On Monday, I started looking at a principle I’ve found fundamental to my own college ministry practice. Today, I want to share how I first learned this stuff; since I can’t say this any better than the guy who taught me, I won’t really try.
A couple of years after college, I got a hold of a sermon discussing how an entire church best produces disciples. The pastor was Denton Bible Church’s Tommy Nelson, who’s pretty well-known here in Texas. (You might have encountered his widely dispersed Song of Solomon series.)
In the first 12 minutes of that message, Nelson shared a principle that has affected most of my college ministry work since then. Yes, he was applying it to the local church – but it’s a very basic methodology applicable to any ministry form.
In the message, Nelson describes learning this himself as a 26-year-old, from renowned Bible teacher (and teacher-of-teachers) Howard Hendricks.
And after 30 years of pastoring, Nelson said this is still the one thing he offers young pastors looking for guidance. “If you get this,” he tells them, “you’re going to be successful. If you don’t, I don’t care how many people [are in your church], you’re going to get frustrated.” He even describes this principle as the “Power Sweep of the church,” comparing it to the unstoppable offensive play run by Vince Lombardi’s teams of old.
Remember, this is coming from a guy with one of the most long-term impactful pastorates in Texas.
So here’s the principle. Any quotes are Nelson’s, as he described what he learned from Hendricks. While I’ll leave things basically in the form he presented it (discussing local churches), I personally apply it very directly to campus ministry.
the principle of backwards ministry
“Normally, when you talk about how to do a church, we do it backwards.”
He described watching Hendricks draw, from left to right, something like this:
A ministry usually begins with its pastor and leadership in place. Then, those people decide structure and activities – when the ministry meets, regular activities, organization, message topics, guest speakers, etc.
Of course, the structures and activities determine what kind of people, at the end of the day, are produced within this ministry. (Nelson calls them the ministry’s “gun barrel,” because that’s the part of the gun that most determines how the bullets fly and what targets are hit.)
In this form of ministry, deciding the structures comes first; the “product” comes about simply as a natural result of all that.
“That’s generally how churches are done, and that is exactly backward.”
Instead – and this time, Nelson said, Hendricks started drawing on the right side of the board – the setup should look like this:
We begin our work by establishing, “Just what do we call ‘success’?”
“When that guy has been through your church five or six years, what do you want him [the stick figure] to look like? … Because whatever you determine is successful, that’s how you’re going to organize…” Further, if that definition of success isn’t correct from the start, “then you’re going to succeed at the wrong areas.”
Only after the “Product” is established do the leaders decide the “How” of the ministry (the structures, processes, and activities), and they base those decisions entirely on the “What” they’re trying to produce! Following that, the leadership is chosen or placed based on the needs of those structures and activities.
[As I’ve learned since, others have called this “starting with the end in mind.” I often call it “purpose-based” or even “outcome-based” ministry.]
Nelson continued, “What’s the most important part of an oxcart? The ox. The cart. The wheel. No – the most important part of an oxcart is the blueprint. Because that’s the mind of the guy who makes the oxcart. And as long as you have a blueprint, you know what an oxcart is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to function.”
You can always acquire oxen and materials to put together a solid oxcart. But “you lose that blueprint, and now you’re going to make – successfully – something that doesn’t correspond to ‘oxcart-ness.’”
“If you’re right here” – Nelson continued, pointing at the right side of the diagram – “this follows and this follows. If you’re wrong here, this’ll be wrong, and this’ll be wrong.”