Relationships – The Key to Effective Leadership … and Evangelism

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Great coaches develop strong and healthy relationships with their athletes. Mike Krzyzewski has more wins than any other Division 1 basketball coach in the history of the NCAA, 1,043 wins. He has won five national championships, two gold medals with the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, and will coach for a third gold medal this coming August. Coach K, as he is known, has said that his success, in part, is due to a realization he had while observing his family at the dinner table. Years ago, he noticed how his wife and three daughters related to one another. They each showed interest in the other’s day. They were in tune with each other’s feelings. This led Coach K to develop a coaching style built on establishing strong relationships with his players. It includes listening to them and motivating them in positive ways. Coach K has learned what many researchers have identified: our desire to form meaningful relationships powerfully influences our motivation (Bret Stetka, Scientific American: Mind, July/August 2016).

As I read the article referenced above, I thought of the missionary-evangelist Paul the Apostle, whose effectiveness was determined more by the size of his heart than that of his brain. Paul had a big brain to be sure, but it was his massive heart that enabled him persevere through great suffering, share Christ with friend and foe, and invade the kingdom of darkness, leaving churches in his wake. Paul had three big things going for him: his personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his huge heart for people. I mean, who but Paul has ever said, when speaking of his intense sorrow over the lostness of the Jewish people, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers” (Rom 9:3).

Paul’s heart for the Corinthians meant he was willing to be treated “like the world’s garbage” (1 Cor. 4:13). For the salvation of the Philippians he went to prison. In Lystra he was stoned and left for dead. He reminded the Thessalonians that he shared both the gospel and his own life with them, because they had become so dear to him (1 Thess. 2:8).

In the world of athletics, the best coaches know that athletes need to feel like you’re on their side before they’re willing to accept what you say. Paul proved to those he served, and to the lost people he was trying to reach, that he was on their side.

Missiologists like Lesslie Newbigin have spoken of “two conversions” that an unbeliever must experience. The first conversion is when they decide they like us, or respect and trust us, so that they will listen to what we say. The second conversion is when they believe the gospel that we preach and they are transformed by Christ. The first conversion happens as the relationship with a believer develops. The second conversion occurs when they establish a relationship with Christ as a result of our witness.

What is true of an individual believer is true of a church. When the community learns that the church is on their side, working to bless the community, the influence of the church increases.

This week I visited with the pastor of a church that has 25 in attendance on Sunday morning. I was amazed as he described how that church ministers to a significant homeless population in his area each week, has a weekly one-on-one mentoring program to about 15 school children, and multiple other life-giving ministries they are doing (including providing meeting space to other churches). I don’t know if the church will grow in attendance, or whether they will transition in some other way (they have options), but they are certainly using God’s resources to bring abundant life to their community with each day He gives them. And they are establishing favor in the community beyond what might seem possible. Of course, a “dozen-minus-one” fully-devoted followers of Jesus is how it all began!

Today I looked at a list of baptisms from our Northwest Baptist churches, broken down by the age of the church. I did this because some have said that new churches are more than three times as effective in reaching lost people as existing churches. When measuring against average attendance, this is not true. Churches under five years of age baptized one person for every 11 in average attendance. All other churches baptized one person for every 15 in average attendance. The difference is considerable, but not as great as some might think. The reason for this, I believe, is that evangelism, like leadership, is relational. Some churches do much better than others because they are more intentional in training and deploying witnesses for Christ. But reaching people for Christ, and retaining them as active members of your church, results from personal relationships.

In other words, it takes people to reach people. And it takes people to keep people. Where this becomes strategic, and not just an observation, is when you realize that your attendance in small groups is in direct proportion to the number of small groups you have. If you have ten small groups (or Sunday school classes), you will average 100 per week. If you have five small groups, you will average 50 in attendance. It all about relationships! One teacher, on average, can’t reach 50 people in average attendance. They can reach about 10 people.

Coach K works at building a strong relationship with each of his players. He does this because he wants to win games. I think he also wants to build great young men, but he certainly wants to win games.

Our ambition is to save souls. Our desire is to see others come to love Jesus Christ. That should motivate us to build strong relationships with unbelievers.

Legendary missionary Amy Carmichael said that the people of India knew a missionary loved them when the missionary spent their “free time” with them. If the missionary only spent time with an Indian during working hours, the Indian knew that they were not considered a friend by the missionary. Rather, they were the project of the missionary. Ouch!

It really is all about relationships. And “all,” meaning all things meaningful in ministry and life, is about relationship.

The Journey to Faith in Christ

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Most Muslims who come to faith in Jesus Christ do so after 10:00 at night! This important fact was explored by Nik Ripken as a part of his research into the persecuted church. He learned that in many Muslim cultures, particularly in the Arab world, the first meal of the day is around noon and the last meal is late at night. This late meal is the setting in which Muslim men, in particular, are most willing to talk about important things. Because of this, many missionary families adjust their daily schedule to fit the cultural realities of the people they seek to reach for Christ. Parents in Portland, OR don’t take their children to the city park at 2:00 AM, but in some faraway places parents do just that (Ripken, The Insanity of Obedience, 260).

If you haven’t read Ripken’s book, I would recommend it, as well as his previous book The Insanity of God. In addition to serving as an international missionary for over 25 years, Ripken has interviewed hundreds of persecuted Christians in about 60 different countries. What he learned will encourage, challenge, and instruct you. One point of instruction concerns what we might call “the process of conversion.” What process, or journey, does the radically unchurched person travel before coming to faith in Christ? The answer depends on their locale, background, language, and a host of other things. You can easily identify the journey to Christ of a child who grows up attending your church, but what of the radically unchurched person in your town?

Answering this question is vital for the Christian who wants God to use them to lead others to Jesus. Moreover, the answer requires the ongoing pursuit of knowing your community and the various peoples in your community.

I was once the pastor of the “big church” in a small Texas town of 1,700. One family that came to faith in Christ did so after my wife and I got to know them in the hospital. We both had a child in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. This common experience led to talking, praying, and eventually, this family gave their lives to Jesus. Later, the husband said that a church member had invited them to our church a few years prior. The invitation went something like this, “It will help your business if you come to our church.” Yes, that really happened! And what’s more, it was true. It would have helped his plumbing business had he attended our church. But even though he wasn’t yet a Christian, he understood that attending church to build your business didn’t seem right.

Although church attendance might be a business strategy in some places (not in the Northwest!), appealing to a business motivation won’t help you reach the radically unchurched for Jesus Christ. The journey to Christ will likely follow a path that takes into account several factors, including:

1. The rhythms of life. People’s schedules and lifestyle differ depending upon age, ethnicity, education, children in the home, employment, hobbies, health matters, etc.
2. Religious background and beliefs
3. Real and perceived needs
4. Friendships (including family) – who are their closest friends and what do they believe about Christ?
5. Personal sin with which they struggle, or which they simply enjoy

There are other factors you could add to the list. But the main point is this: when a person comes to Christ, they travel along a particular road to do so. The better we know the people of our community, as individuals and as groups, the better we are able to share the real Jesus with them. Remember, many people who reject Jesus don’t reject the true, biblical Jesus. They reject the “people of Jesus,” or they reject some “image” of Jesus that is distorted. Ripken says that many who suffer martyrdom for Jesus are murdered, not because the killers reject their witness for Jesus, but because the martyrs affiliated with a Western person or organization. Often the killers don’t even know the specific message of the gospel, or the claims of Christ. They kill for secondary reasons, which is a real tragedy.

So what about your town? Where do people gather? Where do women or men sit around and discuss important things? How can you discover the particular needs of people in your town? Do you have church attenders who are connected to organizations and groups that will help the church connect to various peoples. Are new homes being built in your area? Are new businesses being started? Do you drive around the town using different routes so that you can discover such things?

I once served in an area where nearly half of the adults were functionally illiterate. Learning this changed how we trained our small group Bible study teachers. It impacted our methods of evangelism. In one church, when discussing how to take the gospel to every home in town, the person who helped plan the strategy was a newspaper delivery person. He knew how to cover the town!

The point is, people are different and communities are different. First Baptist Church of Toledo, WA has 400 people attending on Sunday morning, and the town only has a population 725. The FBC of Toledo, OR isn’t nearly so large, though the town has a population of 3,465. The towns are very different religiously, spiritually, historically and culturally. These differences make for a different kind of ministry. The differences aren’t found simply between communities, but between individuals in each community.

For every person there is a process, a journey, on which they can encounter the real Jesus. Part of the joy of ministry is discovering what process works with each person. When we know this we can help guide their steps so that they will meet the real Jesus and hopefully come to know Him.

Let me end with one caution. Many churches have discontinued evangelistic methods that they perceive are not as effective as they once were. The problem, however, is that they haven’t replaced the old methods with new methods. Don’t throw out the old unless you have a legitimate replacement. Although people come to Christ through different processes, ultimately it is the power of the Gospel, the message of Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and Second Coming, that is powerful to save a person from sin (Romans 1:16f).