Some colleagues asked me to write an article for several thousand of our field staff members as they begin a strange season of campus ministry with minimal face-to-face interactions due to the pandemic. This is what I shared with them.
Practice These Things
“Train yourself for godliness. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Do not neglect the gift you have. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”
1 Timothy 4
In the spring of 2003 the SARS virus hit East Asia hard. Airports closed and cities went into 10-day quarantine mode. The national campus team I led met twice each day to assess the situation, pray, and make the best decisions we could. More than a thousand campus staff and 1-year stinters from 12 partnering countries looked to our multinational team for guidance. I’ll never forget the day we received word that the government had locked down every campus in the country – as in literally locked the campus gates – with the students inside. No one was allowed to come in or go out, and there was no word on how long this would last.
Over the next two months God showed us the true meaning of “student-led movements.” Of course we had used that phrase for years, but too often staff teams would become the dominant planners, recruiters, teachers, decision-makers, and doers of the ministry. All that changed in a flash. Staff roles were limited to prayer walks around the gated campus, ad hoc coaching, and occasional handoffs of much needed Four Spiritual Laws through the fence. Students lived four to eight per room. As anxiety and fear of death spread, the Christian students became movement leaders overnight. It was their friends who needed hope, their creative ideas that pivoted into new methods of evangelism and discipleship, their ministry that needed the calming presence of Jesus, and their movement that required faith-filled servant leadership.
As difficult as those few months of dashed plans and pruning were, God used the events to accelerate the indigenization of our East Asia ministry. He deepened our trust in him and his ways. What we had been attempting to do gradually for two decades was unfolding in two months before our eyes.
This story, along with many others, is why I believe that God is using this current COVID-19 season, as terrible and costly as it is, to advance his agenda among the nations.
After months of travel bans and social distancing I sense, along with my colleagues and partners, that God is pruning away some of the leafy, showy branches that don’t bear lasting fruit. Could the Spirit of Christ be calling us back to the basics while at the same time urging us to keep in step by adapting, pivoting, and trusting Him in fresh ways? What a great time to be alive as a missionary!
I want to humbly offer seven lessons that God has taught me in making disciples and helping build spiritual movements. These observations flow from serving nine years as a local team leader in Texas and East Asia. Then, for the past 25 years God has allowed me to travel to nearly 50 countries serving and strengthening sisters and brothers who oversee ministry teams on campuses, in cities, in nations and across vast areas of the world. These practices bear fruit in every culture, among all races and ethnicities, women and men, and young and old.
Paul, separated by distance from his protégé Timothy, offers this advice:
- Train yourself for godliness.
Worship Jesus. Drink deeply daily from Jesus and his Word. Take time to pray, to walk, to get away from Zoom meetings and screens to enjoy our Savior. Do whatever it takes to fuel the furnace of your heart so that it burns white hot with reverence for the Lord of the universe. We don’t become godly by avoiding sin. We become godly by being with Christ.
- Command and teach these things.
What are “these things?” It is the message that all who believe in Jesus Christ can find mercy and eternal life. That he is the King eternal, immortal invisible, the only God (1 Timothy 1:16-17). That’s really good news. He is the one against whom the nations rage. We are not calling people to join a program or learn some information, though these can be used to help others learn and grow. We’re not offering training so that people can self-actualize or live their best lives now. We offer to journey together with people in following this King. Sound the deepest spiritual note in your teaching.
- Be a spiritual leader.
Paul urges Timothy to set an example, or tupos. A tupos was the impression or stamp left by the strike of a metal die, as in making a coin. No matter what challenges beset you in your city, culture or team, the primary way to make a godly impact is to set for other believers an example in the way you speak, conduct yourself, love people, trust God, and keep yourself pure. Godliness crosses every cultural barrier and never goes out of style. Sound the deepest spiritual note with the way you live.
- Be intentional about your own growth.
Train. Practice. Immerse. These imperatives echo Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12:8, “to the one who leads, lead with diligence.” We are to lead with careful and persistent effort. There is an art and science to leadership. Creativity and diligence wed them together.
I’ve led multicultural teams for more than 20 years. One of the most helpful tools I’ve used is the Position Focus along with a minimum of three conversations each year. I encourage staff I serve with to craft their position focus with the same careful artistry as you would give to a watercolor painting you want to display, a poem or song you will perform, an artisan meal you’re creating to share with others, a custom triathlon training regimen, or a sermon you will preach. Take time to dream and imagine how you want to spend your best time each day serving the Lord.
You are unique. Don’t neglect the gift you have. You’re not a universal gospel soldier or a replaceable widget. God has called you to lead and serve at this specific time and place in history and you have the opportunity to create something beautiful while on mission.
- Lead strategically.
Understand selection, focus, prioritization and timing. This is the strategic part of ministry. Strategy is about choices. The strategic leader resists the pull of the good, popular, urgent, expected, or trending things so that she can focus on being obedient to God’s agenda. Jesus was strategic. He did not respond to every request for his attention, time, or presence. We tend to love big crowds and large numbers in Cru, which can deceive us into equating quantity with kingdom impact.
Jesus invested his time differently. In the 58 or so days of his life we have recorded in the gospels, he prioritized time like this: 1 – 3 – 12 – 70 – 5,000. His best time was spent communing with his Father. Then with Peter, James and John. Then training the twelve and the seventy. Then the crowds. Even when crowds pressed in Jesus remained remarkably present and attuned to individuals with spiritual or physical needs. He maintained a Spirit-filled margin.
Becoming proficient in digital ministry right now is your strategic opportunity to learn how different tools help you engage meaningfully with your 1, 3, 12, 70 and 5,000.
It took me about five years in active field ministry to believe, at a conviction level, that focusing my best efforts on a relatively small number of prayerfully selected faith-filled learners is the lever God uses to change history. If you haven’t recently read “The Master Plan of Evangelism” by Robert Coleman, I highly recommend it. This short book will save you from years of mistakes and misaligned efforts in keeping the programs and activities going.
- Entrust the ministry to others.
As we learned during the SARS crisis in East Asia, God uses crazy events to release ministry into others’ hands. We frequently refer to 2 Timothy 2:2 as our basis for spiritual multiplication. The energy in that verse comes from the imperative verb: entrust. Risk is inherent when entrusting something valuable to another. We are to entrust the very valuable gospel message and the leadership responsibility of broadly proclaiming that message to other people as rapidly as the Spirit leads. We can err in waiting too long (“they’re just not ready”), or in moving too quickly by empowering people without proven character. Either mistake will stifle a genuine movement of God. Could God be using this pandemic to nudge you to take greater risks and release people?
- So that all may see your progress.
The higher the visibility of your leadership role, the more you are called to grow in public. Jesus wants to close the gaps between what I say, what I believe, and how I walk. This is sanctification, and it results in deepening personal integrity. My leadership is not only about what I say or do, it is increasingly about how I respond in difficult private conversations, team meetings, and public situations. When I blow it, I need to apologize or ask forgiveness in the appropriate sphere (private, team, or public) that the offense occurred.
Leadership isn’t about being the one who knows all the answers or gets it right every time. We all need (and crave) feedback. Godly servant leaders don’t fear asking about their blindspots. Your team knows you’re not perfect. They want to know that you know it too.
I believe God is using this current COVID-19 season, as terrible and costly as it is, to advance His agenda among the nations. How might the Spirit of Christ be calling us back to the basics while at the same time urging us to keep in step by adapting, pivoting, and trusting Him in fresh ways?
As you enter a new season of ministry filled with changes, know that I am praying for you as you practice these things.
Ken Cochrum serves as Cru’s Vice President of Global Digital Strategies.