ACR JournalDoctrineEvangelism

Gospel seriously: The dangerous necessity of goal-driven ministry

What are you aiming for in your ministry? How are you planning to reach these goals? What do you have to change to make it happen? Not just in your rhetoric, but in your action? Not just in your grand visions, but in your daily routines? What good but secondary things will you abandon for those goals? Will you be
serious about it? Systematic? Sacrificial? Courageous? What skills do you need to learn to reach
the goals?
This kind of thinking has gained much traction in various Christian ministry circles in Australia in recent years. For want of a better term, I’ll call it ‘goal-driven ministry’. It’s the kind of ministry thinking that tends to borrow heavily from the worldly wisdom of things like systems theory—inputs, processes, measurement, outputs—strategic planning, leadership, statistical analysis, quality control, business management, etc.
And I have a confession to make: I love it! I was an engineer by training and vocation. I once lived and breathed in the world of systems and control, including workplace processes and leadership for quality. Even now, as an Anglican minister and New Testament lecturer at Moore College, I still love serious, well-organised, goal-driven planning and processes.
Most of all, I love it when the goal being pursued is the one that truly matters: the goal of evangelism. It really matters that we reach our friends, neighbourhoods, cities, and nations with the saving gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead—Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and saves us from God’s wrath as we hear this message and trust in him. Because this goal matters so much, I want to issue two appeals to anyone involved in making decisions about gospel ministry (including myself):

Appeal #1: Engage in goal-driven ministry for the sake of the gospel of Christ crucified

Appeal #2: Constantly critique your goal-driven ministry by the gospel of Christ crucified

At first glance, the two appeals seem to be directly opposed to one another. But both are vital. They’re two sides of the same coin. Both involve taking the gospel seriously. And both arise from biblical truths that can be seen especially clearly in 1 Corinthians. If you prefer the first appeal (like me), you’ll probably be inclined to downplay the second. If you prefer the second appeal, you’ll probably be inclined to downplay the first. So, as you read this article, can I ask you to try to read against the grain of your personal inclinations? I’d love you to engage particularly carefully with the opposite of whatever naturally appeals to you most.

Appeal #1: Engage in goal-driven ministry for the sake of the gospel of Christ crucified

Goal-driven ministry of some form is a necessity for anyone serious about the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to engage in it, humbly and prayerfully. Why? Because it’s a logical implication of the gospel of Christ crucified. That’s because ministry isn’t simply about being theoretically correct. Ministry has a goal: the salvation of many through Christ crucified. And we need to be serious about this goal, under God. Let me show you how this works by looking at 1 Corinthians 8–10.

The Corinthian problem: Gospel theoretically (1 Corinthians 8)

In 1 Corinthians 8–10, the apostle Paul is engaging with a specific issue that affected these Christians living in an ancient pagan city: whether it’s OK to eat food sacrificed to idols. Some of the Corinthians were acting based purely on “knowledge” (Chapter 8). They only cared about the gospel theoretically. The gospel had taught them that there’s only one true God; therefore (logically, they reasoned), idols are irrelevant; therefore (logically, they reasoned), they were allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols.
But Paul slams them for this attitude. He doesn’t critique them for faulty theoretical knowledge about the gospel and the nature of idols. The problem is that they’d utterly neglected the goal of the gospel: the salvation of sinners through Christ crucified. They weren’t acting in love, which meant they weren’t acting to build others up (8:1), which in turn meant they weren’t acting for the goal of salvation for others. Instead, their eating of idol food was causing some brothers and sisters (who’d had past associations with idols) to stumble, which endangered their salvation: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (8:11).
Theoretical gospel “knowledge” is one thing, but what matters most for Paul is acting in line with the goal of the gospel: the salvation of sinners through the gospel of Christ crucified. This goal, says Paul, may require radical action and change of practice: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (8:13).

Paul’s salvation goal drove his ministry practice (1 Corinthians 9)

In chapter 9, Paul develops this idea further. He uses his own ministry to the Corinthians as an example (9:1–18). Theoretically, the gospel gave him various freedoms as a Christian and rights as a travelling apostle, including the right to material provision. But in his ministry to the Corinthians, he’d given up this right. Why? Because he cared more about the goal of the Corinthians’ salvation through the gospel than his theoretical gospel-based ministry entitlements.
In 9:19–27, Paul explicitly spells out the goal-driven logic of salvation in his ministry (9:19–27):

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win
more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under
the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law)
that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one
outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I
might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the
weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Paul is explicit and clear about his ministry goals. He desires to “win” people to salvation in Christ and so to “save” them. He repeatedly uses the goal-oriented terms “that” and “in order to” (Greek: hina) to describe this goal. And this goal radically affects how Paul acts in his ministry to others. The goal causes him to adapt his habits of association and the way he relates to those he is seeking to win. In any given situation, he seriously considers what will be best for the salvation of those he is preaching to. He sacrificially and courageously changes how he relates in line with that goal. This is deeply personal for Paul. It affects every area of his life (see vv 24–27). And he calls the Corinthians to imitate him (10:23–11:1).

Plundering the Egyptians to help put goals into practice

What does this have to do with the kind of ‘goal-driven ministry’ I mentioned at the start of this article? Clearly, Paul isn’t talking here directly about using modern strategic planning and systems theory. But the gospel principle he lays out in this passage helps us see the value of using this kind of worldly wisdom in our ministries. Are we (and our churches as a whole) genuinely committed to the goal of the salvation of many? Are we genuinely committed to aligning our lives and ministries towards this goal? In that case, it’s worth prayerfully and humbly learning from people in our world who have put significant thought and effort into working out how to turn goals into actions in our lives and our organisations.
This is often described using the phrase ‘plundering the Egyptians’. In the Bible, this phrase describes how the Israelites took gold, silver, and other materials from their Egyptian captors as God rescued them from slavery (Exod 3:19–22). This gold, silver, etc., was evidently used as part of the materials to build the sanctuary for the worship of the LORD (Exod 35:1–29). Many Christian writers throughout history have used the image of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ as an illustration to describe the value of using worldly wisdom in the service and worship of Christ. If we’re convinced that the goal of the salvation of many by Christ crucified should drive our lives and ministries, then we should realise that it’s worth plundering the
Egyptians—i.e., using worldly wisdom—to help in that task.

Appeal #2: Constantly critique your goal-driven ministry by the gospel of Christ crucified

My second appeal sounds like a direct contradiction to the first. But it’s just as necessary. In fact, the more we engage in goal-driven ministry, the more necessary it is to critique ourselves for using it. That’s because goal-driven ministry carries an unavoidable danger. I’m not just talking about the obvious dangers. For example, there’s the danger of unintended consequences. Because systems are complex, adopting certain processes and systems in your ministry might lead to outcomes that work against the goals you originally were aiming for. Or, there’s the danger of muting the gospel. Goal-driven thinking might lead us to adopt a simplistic ‘ends justifies the means’ mentality, where we’re subtly tempted to change our theology to try to win crowds and numbers. These are certainly dangers. But they’re not what
I’m talking about. There’s a danger that is far deeper than these.

Think again about the gold the Israelites plundered from the Egyptians. As I’ve mentioned, the Israelites used some of this gold to build the sanctuary for the worship of God (Exod 35:1–29). But that’s not the first thing they did with the gold, was it? First, they used the gold to make a golden calf and worshipped it as God (Exod 32:1–4). This was utterly disastrous for the entire Israelite community. It led to God’s judgment and death for many (Exod 32:25–29).
This points us to the greatest hazard inherent in the task of ‘plundering the Egyptians’. The gold we plunder (i.e., the worldly wisdom we adapt) is never merely a neutral building material. It always glitters and tempts us to love and treasure it in its own right. It’s far too easy for worldly wisdom to become a means for false worship. The more we use worldly wisdom, the more our hearts (and the hearts of those we preach to) are tempted to turn away from the gospel of Christ crucified.

Little-w wisdom and big-W Wisdom

To understand this a little more, we need to grasp what ‘wisdom’ is and how it works. So far in this article, I’ve been using the phrase ‘worldly wisdom’ to talk about the practical skills and general know-how we can gain from the world. But the concept of ‘wisdom’ is bigger than this. In the Bible, ‘wisdom’ has two related senses. We could label these ‘little-w wisdom’ and ‘big-W Wisdom’. Little-w wisdom is about know-how, insights, and practical skills. Big-W Wisdom, on the other hand, is the worldview or value system that makes sense of life. Little-w wisdom teaches us how to get things done. Big-W Wisdom teaches us what things matter: what to value, love, prioritise, and choose. These two senses of ‘wisdom’ are distinct, yet they’re intimately related. That’s why the Bible uses ‘wisdom’ terminology to refer to both.

With that in mind, think about the ‘worldly wisdom’ of things like systems, inputs, processes, measurements, outputs, strategic planning, statistical analysis, quality control, business management, etc. In one sense, these are all just examples of little-w worldly wisdom. They’re just pragmatic concepts and skills that help us to think clearly about achieving goals. Aren’t they?
Not really. These ideas haven’t come from nowhere. They’re rooted in a particular form of big-W Wisdom: a broader philosophical movement from the last couple of centuries, grounded in Darwinian theory, called ‘Pragmatism.’6 Pragmatism is a philosophy, a worldview, and a value system. It claims that there’s no value in seeking ‘objective truth’. What truly matters is what works. Pragmatism places supreme value on our human outcomes and effectiveness. Whether we realise it or not, pragmatism has enormously influenced much of modern thinking, including sociology, psychology, management theory, organisational systems theory, etc.
Since philosophical pragmatism is part of the air we breathe in the 21st-century Western world, we usually don’t notice it. We can easily assume pragmatic thinking is just ‘common sense’. Hence the danger. Whenever we use goal-driven worldly wisdom in ministry, we’re not merely being little-p pragmatic. What we do with our hands can’t easily be quarantined from what we feel in our hearts. We’re constantly being subtly tempted to adopt the values inherent in big-P Pragmatism. This is a danger that’s beneath the surface, but for that reason threatens to go very deep: deep into our own souls, and deep into the souls of those we preach to, for generations to come. I’m convinced that 1 Corinthians 1–4 is one of the best measures we have against the dangers inherent in worldly wisdom—including (in fact, especially) big-P Pragmatism.

1 Corinthians 1–4: A clash of big-W Wisdoms

If you approached 1 Corinthians 1–4 with a strongly goal-driven pragmatic filter, you’d probably conclude that Paul had gone completely mad. In these chapters, Paul appears to be deliberately sabotaging the entire goal-driven cause. He’s intentionally vague and annoyingly sloppy about his personal conversion statistics (1:14–16). He insists that winning and baptising converts was not the goal of his ministry. After all, Christ just sent him to preach the message, nothing more (1:17). In his preaching and personal relationships with the Corinthians, he deliberately avoided anything that looked like skill and human effectiveness (2:1–4). He intentionally resists human attempts to measure and evaluate ministry, insisting
that faithfulness is all that matters (4:1–4). He persists in claiming that the only output worth caring about is not something humans can measure now—it’s God’s verdict on the final day (4:5; cf. 3:13). He celebrates the stupid, the frail, and the contemptible, while mocking the prudent, the potent, and the admirable (4:10).
What’s going on? It’s not that Paul was crazy, or that he merely wanted to be perverse. Instead, Paul had identified a significant and far-reaching problem among the Corinthians—a problem so severe that he had to combat it right from the start of his letter in the strongest possible terms. On the surface, there was a presenting problem: they were factional and divisive, splitting into tribes following individual preachers and leaders (1:11–12). But this divisiveness was merely a symptom of something much deeper. The big issue was this: the Corinthians were far too enthralled by the (big-W) Wisdom of the world.
What was this Wisdom? Various scholars have identified a common first-century phenomenon that helps us to make sense of the Corinthian attitude: ‘sophistry’. Sophists were touring celebrity performers who gave skilful speeches to please crowds (generally for a price). The sophists weren’t particularly interested in the truth of their words; they cared most about the effectiveness of their words. In other words, sophists were the ancient pragmatists. They were not only skilful in rhetoric (little-p pragmatism); they highly valued rhetorical effectiveness (big-P Pragmatism). Individual sophists won praise and a following.
As they preached, they implicitly taught their followers to value what they valued. The Corinthians were evidently highly influenced by these worldly values. That’s why they’d split into tribes following various leaders. They were treating Paul, Apollos, Cephas and even Christ like celebrity speakers (1:11–12). They were buying into the big-W Wisdom of the world. That’s why Paul talks about the situation using phrases including “eloquent wisdom” (literally, “the wisdom of word”; Greek: sophia logou) (1:17; cf. 2:1, 4), “the wisdom of the world” (1:20; cf. 3:19), and “human wisdom” (2:13; cf. 2:5).
Paul realised that what was happening in Corinth wasn’t just a minor surface-level disturbance. It was a titanic subterranean clash of big-W Wisdoms: ours and God’s. That’s why, in 1 Corinthians 1–4, Paul repeatedly emphasises the deep opposition between human wisdom and God’s wisdom (1:17, 19, 20–27, 30; 2:1, 4–7, 13; 3:18–20). These two big-W Wisdoms are ultimately irreconcilable. Why? Because of the very nature of the gospel of Christ crucified. The gospel of Christ crucified can’t be reduced merely to a nice, easy-tograsp message that gives us a free ticket to escape God’s judgment. It’s a one-eighty-degree
revolution in the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. The cross of Christ shows us that God sees human wisdom and effectiveness as utterly mad and weak, and vice versa.
The cross of Christ destroys all our human pretensions, humbles us to the depths of despair at sin and God’s judgment, and lifts us to the heights of reconciliation with God. The gospel of Christ crucified destroys human boasting in a way no human wisdom could ever fathom. In Corinth, Paul was in a situation where his hearers’ worldview (their big-W Wisdom) prized rhetorical effectiveness and following human leaders. This was diametrically opposed to the values of the gospel of Christ crucified. So, Paul realised the gospel of Christ crucified had to determine not just the content of his preaching (1:22–25) but also the method (2:1–5):

For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with words
of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor 1:17)

Paul recognised the truth that media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously coined millennia later: “the medium is the message”. The way we receive information (the medium) isn’t just a neutral channel; the channel profoundly affects how we value that information. If Paul had preached in Corinth using the powerful rhetorical methods of the world, his method would have cancelled out his message. True, he would have been effective in winning followers—but entirely ineffective where it counted most. He would have won followers who theoretically valued the gospel of Christ crucified, but, deep in their souls, really valued his human effectiveness and methods.
Paul’s logic here has important implications for all gospel ministers. This is seen especially in chapter 3.

Watch out how we build: 1 Corinthians 3:5–15

In 1 Corinthians 3:5–15, Paul connects his discussion of cross-based ‘wisdom’ with a warning to anyone involved in gospel ministry:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled [literally, “wise”, sophos] master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care [literally, “watch out”, blepeto] how he builds upon it. (1 Cor 3:10 ESV).

The word translated here as “skilled” (ESV) is the same word root Paul has been using throughout chapters 1–4 to talk about the clash between the foolish wisdom of the world and the saving wisdom of Christ crucified. The fact that the ESV translators have chosen to use a word here that conveys little-w wisdom (“skilled”) mustn’t distract us from the fact that it’s the same word-group that Paul is using throughout these chapters to describe big-W Wisdom (25 times, both before and after this verse). Paul is therefore deliberately emphasising the fact that his apostolic ministry was “wise”: not meaning “skilful” by worldly standards, but truly wise by God’s seemingly foolish standards (cf. Isa 3:3).
In this passage, Paul describes gospel ministry using the metaphor of building using various materials: “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw” (3:12). He’s drawing on Old Testament descriptions of the building of the temple (and earlier, the tabernacle) (see, e.g., 1 Chron 29:2). This building work did indeed require technical skill (little-w wisdom). For example, Hiram, whom Solomon brought from Tyre to lead the building of the temple, was a “builder” who was full of “wisdom, understanding, and skill” in metalwork (1 Kgs 7:14; cf. Exod 31:1–6).13 Paul applies this temple-building metaphor to gospel ministry. But he does so with an unmistakable twist. Paul calls himself a “wise master builder”—not in the sense
that he was humanly skilled at things like metalwork (little-w wisdom), but in the sense that he laid the foundation according to God’s wisdom: i.e., the gospel of Christ crucified (big-W Wisdom).

And so, Paul says, all gospel ministers must “watch out” how they build on this foundation (3:10). In this context, Paul’s not talking about applying effective practical church growth skills and team management! That’s not a bad thing to do (as I’ve argued above), but Paul has a much more important issue to deal with here. Throughout chapters 1–4, Paul has been emphasising the dangers of worldly wisdom.
So, in this context, when he insists that gospel ministers must “watch out” how they build, he’s warning us that in our ministry, we must always be guided by the wisdom of Christ crucified—a wisdom that’s foolish in the world’s eyes. We must cling to this cross-based wisdom in both our content and our method. True,
we’ll use all sorts of materials, some of which may even be plundered from the Egyptians. But what God truly cares about—and what will ultimately only be revealed on the last day—is not the pragmatic effectiveness of our human skills and know-how. It’s whether we’ve built with the wisdom of the cross. If we’ve built merely with human wisdom, it will perish (3:15; cf. 1:19). Only a structure built with the wisdom of Christ crucified will last (3:14; cf. 3:21–23).
This is highly relevant when it comes to gospel ministry in our modern, pragmatically saturated world. We need to “watch out” how we build. For example, we can easily be tempted to think about the gospel of Christ crucified merely like a ‘package’ of theological content that needs to be delivered to people. So, we can think and act as if we have two separate tasks:

Firstly, we need to learn the contents of this package (e.g., at a theological college). Secondly, we must find the most effective pragmatic methods to deliver the package (provided, of course, the methods don’t actually contradict the theology). Imagine if Paul had thought this way in Corinth. He probably would have decided to borrow the rhetorical skill of the sophistic preachers to deliver his gospel package. After all, Paul’s goal was to win as many Corinthians as possible for Christ, wasn’t it? And rhetorical skill wasn’t bad. If he’d adopted the skill of excellent rhetorical speech, he would undoubtedly have gained a hearing among those who valued it. He would have been persuasive. It would have been an effective, contextually appropriate way to deliver the saving package of Christ crucified in ancient Corinth. Wouldn’t it?
But Paul does the opposite. Why? Because he recognises that the gospel of Christ crucified can’t be limited that way. It’s not merely a neat package to deliver. It’s dynamite. It explodes all of our categories, including our gospel methods. As Don Carson observed more than three decades ago:

The cross not only establishes what we are to preach, but how we are to preach. It
prescribes what Christian leaders must be and how Christians must view Christian
leaders. … The message of these sections from 1 Corinthians must be learned afresh
by every generation of Christians, or the gospel will be sidelined by assorted fads

And so, Carson’s warning to gospel ministers from 1 Corinthians 3 is still fresh today:

If the church is being built with large portions of charm, personality, easy oratory,
positive thinking, managerial skills, powerful and emotional experiences, and
people smarts, but without the repeated, passionate, Spirit-anointed proclamation
of “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” we may be winning more adherents than
converts. … It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have
something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain
utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels,
but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting
approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power (1:17), and the only
approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the
last day

The medicine and the antidote

To switch the metaphor again: worldly goal-driven pragmatic thinking is like a powerful drug that, in small and controlled doses, can help us grow healthy churches oriented to the salvation of the lost. But, like all powerful drugs, it’s far too easy to overdose or become addicted. That’s why we always need the antidote close at hand. The antidote is the gospel of Christ crucified. And that’s why we need to remember 1 Corinthians 1–4 especially, where Paul applies this gospel to Christian ministry.
How do you know when you need to apply the antidote? Here are a few examples. You need to critique yourself with the gospel of Christ crucified:

  1. Whenever you (or others) find yourself following a particular leader because you’re especially impressed by their human skills in systematic goal-driven ministry thinking.
  2. Whenever you find those you minister to (or yourself) celebrating or becoming fascinated by human know-how, systems, measures, and strength.
  3. Whenever you find yourself despising ministries that seem aimless and weak, while glorifying ministries that are goal-driven and measurably effective.

Actually, you need the gospel of Christ crucified all the time in your ministry. We can never take it for granted. It’s not something we can just assume as a given. It must constantly humble and critique us:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what
is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised
in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so
that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him
you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and
sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts,
boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:27–31)

Conclusion: Taking the gospel seriously

The two appeals in this article ultimately boil down to one thing: we must take the gospel seriously. We need to take the gospel seriously in our purposes, our preaching, and our methods. The gospel of Christ crucified gives us a reason to engage in goal-driven ministry. Yet, at the very same time, it critiques our human-centred goal-driven ministry. We must always remember that the message of the cross isn’t merely a neat package for us to deliver using pragmatic methods. It’s an explosive reality that turns our world upside-down. It destroys all merely human categories of thinking. It constantly critiques everything about us, including our lives, goals, and ministry methods. It must drive us to repentance—both in our personal lives and in our ministries. This will always be uncomfortable and (humanly speaking) inefficient. Yet, it’s vital.
Taking the gospel seriously will drive us to prayer. It will lead us to change and adapt our lives and ministries to win people for Christ—all the while knowing that God is the one who brings salvation and growth. It will sometimes mean adopting some of the world’s goaldriven wisdom in the service of the salvation of the lost. But it will always mean constantly bringing this wisdom back to the light of the gospel of Christ crucified. This is God’s power. God will use this gospel to bring about his purposes. And graciously, he may even use us weak vessels to do it.