Why “strategic ministry” makes me deeply uncomfortable

Sam Allberry | September 22nd 2015

For a number of years I worked for a church in central Oxford and oversaw the ministry to students at the university. I lost count of the number of times people would say to me: “It’s great that you’re doing that work. Oxford students are so strategically important.” It was something that made me feel deeply uncomfortable. It assumed that, because of who they are in the world, Oxford students are more significant for the spread of the kingdom. But the only reason that ministry to Oxford students matters is the same reason that ministry to anyone matters: they are lost souls that Jesus came to seek and save. It is not because their academic abilities make them more strategically useful. In fact, the last thing many such students need to be told is that they are strategically important!

James’ words are a warning that we are not to think that reaching the rich and powerful with the gospel is more strategic than reaching the poor:

“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2 v 2-5)

It is easy for Christians to find themselves thinking that if only we could get a sports star, or celebrity, or high-profile leader converted, then it would be a great coup for the gospel. Such people, by virtue of their position, are deemed to be more strategically valuable than others, and so resources are apportioned accordingly. They are reckoned to be the key to reaching society as a whole. And so if a professional footballer comes into church at the same time as a tramp, it’s the footballer that becomes the focus of attention.

The same principle applies to any ministry focused on the wealthy and privileged in society. There are many fine examples of these kinds of ministries. But it is important that those involved in such work check that they’re involved for the right reasons. The privileged need reaching because they are lost, not because they matter more than anyone else. Building a gospel strategy around “key people” in society contradicts the very insight that James is drawing to our attention. God’s strategy, by and large, is to use the weak things of the world to achieve his purposes.

God’s strategy, by and large, is to use the weak things of the world to achieve his purposes.

This should not surprise us. We follow a crucified criminal. He had nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9 v 58). “There were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being” (Isaiah 52 v 14). This was the man who for all our sakes became poor and embraced poverty (2 Corinthians 8 v 9). Would we rush to welcome him into our church? Would we have thought him “strategically important”? Would he look like someone worth watching for future Christian leadership?

God’s ways are not the world’s ways. Neither should ours be.

This is an edited extract from James For You by Sam Allberry.

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Sam Allberry

Sam studied theology at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and has served on staff at St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, and St Mary's, Maidenhead. He is now part of the team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and also works as UK Editor for The Gospel Coalition. A popular conference speaker, Sam has written several books, including James For You, Is God Anti-Gay, and Lifted. Hobbies include reading, watching The West Wing and anything to do with South-East Asia.

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