I am on a bus to Bulgaria, where Lisa and I will be leading the staff and board of the IFES movement there through a strategic planning process. This process involves bringing the team together to consider the challenges and opportunities, the needs and the assets of the movement and to consider how best to prepare and plan for growth in the coming few years.
When we did this in Ukraine, we began with a few touchstone Bible studies. First, we looked at the passage in 2 Kings 4:1-7 where Elisha solves a widow’s problem of poverty by asking her to gather as many jars as she can from her neighbors, and then to take the jar of oil she has in her house and begin pouring oil into the many empty jars. The oil kept pouring while there were empty containers, and it stopped when they were all full. We looked at this story as a parable, as a model of how God often works, rather than as some sort of promise, but we did notice that God multiplied her oil in proportion to the number of jars she had faith and resources to borrow. If she had only borrowed a few jars, she would only have seen a small miracle.
The jars are simply containers, much like the structures and plans we make in student ministry. We don’t, at the end of the year, care about the number of Bible studies we led or conferences we planned and executed, but we care deeply about the number of students who entered the Kingdom or the measure of their growth in faith as disciples. But we know in Jesus’ stories about how the kingdom of God works, that growth is something given by God, and the farmer who sows the seed “knows not how”. So the best we can do, to prosper the ministry God has entrusted to us, is to set out jars, opportunities for God to pour out the oil of his Spirit, the work of his Spirit in the lives of students, who will find these “jars”, these Bible studies, conferences, student leaders who serve, invite, welcome and encourage, so that God can bring about miraculous growth, both in individual students and in the size and strength of the fellowships themselves.
A second passage we looked at is Mark 2:18-22, another relatively obscure little parable about containers. Jesus is asked a question about the practices of his disciples: It seems religious people in Jesus’ day fasted a lot, but Jesus’ disciples didn’t. He certainly seemed like a religious person, but why didn’t his group fast? Jesus explains that it is foolish to try to patch old practices on new movements of God’s Spirit—the new will destroy the old, whether with new patches on old cloth, or new wine in old wineskins. The Pharisees were once a reform movement within Judaism, calling people not to turn away from God, the scriptures, and the temple. But 150 years later, they were a part of the religious establishment. What had once been fresh wine of renewal put in new wineskins of faithful zeal became over time the old and crusty wineskins, empty of the Spirit of God and devoid of real faith. These, in turn, needed to be replaced by new wine of the Kingdom poured into fresh wineskins.
Unfortunately, this pattern has repeated itself many times in the history of the people of God, right up until the present. What begins as a renewal ministry, a fresh outpouring of God's spirit, becomes rigid and stale as it is multiplied through succeeding generations. This process, which might take decades in the church, can take just months or a couple years in student ministry—what was once an innovative risk into which God was pleased to pour out his Holy Spirit and work through his people becomes an old encrusted wineskin that no longer has the impact in student ministry it once did. The call of this passage is to be seeking a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit, and to be creative enough to prepare new skins for God’s purposes with students. This passage calls us to look at the structures and strategies of the past and to honestly evaluate them based on the growth we see them bringing about through the outpouring of God's Spirit. Structures that served well in the past may no longer be fruitful, and it is then time to prepare new structures better fit for today's challenges and the work of God we desperately need.
These two passages are not so much about the goals of student ministry but the process, which involves preparing structures into which God will be pleased to bring about growth, and to trust, not in those structures or time-tested strategies, but in the God who is always eager to work in new ways to draw people to himself.
Rich and Lisa Lamb