circumstances are constantly changing. So, a strategy that produced certain results in the summer, will produce different results in the winter. This is the idea of seasons in ministry. Additionally, circumstances change from year to year, and place to place. One example of this in our ministry was when the COVID pandemic hit. The same strategy produced very different results.
3. The Hand of God: This is the biggest variable. Jonathan Edwards is thought of to be the leader of the first great awakening in America. But even Edwards realized that revival was not a result of his perfectly engineered strategy, but was attributed to the hand of God. While we can prepare for revival, God is the One who causes it.
These are just three of the many variables that are outside of the strategy. Your ministry strategy will never take place in a laboratory environment, where all variables are eliminated; where you will always get the same results when you replicate the experiment. No, you implement your disciple-making strategies in real life. This should cause us to shoot for the best strategy possible, but then to realize that we may or may not see the results we expect. So, we shouldn’t take too much credit when we get the results we want, nor should we beat ourselves up when we don’t get the results we want.
If we fully buy in to the mantra “All organizations are perfectly engineered to get the results they are producing,” then when you get unfavorable results for a season, you will conclude that your strategy is broken. You will be more prone to fall for the next popular strategy marketed as the silver bullet to get the results you want. You will give up too soon.
Tension #2: Trust the Process
You may have heard it said, “If you focus on results, you may not get results; but if you focus on the process, you will always get the results.” This is usually given as a word of encouragement to a minister who isn’t seeing the results they want to see in their campus ministry. But one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting to get a different result, but not ever getting it. We have all seen the person who perpetually makes the same mistake, and wonders why his results don’t improve. The person who thinks they should pass the test by only studying for 15 minutes. The person who thinks they will grow in their faith by just attending church once a week. The person who is perpetually waiting for life to get less busy before they will start prioritizing their faith in God. The minister who spends only one day a semester doing evangelism, but wonders why college students don’t come to the advertised weekly meeting.
There is a place for trusting the process, but it must be a trustworthy process. It must be intentional, reliable and well crafted. What we really need to strive for is a process that over the long run will produce consistent positive fruit. While even the best strategies can produce some unwanted results in the short run based on outside variables, a good strategy will produce good results over the long run.
So, how do we determine the disciple-making strategies that we should trust? That’s what I want to share with you now.
Feedback Loops: Looking at Both the Process and Results
Strategies must be crafted. You will likely start with a time tested strategy. Don’t create one from scratch, that is a waste of time. Rather, find someone who has been successful, and start with their way of doing things. Some people have already spent their lives developing these things, so humble yourself and begin there. When it comes to making disciples, start by reading a few good books such as “The Master Plan of Evangelism” by Robert Coleman, “The Fuel and the Flame” by Steve Shadrach and Paul Worcester and “How to Have a Multiplying Ministry” by Max Barnett. Additionally, do your own study in the Scriptures of the process Jesus and Paul used for making Disciples.
Once you have chosen a strategy to start with, you want to begin implementing it for a long enough period of time, and with great enough concentration that you are able to see the patterns in the results. Let’s take a basic life example first, then apply it to disciple-making. If you want to develop a sleep strategy in order to get the optimal amount of sleep your body needs, while maintaining the most waking hours, you should start by getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. Eliminate variables by having the same bedtime and wake-up time. Try it for a month and see the results. If you feel you are too tired, make a subtle change by adding 15 minutes to your sleep time. Then evaluate your results after another month. Keep making subtle changes until you have found an optimal sleep strategy.
This process of running a strategy for a period of time, evaluating results, then subtly making changes, is called a feedback loop. And this is the process needed to craft a good disciple-making strategy for your ministry.
Applying this to Your Ministry:
Feedback loops can be used to craft all sorts of strategies. If you want to help a student grow in spiritual disciplines such as Scripture Memory, Prayer or Bible reading, you can use a feedback loop to help them develop those disciplines (use it for yourself too). You may have a student try doing their daily time with God in the morning, then after a month realize that they are constantly running out of time to pray before heading off to class. So, you may have them try waking up 15 minutes earlier, then see what impact that has.
Maybe you want to develop in your disciple-making culture the principle of “association,” in which Jesus modeled with the apostles (Mark 3:14). Start by choosing a few key students to do a discipleship group with once a week, another night each week to have them over for dinner, and another time during the week to take them along with you to do ministry. Although you may spend more time than that with these students, you will at least have those two designated time slots. If after a semester, you don’t see much fruit, don’t throw out the strategy; rather, try to identify where the problem may have stemmed from. Did the students show up when they said? Were they eager to learn? Were you able to keep up with your own strategy? If the strategy was implemented, what kind of results did you see? Once you identify a problem, then you can assess what improvement can be made, and make a subtle adjustment. Then see what results you get.
As this cycle is repeated again and again, it will keep your ministry in a state of continuous improvement. There will never be perfection, but it can always get better and become a more healthy disciple-making culture.
Maybe you want to cultivate evangelistic momentum. You keep telling students to share their faith, and you even held a mini-conference with a hip name like “Engage the Fire,” but they keep dragging their feet about evangelism. Try identifying a problem, making a subtle shift, and then watching over time for different results. Bill Bright, founder of CRU, was a master at using feedback loops to create a culture of evangelism. He knew he needed to equip people to share their faith, so he trained his students to memorize an engaging presentation of the gospel, with many Bible verses and illustrations. This was effective and it produced some good results, but he realized he was having trouble getting more students equipped to share the gospel. So, he made a subtle adjustment to make it more reproducible. He put the presentation into a printed format called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” thus taking away the barrier of memorization that was previously needed for a person to begin sharing the gospel. He then trained students in how to use that tool, which was much simpler. He was then able to improve his results by equipping more students in a shorter period of time.
Don’t Give Up:
Why do so many people give up in college ministry? I think one of the big reasons is because they fail to hold these two things in tension: (1) looking to immediate results or (2) focusing on the process, and focus only to one or the other. They don’t see the results they want in a short enough period of time, so they throw out the process all together. Or, they like their process and are unwilling to be honest with themselves about their need to make changes. So, they get frustrated, disillusioned, impatient or fatigued; and fail altogether to achieve better results.
You will face mental and spiritual roadblocks as you seek to be effective. And it is important to be aware of them and to have the right perspective. You must remember that because we live in a broken world, filled with imperfections, no disciple-making strategy will ever be “perfect,” even one of Jesus’ apostles didn’t turn out so well in the end. Therefore, you must at some point be content with the best process you can craft. Additionally, you must know that all along the way, you are likely producing results, which can be celebrated! Don’t let Satan steal the joy of success just because you know you could have done better. If you are seeking a process for disciple-making, and you make some disciples, celebrate that; even if you didn’t reach your expectation! Then, make changes for how you could do better.
I will leave you with the encouragement that the apostle Paul gave to the Galatians. “Do not grow weary of doing good, for in due season you will reap if you do not give up” (Galatians 6:9)