The strategy of God

Just what should we be doing in Christian ministry? Do our churches need a vision document, a mission statement or a strategic plan? Phillip Jensen says that strategy is important, but our job is not to work it out; God has already done that.

Many years ago, I was trained to teach and preach by expounding the Scriptures. I am very thankful to those who taught me this (Broughton Knox chief among them). So from the outset in ministry, I set about just working my way through the Scriptures, expounding each passage as it came up. After a time, I found myself in 1 Corinthians 8-10, and the more I prepared it, the more my heart sank. I thought to myself, “What am I supposed to do with this? Food offered to idols? Nobody offers food to idols in Australia, other than the idol of our own belly—to which we offer food reverently, often and in huge quantities. Just how am I supposed to preach on this?” It was a subject I would never have thought of preaching on, nor one that I thought was even remotely relevant to my congregation.

All the same, I did what I had been trained to do, and kept preaching through 1 Corinthians 8-10. As I did so, I became conscious of the fact that about a quarter of the congregation were Chinese and that most of them had come from families who offer food to idols constantly—in little shrines in the corner of the lounge room. For them, it was not an abstract or irrelevant issue, it was a pressing dilemma. Now that I am Christian, do I bow to the ancestors or not? How do I relate to my family, and how do I relate to my Christian brothers and sisters in this? 1 Corinthians 8-10 spoke powerfully to their situation.

However, it did more than that. As I kept preaching and working away at Paul’s approach to these matters, the whole doctrine of Christian liberty tumbled out, which is so essential to maintaining justification by faith alone. And as that became clearer, it revolutionized my approach to personal counselling. The fashion of the time was ‘indirect counselling’, in which the counsellor never said anything to anyone about anything apart from, ’Mmm, really? Yes, I see what you mean. Mmm. Yes.” It was a very attractive method. Even I could do it because you never actually had to say to anyone, “I think you should” or “I think that’s foolish” or “I think that’s wise”, let alone “I think that’s right” or “I think that’s wrong”.

But with a thorough doctrine of Christian liberty, you are free to say to people, “Well, I think you should do X in these circumstances, but if you do the opposite, I’ll support you thoroughly because it’s a matter of freedom. If you want my ideas, I think this is the wisest way to go. But it’s your choice, not mine, and I’ll back you either way.” This is very important, because it also allows you to say, “No, that is wrong” on some occasions, without being heard to say that on every occasion when you offer advice.

This all came out of 1 Corinthians 8-10 and food offered to idols, a subject I would never have thought of preaching on in a million years. 1 Corinthians 8-10 also began to show me the difference between strategy and tactics in evangelism (and in ministry generally), and it is this topic I want to particularly address in this article. The key section is 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

I think it is this passage, more than any other in the New Testament, that places a great imperative upon us (i.e. every Christian) to evangelize. If we are to grow like Christ, and be imitators of Christ like the Apostle Paul, then we should try to please everyone in everything we do in order that they may be saved.

The Lord Jesus Christ lived (and died) to the glory of his Father, and we should do whatever we do to the glory of God—especially and including evangelism. The chief end and purpose of evangelism is the chief end and purpose of all humans: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. We don’t evangelize to save souls but to glorify God. That’s the primary thing; the saving of souls is secondary.

This is one of those important Arminian/Calvinist distinctions. If I forget that glorifying God is primary, and have as my primary aim the saving of souls, my temptation will be to do anything I can, and change whatever needs changing, in order to save more souls. Furthermore, if I succeed, I will puff myself up, and if I fail, I will depress myself.

But if the aim is to glorify God by preaching his gospel, I know that it will be a sweet smell of salvation for some, but a stench of death in the nostrils of others. And I don’t have to take responsibility for that decision, or that effect; I place the gospel in front of people, and it is God’s Spirit who brings them salvation or the hardening of their hearts. My aim is only ever this: to glorify God in my speaking of the gospel. This means that faithfulness is the test of true evangelism, not success (as Paul makes very clear earlier in 1 Corinthians 4).

But notice what glorifying God in faithful evangelism also involves here in 1 Corinthians 10: it means offering no unnecessary offence. We don’t want to put anything in anyone’s way except the gospel. And so Paul, who so adamantly insists in other places that he is not a man-pleaser, here is proud to be a man-pleaser —not for his own benefit or to make his life easier or to have more friends, but for their salvation. He will change his eating and drinking habits freely in order to glorify God by presenting the gospel to them.

So the Lord seems to be saying two things to us through the Apostle Paul:

  1. We must glorify God by faithfully and invariably sticking to the task God has given us: to preach the unchanging gospel of Christ.
  2. We must be prepared to be flexible and to use our Christian liberty to change our approach from moment to moment, and person to person, as the circumstances require.

In modern terms, Paul is talking about the difference between strategy and tactics. I’m sure, like me, you have endured strategic planning sessions where nearly the entire time is consumed in a debate over the differences between words like ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’! I am using the words as the Macquarie Dictionary defines them:

strategy: noun. generalship; the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.

tactics: plural noun. the art or science of disposing military or naval forces for battle and manoeuvring them in battle.1

Strategy is the big thinking—the overall plan and the means for getting there. Strategy is done by Prime Ministers and generals who say, “If we’re going to win World War II, we’ll have to land an invasion force in France, backed up by air support”. Tactics is more immediate thinking: it’s manoeuvring the pieces on the chessboard to achieve the smaller milestones that go together to make up the strategy. Tactics is done by colonels and captains who say, “We’ll need to land this many troops at this time and in this place, depending on the tides and the weather, in order to secure a beachhead, with this many planes running these missions in support”.

If the strategy is to win the war by invading France, then there may be a number of legitimate tactical approaches to getting that done. But these options wouldn’t include sending flowers, or running up the white flag, or deciding to land an invasion force in Greenland instead. Tactics sit under strategy, and are circumscribed by strategy.

In Christian ministry, as in war and business, we must not only have a clear understanding of what our strategy is, but how it relates to the day-to-day tactics. This is particularly important for Christians, because our strategy is not something we have to come up with at a vision-planning day. Our strategy is understood by revelation. It is God’s strategy—his cosmic plan—and his way of getting it done.

Let’s look first at God’s strategy, and how it involves us, before returning to the question of tactics.

The strategy of God

We can describe the strategy of God in trinitarian fashion by starting with the big plan of God the Father, as Paul expresses it in Ephesians 1. These are well-known words, but look at them again closely. What is the Father’s goal and how does he plan to achieve it?

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:3-14)

We might summarize Paul’s summary like this: God’s ultimate goal is to unite all things under Christ, and he is sovereignly working to achieve this by sealing people (both Jews and Gentiles) with the Holy Spirit as they hear the word of truth, the gospel of Christ. The plan of God, right from the very beginning, was to include both Jews and Gentiles in one people, and central to this plan was the redemption that was won through Christ’s blood, and the preaching of that gospel to all the nations.

Jesus says much the same thing in Luke 24 after his death and resurrection. He tells his gobsmacked disciples that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets must be fulfilled, and then he elaborates: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:46-7). This is the strategy of God for gathering his elect people from all over the world: that the Christ should suffer and rise, and that the gospel of repentance and forgiveness should be preached to all nations.

It is not just the Father’s strategy, it is the work of Christ himself: “I will build my church” says Jesus in Matthew 16:18. Christ’s work is the gathering together of his own people into his own assembly—his church. He is the builder of the congregation, and you and I are only subcontractors. He may choose to use you and me in his building work, but it is his work and his activity. 1 Corinthians 3 expresses this delightfully:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor 3:5-9)

We have a job to do, and we must do it faithfully—whether it be planting or watering, and so on. But it is God’s job to grow the congregation, not your job or my job. It is his growth, not our growth, because Christ is building his assembly. He is the builder; we are the fellow workers—a title and role of high honour which also makes it very clear who is the builder and who is not.

Christ is building his congregation according to the eternal plan of the Father by the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. Who does this preaching? 1 Peter 1 has a surprising answer for us:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Pet 1:10-12)

This passage contains a sentence of such length and complexity to rival Paul’s in Ephesians 1! But look closely. Who is the evangelist?

It is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven to proclaim the fulfillment of those things that he had previously indicated through the prophets— that is, the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. These are realities into which angels long to look. But you have it all over the angels, says Peter, because these things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

It’s a complicated little passage, but its logic is thoroughly in line with what we have already seen about the strategy of God: Christ is building his church, and he is doing it through us. The Holy Spirit is preaching the gospel, and he is doing it through us. And this is all according to the eternal plan of the Father to sum up all things in Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glory.

Our part in God’s strategy

God has a strategy, a big plan of action that is heading towards a goal. But as we have already begun to see, his strategy involves our actions. It is his work and his strategy, but in his incredible grace, he puts it into effect through us.

What are the actions God gives us to do as part of his strategy? Here are the three absolutely essential ones:

1. Prayer

When Paul first preached the gospel to the Thessalonians, he knew that they were among Christ’s chosen people because “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). Their wholehearted, Spirit-empowered response showed them to be among those that Christ was building into his congregation.

In other words, the Holy Spirit was not only the evangelist (speaking through Paul) he was also at work in the hearers—in the Thessalonians—so that they were completely convinced about the truth of the message. Later Paul says that they embraced his gospel “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess 2:13). And when he writes to them again, Paul urges them to pray for him—that “the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2 Thess 3:1).

It is precisely because the growth of the gospel is God’s work by his Spirit (both in the preaching and in the response that people make) that our first and primary action is prayer. We need to keep asking God to glorify himself by preaching his message by the Holy Spirit throughout the world. We need to beg him to send the gospel out, and through its preaching, to save people and build Christ’s congregation. And we pray this because we know it is his plan.

Christians are not fatalists. We know what God’s will and plan is—that his kingdom would come, that his will would be done on earth, that his name would be hallowed—but we don’t just sit back and say, “Well, it’s going to happen anyway, so … whatever”. No, we pray (as our Lord taught us) that God would fulfill his plan for the world, and soon. We pray, “Please, Lord, bring it on!”

I love the way Paul also asks for prayer from the Ephesians. He asks them to pray for him “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20). Most of us who have been Christians for a long time are used to thinking of Paul as one of the valiant men of the faith—a fearless champion of the gospel, ready to speak up for Christ in all circumstances. But you don’t pray for what you already have, so it must have been the case that Paul lacked boldness, like the rest of us. Other people always look bold when they’re speaking about Christ (whether in public or in conversation), but it’s rarely like that behind their eyeballs; they are usually just as terrified as we are.

Prayer, then, is the first and primary task God has graciously given to us as his fellow workers. He uses our prayers in his purposes, and so we must pray—really pray. Set aside time to pray. Drop something else so you can pray—like the apostles had to in Acts 6 where they said,

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2b-4)

2. Proclamation

This brings us to the second necessity: proclamation. I will not dwell long on the central and crucial place of proclamation—or preaching or announcing or telling or speaking or whatever similar verb you wish to use. Of the many, many New Testament passages we could look at to establish the vital place proclaiming God’s word has in God’s strategy, it’s hard to go past the simple truth of Romans 10:17: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. The strategy of God is for his Spirit to preach the Word through us, and so to elicit faith from those who hear.

We could look at Paul’s solemn charge to Timothy: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), or his marvellous little summary of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4, which consists of the plain open statement of the truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord. I rather suspect that the central place of proclamation in the strategy of God is not something most of us need convincing about—at least theoretically. However, like Timothy, we may need a solemn and scary charge to get on with it—especially given how easy it is to give up on proclamation, to be distracted from it, to be discouraged by how plain and unexciting it seems, to be tempted to try some other method, and so on.

I well remember a highly intelligent young man who came to see me on campus years ago. He had read BF Skinner and other atheists, and had himself become a convinced, thoroughgoing atheist. As a result, he was suicidal. He was intelligent enough to see that consistent Atheism drained life of any meaning, purpose or joy. His existence was just an accident, as was everything else. He had tried all the joys that Solomon tried in Ecclesiastes, and had come to the same conclusion: it was all absurd and pointless. He wanted some way out of the prison of despair that he found himself in, but didn’t know how to find it.

I proceeded to discuss the philosophy of Atheism with him over several weeks. I presented a great many clever arguments (well, at least I thought they were clever), but got absolutely nowhere. Then my good friend and colleague Col Marshall said to the young man, “Look, faith comes from hearing the word of God. So why don’t you just come along to church and listen for a while?”

You can guess what happened. That young man came along to church and listened, and was converted. It had nothing to do with clever apologetics because, in the end, you can’t argue someone into the kingdom. Faith comes from hearing the word of God.

That’s our task in the strategy of God: to keep proclaiming the word of God so that the Holy Spirit, who preaches it through me and who also works in the hearts of the hearers, will bring people to faith.

3. People

The third task that God has given us is implicit in the first two, but needs to be stated on its own: the third part of our work is people. When Jesus looks out upon the crowds, he is filled with compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). It’s the same compassion that God has for the world—a compassion which causes him to send his only Son for its salvation (John 3:16). But what is the ‘world’ that God loves? It is people opposed to God.

We saw this in our look at 1 Corinthians 8-10 earlier in this article. “I put myself out for other people”, says Paul. “I will gladly inconvenience myself, and put aside my own likes and dislikes, because I want to win people”.

The work God has given us to do is focused on and directed towards people, not institutions or organizations or programmes. All our structures and programmes must serve people. This is so obvious, it seems facile to repeat it. But judging by what we see in Christian ministry, it needs to be repeated. We get this back to front all the time, and end up with institutions and programmes and structures that seem to exist for their own sake. In fact, it often feels like the people are there to serve them (i.e. the programmes), not vice versa.

We must never lose sight of people work—of labouring and striving, as Paul did, on behalf of every individual, “warning every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ” (Col 1:28 literally; ESV has ‘everyone’). (For more on how this ‘people’ principle plays out in our churches and ministries, see Col Marshall’s article ‘Ministry mind shifts’ elsewhere in this Briefing.)

The tactics of man

God’s strategy—including our part in it—is a given. It’s not up to us to figure out what Christian ministry is really about; the big plan and the strategy for getting there is revealed to us by God, and as with all revelation, our response must be to believe it and act upon it.

The strategy for our action is set for us: we need to be praying, we need to be proclaiming and we need to be focusing on people. These three key strategies should determine the activity of every church and Christian ministry. When we meet to think about how we are going, and to plan what we will do next, our discussion should not centre on devising a strategy, it should centre on considering how well and faithfully we are implementing God’s strategy.

Remember, strategy is the higher level thinking: it’s laying down the key directions and activities we are going to undertake to achieve the objective. And it is given by God. Tactics are short-term, immediate actions to do with how the strategy will play out in the next five minutes, the next five days or the next five months.

Tactical thinking is important and valuable, but secondary. Tactics sit under strategy, and support strategy. In fact, one of the big problems in any business enterprise is making sure that the day-to-day actions and activities of the business actually relate to the strategy—or are ‘aligned’, as the jargon goes. What often happens in the real world is that tactical decisions tend to take on a life of their own, and end up hiving off in a different direction to the strategy, or even undermining the strategy. Or sometimes we end up with ‘orphan’ activities that once had some connection with the company strategy, but which have long since ceased to make any contribution to it.

It hardly needs to be said that this happens in churches all the time. A particular ministry is set up—let’s say a Kids’ Club—as a tactic to proclaim the gospel to the kids of the suburb prayerfully. It all goes well, and makes a useful contribution to the overall prayer-proclamation-people strategy for some years. But in time, the suburb changes. Young families are squeezed out by higher real estate prices. The demographic profile changes, and the tactical usefulness of this particular way of proclaiming the gospel evaporates. But any suggestion that perhaps we should shut down the Kids’ Club will usually be met with vigorous protest—not from the kids (there aren’t any), but from people in the church who have been working in and supporting this ministry for years.

Tactics are provisional and change constantly. They can vary from moment to moment. I meet a Jew, and so I become a Jew to reach this Jew. The strategy hasn’t changed; I will need to be praying for him, and proclaiming to him, and loving him as a person, but my particular approach and behaviour will change because he is a Jew. And likewise, when I meet a Gentile five minutes later, the immediate tactics will change. In a big multicultural city like Sydney (where I live), I can experience minute-by-minute tactical variations as I meet Chinese people, Africans, Indians, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxons, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, young people, old people, and so on.

Tactics are secondary, provisional, and almost always break down and fail even¬tually. Even a superb bit of tactical thinking about how to reach out to a particular group will almost certainly be rendered inappropriate or unsuccessful over time.

Our problem is that we think too highly of our tactics, and even confuse them with the strategy. We think that if only we come up with the right tactical moves, then success will be ours, and God’s kingdom will explode everywhere. And if we do achieve some success, we are only all the more emboldened to think that we have ‘cracked it’, and so we write a book and become a church growth expert.

Most ‘church growth’ literature is really short-term, localized tactical think¬ing, but it often masquerades as some¬thing far more grand. It often oversells itself as ‘strategy’, and as the new secret to ministry success.

Understanding the difference between God’s strategy and our tactics is also important in liberating us to try different things, and to let other people try different things (back to Christian liberty again). For example, some churches seek to proclaim the gospel prayerfully to the people in their community by putting on really attractive well-run church meetings, and drawing in outsiders to hear the Word. These ‘attractional’ churches often have excellent kids’ programmes, good car parks, polished music, effective marketing and highly gifted preachers. Given that they are driven by God’s strategy and they really do give their time to prayer, proclamation and people, these sorts of churches can do wonderful work under God’s strategy and see many people saved. They are an excellent example of a group that is willing to put themselves out and do whatever they can, tactically speaking, to seek the salvation of people, as Christ did.

However, other churches take a different tactical approach. For example, some operate in small, highly committed teams, living in closer Christian community and proclaiming the gospel prayerfully through small group meetings, household gatherings, and personal community contacts and networks. (The Total Church approach we discussed in our last Briefing would be a good example.) Yet other groups might try a blend of these tactical approaches, or some other approach altogether.

Our problem comes when we absolutize our tactics, and raise them to the level of strategy—as if all ministries and churches must adopt the same tactics to be ‘successful’ or, indeed, to be faithful. We must remember: God is the one with the plan and the strategy, and he is putting his strategy into effect through us. The success and the results are not up to us, because it is only as God gives the growth through his Holy Spirit that God achieves his own purposes. We are subcontractors —agents—fellow workers. It’s not up to us to figure it all out and make it work; our job is faithful adherence to the strategy of God.

(Adapted by Tony Payne from an address by Phillip Jensen at the 2007 Matthias Media USA ‘Gospel growth vs. church growth’ Conference, Washington DC.)


1 The Macquarie Dictionary Online © 2008 Macquarie Dictionary Publishers Pty Ltd.

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