Playing the Long-Game in Ministry

Last night in youth group we said goodbye to our students who have graduated high school and are heading out to college this week. It’s always difficult to see them go. But it’s also a joy. Because this is when we start to see whether our ministry to students was fruitful and effective.

As a youth pastor, I’m very much aware of the reality that the long-game matter more than the short. And yet, so much of ministry (especially in youth ministry) immediate results are how we measure success (and how others measure our effectiveness). Whether you’re a youth pastor, worship pastor, senior pastor, or a faithful volunteer in your church… there are a few important questions we need to ask.

Apple Tree.jpgWhat are you hoping to accomplish in people’s lives? 

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Chances are, if you’re serving in ministry (whether volunteer or as your job), you want to make a lasting difference. Your desire is to grow disciples whose lives are changed. The verses above reflect our mission: growing disciples who follow Jesus daily, for the rest of their lives.

If we aren’t consistently reminding ourselves that we’re after fruit that lasts then we’ll easily drift into habits that will only deliver immediate results. Making disciples is not measured by attendance at programs. When we measure for immediate results, it’s like searing a roast on a hot grill, only to see that the outside looks cooked while the inside is still raw. I would rather than ten lifelong disciples than one thousand who fall away.

Discipleship is more like a crockpot. Building disciples requires time, relationships, and a plan. You don’t always notice the change because the growth is slow. When we keep the long-game in mind, it’s easier to be intentional about organizing and measuring our ministry according to long-term growth, not immediate results.

As Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger emphasize in their book Simple Church, “When we drift, we drift away from mission.” If building disciples is your long-game, then you need to keep that mission front-and-center. Don’t allow quick results or short-term failures to distract you. Remember that what you’re doing is far bigger than what’s immediately before you.

How am I measuring?
As a youth pastor, I am convinced that I won’t know how fruitful my ministry is until students are in their mid-twenties. Maybe it’ll take even longer? One thing is for certain, I cannot get an accurate measurement of my ministry’s effectiveness based off attendance at youth group.

To be clear: measuring immediate results can be helpful. But it isn’t everything. Attendance says something, but it only gives a glimpse into our immediate health: I can see whether or not we have a healthy group community; if there is conflict that needs to be addressed; if my students have a desire to see their friends come to faith. If students don’t want to participate in small groups or in evangelism training or in other opportunities to grow in their faith, that is a clear indicator about their spiritual health. On the other hand, when students are vibrant about reaching out to friends with the hope of the gospel, and when they love to introduce their school friends to their youth group friends – those are good signs that they are progressing in the faith and that the youth group is healthy.

But immediate results cannot show which of the four soils describes each student.

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

There are some students who are resistant to the gospel (seed on the path), regardless of how faithfully and winsomely you proclaim it. There are some who respond to the gospel but never seem to mature or get connected into the church (rocky soil), so instead they never grow any fruit and fade away because they have no roots. Others may demonstrate a growing faith in Christ, and may even start bearing fruit, but fall away over time because of worldliness and temptations (thorny soil), while others simply continue to bear fruit throughout the remainder of their lives (good soil).

In the end, only the last is a true disciple. But here’s the thing: we simply do not know how God will work in someone’s life. We cannot accurately discern our ministry’s fruitfulness based off what we see today. God may turn rocky soil into fertile ground. Gardeners extend their gardens, and soil can be weeded and fertilized. God bring the growth, but you don’t know how God might be working behind-the-scenes to change and soften someone’s heart to the gospel. At the same time, some people sink their roots down so quickly they go wide but not deep, and what seems like a true conversion gets choked out or dried up.

In over a decade of ministry to teenagers, I’ve been surprised by some who have fallen away and shocked by others who have born much fruit!

What’s it mean to play the long-game in ministry

  • When you’re discouraged, don’t give up. Remember, you’re playing the long-game. That means the game isn’t over. Sure, you may be discouraged, but remember the big picture you’re prayerfully working towards. When it comes to people, some of them will disappoint you. Refuse to give up. Ask God for wisdom, and move forward. God is bigger than your setbacks and disappointments.
  • When there seems to be extraordinary growth, pray for lasting change. Rejoice and celebrate what God has done. Sometimes these “play the long-game” messages can lead you to be skeptical or to deny a grand working of the Holy Spirit. Instead of growing skeptical, give glory to God and pray that this would be more than a flash in the pan. Seek ministry opportunities to sustain and extend what God is doing so it lasts.
  • Emphasize discipleship more than conversion. This might sound funny and counter-intuitive, but if we emphasize discipleship then new converts will have the expectation of what they’re in for. If we emphasize the invitation to believe without clearly presenting what we’re inviting nonbelievers to then we shouldn’t be surprised when they wander. We are on a global mission, so we must continue to faithfully proclaim the gospel while demonstrating that the gospel has limitless implications for the convert’s future. Remember, we evangelize for the sake of discipleship.
  • Have a discipleship plan. Discipleship doesn’t happen by accident. Rainer & Geiger’s book Simple Church has been instrumental to me lately as I work through a clear way to move students from unbelievers to new believers to growing believers to committed believers. If we don’t have a plan then how do we expect to make a long-term impact for Christ?!

As you continue to serve the Lord in whatever capacity he’s called you, may he give you a long-game vision for discipleship. If you have suggestions that I’ve missed, please feel free to share your insights in the comment section below.

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