No Time for One?
Editor’s Note: Originally published March 2014.
When it comes to leadership, most of us think in terms of moving a group of people or an organization forward toward an end goal. Leaders have vision, and they like to think big. That is a good thing, but leaders also need to be able to think small. They need to be able to see and to focus on the individual at a relational level and not just the crowd. As we grow in our responsibilities of leadership, we can tend to lose that kind of focus. It is a focus that Christ had and that every effective leader ought to have.
Not too long ago I heard a story that really broke my heart. A couple I had known for a number of years shared with me that they had recently moved to a new town and joined a large and seemingly thriving church. The church appeared to have everything they were looking for: right philosophy, good preaching, missions emphasis, and a strong youth and children’s ministry. Since one of their sons had been going through some challenges, this couple interviewed the youth pastor and asked if it would be possible for him to take some one-on-one time with their son. The youth pastor’s response? “I really don’t have enough time for that kind of ministry.”
I would like to think this is an isolated case, but I’m afraid that a lack of leadership on a personal level has become a painful reality in many of our “large and flourishing” ministries. Though most youth pastors would not be so brazen as to publicly make such an incredible admission, close examination of what is taking place reveals a very real crisis in ministry. Ministry all too often is designed for the masses, the crowds, the congregations, the youth groups. The pragmatic approach is often adapted to reach as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Organizations, programs, and schedules once served the purpose of reaching people, but they are now focused on reaching ministry goals. It seems we are succeeding in corporate ministry but failing with people. We are reaching the crowds, but we have no time for one.
No Time for One?
If you have no time for one individual, then you need to reconsider the ministry of Christ. He was willing to touch the life of the individual. Even when crowds were pressing Him, He had the capacity to see and to minster to the individual. He illustrated this powerfully in Mark 5 when in the midst of a suffocating crowd a woman touched His garment. Jesus sensed her need immediately and asked, “Who touched me?” The disciples wondered how He could ask such a question with so many people pressing all around Him. They saw a mass of people; Jesus saw an individual. We do not come away from our study of the life of Christ with a file folder of unique programs, plans, and curriculums; rather, we come away with a model of disciple-making leadership – a way of life. We see a man who poured His life into others.
And isn’t this the same with Paul and Timothy, Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha? God’s “ministry plan” has never been about the big program, the grand scheme, the innovative idea, or the strategic plan. It has been about pouring one life into another. Certainly God will allow organizational tools to help accomplish a task, but that is all they are – tools. How many servants of God have been caught up with a new agenda, a better program, or a novel idea and have failed in the process to see that one person? Faces only blend into the crowd for them.
Meet Them Where They Are
Disciple-making leadership begins with meeting people where they are and meeting with them often. It means we need to get up and get involved, not just plan an event. Leadership is about taking the initiative. Jesus said in John 4, “I must needs go through Samaria.” And He would focus on one individual. It seems, however, that many are losing the burden to take such an initiative. Energies often are placed in improving and expanding programs, analyzing markets, offering more options, responding to the competition, attracting crowds, and wooing people. I see two problems with such an approach. First, we have a tendency to compromise the integrity of what we are commanded to be as a church. Second, we never get out of our own neighborhoods and comfort zones to penetrate this dark and pagan world.
If we are to meet people where they are, we need to remember that they are not all at the same place in life. So, programs will not fit every need or every person. A good disciple-making leader will understand where people are and how they learn. He will begin with where people are and then with patience and grace help them move to where they need to be. No two individuals will ever be exactly the same. Christ met people where they were, and took different approaches with each individual. He spoke to where they were living in language they could understand.Yes, He did minister to the masses, but His most effective and lasting work was on an individual level. We need to be able to lead that way as well.
If we meet people where they are, we will enjoy an informal dynamic in our leadership. There is a place for the formal and structured leading and discipleship, but some of the greatest learning will occur when two people walk through life side by side. This is one thing that I greatly appreciate about living life with other people: sitting at a restaurant, having lunch together, sharing a pizza or a bag of popcorn, watching a game, working on a project, or ministering together…and all along the way, talking about life and relating it to God and His Word.
I have come to see that in my various roles as a leader, the greatest and most lasting influence I may ever have will be one on one and not preaching to the masses. Couldn’t we make this the case for the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the apostle Paul? I think we could. Christ said to His disciples, “As my Father has sent me, even so send I you.” Paul told Timothy, “ the things you have heard me say in the presense of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” This is about learning to lead one person at a time, not just move the crowd.
As I look back over more than thirty years of ministry, there are a few things that, given the chance, I would do differently. The biggest of these would be the amount of time and attention given to one-on-one leadership and discipleship. As a pastor, college president, and now as a pastor again, I have often found myself driven by strong currents that are hard to resist: “the vision” and “the program.” The last several years of ministry I have sought more and more to lead and encourage the hearts of a few hungry men. I am convinced that this will bear more fruit than anything else I can do.
My challenge to you is…make time for the one. Don’t get so caught up in the big visions, programs, and crowds of people that you fail to capitalize on the most effective kind of leadership – “life touching life.” And the greatest opportunity you may ever enjoy will be finding that one in the crowd who really wants to grow. Make time to lead that “one.”
Dr. Matt Olson is Preaching and Teaching Pastor at Valley Community Church of Louisville, Colorado (near Boulder). Matt is formerly President of Northland International University, having served for 11 years in that role. Matt will be one of the featured speakers at the 2014 IFCA International Annual Convention in Colorado Springs.
Used with permission from VOICE magazine, An Independent Church Journal published by IFCA International. Volume 93 Number 1. January/February 2014.