Is it right to plan for conversions?
Some final thoughts on mystery and planning in ministry
A few weeks ago, from out of a post-viral haze, I posted some thoughts about the mysterious nature of Christian ministry—that is, the counter-intuitive way that God in his wisdom deliberately uses weak and stupid people, preaching an apparently weak and stupid message, in order to save people in such a way that the credit is all his (to channel Paul’s vibe in 1 Cor 1-2).
And I asked you to help me figure out how this truth fits with the concepts of planning and wisdom in ministry. Faithfulness requires us to examine ourselves, to observe when something ‘isn’t working’ in ministry, and to make some changes to try to improve things. That’s hardly controversial. In fact, it’s hardly avoidable if we’re going to be good stewards. But how does this responsibility (which involves working with cause and effect, as far as we can observe it) fit with the spiritually mysterious nature of ministry?
Well, I was hardly inundated with responses (the always thoughtful John Lavender notwithstanding), which could mean that you’re a bit stumped about this (like I was) or not very interested, or both.
Here’s one more bite at the question, by posing it in its possibly sharpest form.
Is it right to plan for conversions?
Under God, we’d love to plan and pray and work hard towards seeing 40 people become Christians over the next 12 months.
Does that sort of statement make you a tad uneasy?
It certainly sparked off a lively debate in our ‘Strategy Working Group’ at Campus Bible Study earlier this year.
We were preparing a draft set of goals (or ‘Desired Outcomes’ as we’re calling them) for the ministry over the next few years. We’d talked about setting some goals for maturing the Christians that we ministered to; for growing the number of people involved in the ministry traineeship; for reaching more people on the campus with the gospel; and so on.
Interestingly though, we found that setting an ‘outreach’ goal was one thing (“we’d like to present the gospel to X number of people on campus”). Setting a ‘conversions’ goal felt like another. Isn’t this expecting the Spirit to blow according to our will, rather than his own?
Then again (as we talked), we noted that we were happy enough to work towards other goals that depended on the Spirit’s sovereign work—for example, working towards seeing more people give up their worldly ambitions and go into full-time ministry. We didn’t baulk at having that as an aim, and to prayerfully plan and prioritise and work hard towards achieving it, all the while acknowledging that God gives the growth by his Spirit.
But planning towards 40 (or 400) people becoming Christians? How would you even know if they had become Christians? And if our evangelistic plans and methods and strategies helped us achieve that goal, how would we prevent ourselves boasting—even just a bit, even in our own minds—in the efficacy of our strategies rather than in the Lord?
It’s a particularly sharp form of the question we’re considering.
How can we be practical and wise in ministry planning and practice, without beginning to boast in the efficacy of our clever methods and systems? Without beginning to think that we’ve cracked the code, and can now reliably predict what it takes to get the Spirit to blow through people’s hearts and minds?
Having pondered this further, I have four thoughts.
First, I don’t think we’ll ever completely solve this question, any more than we will ever penetrate all the mysteries of how God’s will and human responsibility hold together exactly. It’s another case of holding two contrasting truths together. (See this earlier post on the frequent ‘two-ness’ of Christian truth.)
Second, we can’t ever boast in our methods, because everything important in gospel methodology comes from outside. It’s been given to us. This was one of John Lavender’s main points in his thoughtful response to this issue:
I think I get what you are saying about God working through our weakness and our stumbling and bumbling, through our imperfection and through unlikely people—that it is not through our ‘slick’ methods or even our planning or structures that we see people saved, lest in pride we think ‘look what I have done’.
Yet, having said that, I think we can say that the NT does set a ‘macro’ pattern of ministry for us. So for example Acts 2:42ff where the disciples devote themselves to the word and prayer and fellowship. Or likewise in Acts 3:21ff where we see the disciples’ commitment to prayer and to boldly speaking the word of God …
I'm also thinking of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1 where, so that many may be saved, he urges his readers to follow his example as he follows the example of Christ.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that here, in the macro, we have the model, of doing all we can by following Jesus’ example of seeking and saving the lost.
This is not ‘our’ model—it is humbly following Jesus, so we cannot boast.
I think it is in the ‘micro’, in our local context where we need to consider what this will look like in our patch.
It is here, I think, where we MUST really pray for wisdom, and look to learn from others and from our mistakes, and trust that even in our weakness, God would be pleased to use us for the salvation of many.
The implication of what John is saying is that we are responsible to keep examining ourselves and our practice to keep it faithful to the method or model that Jesus has given us. This is one of Paul’s points in 1 Cor 1-4—that his job is to be a faithful slave and steward of the divine gospel methodology (to preach the confounding word of the cross in dependence on the Spirit). There’s a givenness to our methodologies that also precludes boasting.
But thirdly (as John also points out), there is still a micro level tinkering we do to implement that unchanging methodology in our own patch. This is where goal-setting (in general) is a useful heuristic tool. You put a target up on the wall, and put together some micro-level plans (some localised, particular ways of preaching the gospel prayerfully), and then see how they go. And when you stop to evaluate down the track, you can interrogate your micro-level plans, and think about how to change or improve them. The goal-setting is not primarily about actually reaching the goal—it’s a tool for co-ordinating, prioritising, collaborating and evaluating in pursuit of the good thing that the goal represents.
Fourthly (and finally), it’s just as well that goal-setting is not really about reaching the goal, because whether we do or not is beyond our control. This is another aspect of the hiddenness or mysteriousness of gospel ministry. We know far less about what is happening than we sometimes kid ourselves that we know. We adjust the settings on some micro-level knobs, and hope and pray (and watch) to see what happens. But even when our knob-twiddling does seem to work, there remains a multitude of unknown and unknowable factors that helped to bring about that particular outcome. The Spirit blows when and where he wishes, and the complex trail of his work in people’s lives is far beyond our vision and understanding.
If we continue to let the mysterious word of the cross dwell richly among us, and continue to depend in prayer on the Spirit, we’ll be disciplined to avoid the sin that we’ve been dancing around for most of this article: pride. Pride in the methods or systems that we’ve come up with. Pride in our success in reaching ministry goals (whether for conversions or otherwise). Pride in ourselves.
The word of the cross is poisonous to pride. The seemingly weak and foolish cross, with its seemingly weak and foolish preachers, and its seemingly lowly and insignificant converts, is all part of the same wise plan of God: to shame the powerful, the wise, the strong. To shame the proud.
The word of the cross drives us in the opposite direction: to boast in our lowliness and weakness, and in the power and wisdom and righteousness of God.
So did our strategy group end up setting a target for conversions?
Well, just about (although we’re still talking). So far we’ve decided that it would be very helpful to know how many people across the ministry would self-identify as having become Christians over the past 12 months. And that setting a goal, under God, of seeing that number get bigger would be a wonderful thing.
In all of this, I can’t help thinking of the fishing expedition in John 21. The disciples had implemented all the methods they had all night without success, not realising that 153 fish were waiting for them on the other side of the boat.
I’d love your further comments on this issue. Do you keep track of how many people become Christians in any given year in your congregation? Do you have a target or goal in this area (apart from ‘as many as God blesses us with’)?
This is a partner post. Thanks again for all your support and encouragement!