And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. Matthew 14:19-21
A lot of churches and church leaders are doing strategic planning right now. We all enter into a new year (and a new decade) with great hope and excitement for all the new and innovative ministry approaches we will endeavor to take. And we will talk a lot about mission and vision and goals and measurement. In that process, let’s keep some perspective.
Jesus and Strategic Planning
Jesus did not take an institutional approach to ministry. He did not survey the neighborhood to determine what the physical needs were then implement a task force to study those needs. Jesus did not plan the infrastructure of an organization that might be able to meet those needs and then go looking for funding for that organization and for the right people to fill the various positions in that organization. Jesus did not do strategic planning to set specific goals and objectives for his ministry over a one-year, five-year and ten-year plan. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do any of those things. It just means we should keep all those things in perspective.
I believe Jesus operated according to God-inspired vision. In the case referenced in Matthew 14 above, I believe Jesus recognized the hunger of the crowd and immediately developed a God-sized vision of what could be…of what should be…and of what would be. And I believe he had one goal in mind: changing lives. I do not think that merely feeding the people was his goal. I also do not believe he had any goals regarding the number of people he wished to reach with this miracle. Let me say that again for all the numbers-crunchers among us. I do not believe he had any goals regarding the number of people he wished to reach with this miracle. Rather, I believe he wanted to change their lives AND change the lives of the disciples who helped Him. His “vision” for that ministry was far greater than just getting a little food into several thousand hungry stomachs. It was about life change.
What are We Measuring?
So it makes me wonder about our ministries…whether our vision for them is truly God-sized or not. It makes me wonder if “changed lives” is what we are aiming for (and structuring for) in our ministry endeavors. It seems to me that, if lives are not being changed by how we as a church (or as a ministry) are spending our efforts and our resources, then we are not really being the church at all. I believe this because, everywhere we see Jesus doing ministry in the New Testament, we see lives being changed. That was always the case then and it seems to me it should always be the case now.
Please understand, I am all for church growth. In fact, you could probably convince me that growth is a vital sign of health. So I am not saying numbers don’t matter at all. I do not think a church can be truly healthy if it is not growing. But I do think that a church or ministry can be growing in terms of number without being truly healthy. If counting noses is our best measure of the effectiveness of our ministry, then we may be setting ourselves up for failure. Ultimately, numbers are not the goal. Life change is the goal. And the mere fact that life change is difficult to measure is no reason to abandon it as our primary objective.
Life Change as Our Goal
People’s encounters with Jesus changed them. Moreover, the disciples who participated in His ministry likewise experienced huge life change, by participating in others’ encounter with Him as well. Indeed, this particular miracle of feeding the 5,000 was so very life-changing for the disciples that it became one of the very few moments included in all four of the gospels. And yet, there is not a single mention of how many of those 5,000 actually “joined” Jesus’ band of followers. This ministry moment was not about adding numbers to Christ’s followers. It was about changing lives.
The question, then, for me and for you…for my ministry and for your church…is this: irrespective of your numbers, are there lives being changed? Is your life being changed? Isn’t that the clearest evidence of an encounter with Him?