I was in my twenties and pumped to be starting out in my first urban ministry. I loved getting to know neighborhood people, identifying needs, and coming up with plans to meet needs. It felt good when one ministry supporter said, “I’m impressed with the way that as soon as you see a need, you come up with a plan for meeting it.”
Impressive it may have been, but helpful it was not. It didn’t take our team long to learn that there were hundreds of unmet needs in the inner city, and our ministry could only touch a tiny fraction of them. Most of our “impressive” plans never made it beyond the fantasy stage. Nor should they have. We ended up launching a handful of ministries, but many other potential ministries never materialized.
Even with our handful of ministries, our team soon found that we were spread too thin, and we eventually learned to focus on doing fewer ministries with greater excellence.
The need-driven ministry trap is highly seductive. Compassion is a wonderful thing. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36 NLT). But Jesus’ response to seeing people’s needs was not to shift into high gear to try to meet all their needs personally. Rather, he urged his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers into the harvest (Mt. 9:37-38).
One morning, Jesus confounded his disciples’ expectations. After a day of healing and casting out demons, “before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray. Later Simon and the others went out to find him. When they found him, they said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ But Jesus replied, ‘We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them, too” (Mark 1:35-38 NLT).
People were waiting for Jesus to meet their needs, yet his response was, “No, we’re heading to the next village.” Jesus said no to some needs so he could say yes to others. How did he know when to say yes to and when to say no? I suspect it was because he had gotten up early to pray. As Jesus explained, “I do nothing on my own initiative” (John 8:28 NASB). He looked to the Father to know which needs to say yes to—and which to say no to.
Maximum fruitfulness comes when we quit responding to needs just because they’re there, and take time to get our marching orders from the Father.
- Have you ever said yes to a need “because it was there,” then realized you had gotten ahead of God?
- List your current ministry commitments—church, family, work, personal. Would you ask God if he has called you to each of these? Are you willing to let go of any that you have picked up “on your own initiative”?