What makes ministry effective? How are people changed? What has the greatest impact?
In the annals of war, certain leaders and strategies and weapons get the most attention: the tanks and the bombers, the gold and the generals, the noble sacrifices that rightly earn chests of medals and leave loud legacies ringing out to the far horizons of history.
So too in our view of the biblical story: Noah builds the ark, David kills Goliath, Elijah summons skyfire, Peter headlines Pentecost, Paul sails the Mediterranean, and Apollos confounds the Jews. Ancient ark-builders, teenage giant-slayers, sky-rending prophets, revivalist preachers, martyred missionaries, and Alexandrian orators adorn the ministry museums of our collective memory.
These all have their place, of course. God used them all, and he uses them still. But it’s always the case that some of the most effective weapons and strategies are simultaneously the most subtle. God’s arsenal is not limited to thundering tanks, high-flying jets, and bunker-busting bombs. No war is won without the less-noticed pieces of the puzzle — the slow-moving supply lines, the rifle-sling designers, the scouts and topographers, the invisible sound-waves piercing the air with vital communication.
Many of God’s weapons are slow, subtle, almost secretive. Like yeast in bread or water coming to a boil, God loves to work in ways that require extended faith and the wisdom of spiritual foresight. With that in mind, here are seven secret weapons in ministry.
Prayer is the most powerful invisible weapon we have. Prayer prompts heaven to sow seeds on earth. How much of Elijah’s miracle-laden ministry was energized by simple prayer, not just prophetic status (1 Kings 17:1; 18:41-46; James 5:17-18)? How much of Jesus’ power in ministry came from his prayer walks in the Galilean hills (Matthew 14:23; Luke 6:12; 9:28)? How much of our own fruitfulness is nourished by the unseen kneeling of closeted saints whose cries fill heaven’s cup until grace overflows?
Homebound widows pray for fresh seminary graduates and change the trajectory of history. Weary parents plead for prodigals and, years later, weep on their necks when they come trudging home, drawn back by the invisible cords of prayer. Middle-aged pastors plead mercy over weak sermon notes and the Spirit blows heart change through a stagnant Sunday gathering.
Hannah prayed for a son (1 Samuel 1), and Israel got Samuel the kingmaker. Elisha prayed for his servant’s faith, and the hills suddenly flamed with charioted warhorses (2 Kings 6:17). Nehemiah prayed for a second exodus (Nehemiah 1:4-11), and the holy city of Jerusalem was rebuilt. Prayer is the unseen lever that moves the heart of God.
If there’s any secret weapon in ministry, it’s prayer.
Beyond our prayer closets, what kind of interactions have the greatest impact in ministry? We know what often gets the credit: the sermons and the songs, the books and the blogs, the retreats and the conferences, the podcasts and the videos, the organized ministries and the scheduled meetings. But standing silently in the middle of every room is our example.
Every time a husband and wife reconcile in front of the kids, those children learn more about sin and grace than they might in a week of family devotions. Every time a college roommate redeems and redirects a gossipy conversation, she weaves back together the fraying edges of community. Every time a professor opens up about his weaknesses in front of his class, he’s showing them something about what it really means to teach.
No wonder Paul tells young Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example (τύπος) in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul knew the Ephesian churches were watching before they were listening. Win my eyes, and you’ll win my ears. Fail my eyes, and my ears will follow.
Example is the silent teacher in every room.
The more consistent you are, the less people tend to notice. The more consistent you are, the more people come to expect your consistency. The more consistent you are, the more your consistency becomes invisible — expected, assumed, unseen. Plowing, sowing, watering, and weeding — daily — is nothing spectacular. But full orchards rise and ripen from just such wise monotonies.
And it’s no random metaphor. Jesus sowed the kingdom message into the heartfields of God’s people (Mark 4:1-20). The apostolic activity he commissioned was agricultural labor (1 Corinthians 3:6-9). Thus every Christian pastor must be a hard-working farmer (2 Timothy 2:6).
In ministry, as in farming, repetition is vital. Consistently gathering, consistently preaching, consistently singing, consistently evangelizing — consistently being consistent — these are secret weapons in ministry. The same is true of the Spirit’s fruits: consistent love, consistent patience, consistent kindness, consistent self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Do something over and over and over again and people will slowly stop noticing, but your impact will slowly grow, because you’re embedding doctrines and values and attitudes and practices deeper over time. Wise repetitions are the stuff of success.
Because consistency only seems boring until the harvest.
Consciously repeating healthy actions is not the only way to achieve consistency. It’s also important to concretize and permanentize –to structure — certain aspects of ministry.
Like the beams in a building, structure is rarely noticed. But like those beams, structure often bears the weight of beautiful things.
The best structures are the least noticeable. They simply fit — they fit the truth, they fit the situation, they fit the people, they fit the needs. They fit so well that, like anything that fits well, they go unnoticed. Like good lighting, they accentuate beauty rather than distract from it. Like a loyal bridesmaid, they don’t grab the attention but aim the spotlight where it belongs. Like a master trellis, they don’t stifle the vine but support it.
In smaller ministries, structures and timelines and processes and procedures can be easy to ignore. But whether your group is large or small, wise structures increase effectiveness. For example, two years ago we built a new structure for student organizations at my college. Since then, student-initiated ministry groups have sprung up and flourished. From afar their growth would seem entirely organic, but if you look more closely, they’re rising within a structure — tendrils grasping latticework. It’s been a joy, and a lesson, to watch and wonder as students gather and create and envision, sending fruit-bearing vines skyward.
The right kinds of structures — principled structures that stay proportional to the needs — help everyone keep the main things the main things.
You can tell when someone hasn’t planned well. But it takes more experience and observational insight to sense when someone has planned well. The better something is planned, often the less you notice. The more someone prepares, often the smoother things tend to go. Ever had that experience at an event or a party or a business when you thought, “Wow — they thought of everything“? That never happens without thorough preparation.
Yes, it’s possible to over-plan and over-prepare, to cookie-cutter events and squelch healthy spontaneity and air-condition the wind of the Spirit. It’s possible to live and minister in ways that are only synthetic and never organic. It’s possible to straitjacket people’s gifts with stifling programs and inflexible plans. But the remedy for overpreparation is not underpreparation but humble preparation, God-attentive preparation, Spirit-led preparation, and flexible preparation.
After all, medal-winning Olympians make their craft look simple not through brilliant athletic spontaneity but relentless physical training. Good planning, like structure, reduces friction and uncertainty and distraction and frustration, thereby invisiblizing itself and blending into the background of the situation. Even many seemingly uncaused spontaneities actually spring up from the rich soil of thoughtful preparation and wise planning.
Preparation and opportunity are beautiful dance partners.
Good communication is vital in any relationship, especially in groups like diverse communities and hierarchical institutions and multi-department organizations. But good communication requires far more than just accurate, clear, and timely words. Good communication requires the right tone.
Speaking with the right tone for particular situations makes your tone virtually invisible (or inaudible). When you strike just the right chord, it may not be consciously appreciated, but it’s definitely felt. It resonates, massaging your message into your hearer’s heart.
But when you use the wrong tone, even if you’re saying the right thing, your tone will undercut your message. Because the same words with a different tone are different words.
Tone is like an umpire doing his job: when he does it right, no one notices, but when he gets it wrong, disorder ensues. An umpire doing his mostly-invisible job is central to the game going smoothly, order being maintained, and everyone from the players to the coaches to the fans flourishing.
And “tone” is not just a small pragmatic concern. From the highest levels of spiritual, national, and executive leadership, Solomon and the sages of Israel instruct the nation’s royal sons toward gentle speech, a persuasive tongue, and situationally wise tones that build trust and persuade people — all because the speaker fears God, exercises self-control, and senses the need of the moment.
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
— Proverbs 15:1
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
— Proverbs 15:4
The wise of heart is called discerning,
and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
— Proverbs 16:21
The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
— Proverbs 16:23
Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
— Proverbs 16:24
A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
— Proverbs 25:11
With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
and a soft tongue will break a bone.
— Proverbs 25:15
Effective ministry requires biblical communication, and biblical communication is not just about what you say but how you say it.
If the gospel writers didn’t tell us that Jesus rested (Mark 4:37-38; John 4:6) and also took his disciples away from the busyness of ministry to rest (Mark 6:31), we probably wouldn’t guess that he did. Why rest when you can heal the sick, cast out demons, and walk on water? Plus, even if rest is physically necessary, how is it part of ministry?
Anything in our world that uses power must recharge. Only God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have indefatigable power. And the Son set aside the independent use of this attribute when he took on human flesh. He tired, and he rested.
Jesus’ identity was not bound up in his busyness. He came to do the will of his Father which required untold messianic labor, but he was not enslaved to work. He was bound to laboring for the will of God, which made him free to rest when his God-given body called for rest.
Rest is a secret weapon in ministry, but unfortunately it’s one of the best-kept secrets, often neglected and even denigrated for a variety of reasons that range from physical folly to deep-rooted insecurity to ambitional arrogance.
Of course, focused diligence in ministry is a non-negotiable characteristic of all who would follow Paul’s admonition to be a faithful soldier, athlete, and farmer (2 Timothy 2:4-6). But when busyness defines you, Christlike rest will seem like an attack on your very identity.
Just think: Jesus had less than 1,500 days of public ministry on earth, and he spent a good chunk of it resting.
The most effective weapons in the war of ministry are not always the most prominent, the most noticed, or the most remembered. But many of the simple tools God has given us possess a power that matches their invisibility. In fact, these God-given tools often possess a power inversely proportional to the attention we give them.
Prayer, example, consistency, structure, preparation, tone, and rest often go unnoticed, unmeasured, and unheralded. But they’re not just secrets. They’re secret weapons.