Have you ever wondered why a sure-fire church program works well in one church, but not another?

Here’s my take on that phenomena with insight from the story of Abraham and Ishmael.

God made a promise to Abraham. “‘You will have a son of your own, and everything you have will be his.’ Then the Lord took Abram outside and said, ‘Look at the sky and see if you can count the stars. That’s how many descendants you will have'” (Genesis 15:4-5).

The promise would later fade as Abraham waited and waited and waited for the promise’s fulfillment. Connected to that promise was Abram’s longing for a son, and the longing led him to fulfill his desire apart from God.

His wife, Sarai, actually came up with the plan, but Abraham acted on it.

Abraham would take matters into his own hands and have a son with Sarai’s stand-in, Hagar. So he did, and Ishmael was born.

On the surface it looked reasonable and totally justifiable:

  1. It was acceptable by the customs of the day.
  2. It combined human and divine effort, a synergistic effort to fulfill the promise, one part human and one part God. This seemed to be a reasonable, even spiritually responsible, solution.
  3. It would produce a legitimate heir. The laws of that day would recognize the validity of the child as Abram’s heir.

It turned out to be quite the disaster.

Abram and Sarai attempted to fulfill the promise apart from God. They turned to their human ingenuity, rather than waiting on God to fulfill his promise. But Ishmael was not God’s intended fulfillment of the promise.

This is a serious error, even among Christians today. We are tempted to rely on human-centered solutions to ministry challenges. They can seem reasonable and good at first. Then, when they don’t pan out, we discover how wrong they can be.

Hudson Taylor said, “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply.” How wise we would be to follow this advice in today’s ministry contexts while avoiding creating Ishmaels of our own doing.

What do I mean by that? Well, consider this common example from everyday church life:

Church A seeks God in prayer and is convinced that it should begin a new ministry. Let’s say it’s a particular method of community outreach. With inspiration and leading from the Holy Spirit, they creatively design a home-grown approach to outreach. And it’s successful.

Church A has such success with their God-inspired outreach that it packages its method in the form of an off-the-shelf program.

Church B is concerned about decline in attendance. So, in desperation, it looks around for a quick fix. It hears about Church A who has had great success with its community outreach program. Church B figures it’s a sure-fire thing, purchases the program’s how-to-do-it kit and appoints a committee to implement it.

At first, there is some meager success. By the time Church B has been into the program for three months, the workers have lost interest, and few are engaged except two or three guilt-laden people.

What happened? Church B bought a program. It produced an Ishmael.

It would have been wiser to look to God for his direction in developing the strategic ministries that would best fit their particular context.

Perhaps God wanted them to create their own unique outreach ministry. Maybe God intended for them to assess first the particular gifts and interests of their people and allow their outreach strategies to rise out of that mix.

There are numerous cases where a pastor or staff member attends a conference like Catalyst or Exponential or, in former days, Willow Creek or Saddleback. The pastor would return home all fired up to reproduce the programs at the home church, and they failed miserably. Importing an Ishmael from another church can be disappointing.

What should churches do to avoid producing an Ishmael?

1. Be careful when attending a conference.

The experience can be inspiring and encouraging. It can expose a participant to great resources and creative ideas. Use all of that to prime the creativity of one’s own ministry teams.

Resist adopting an off-the-shelf program or ministry. If a program does look promising for your context, take some time for your leadership to reflect, pray and consider the appropriateness of the program. Give your team permission to adapt the program or only use portions of it.

2. Assemble a team of willing and creative servants to pray, dream and discern the new direction and ministry strategies that God wants to birth in your particular context.

These strategies should be unique to your people’s giftings and their passion for ministry. They should be shaped by the culture of your town, city or neighborhood.

3. Whatever new ministry you launch, make sure that it is in alignment with your church’s mission, vision, values and other strategic initiatives.

Make sure you can articulate how a particular new ministry will help the congregation as a whole attain its overall mission.

In many instances, a program fails because the church took a shortcut and produced an Ishmael. Resist the urge to adopt someone else’s pre-packaged ministry.

Instead, take time to pray, research, explore, dream and discuss before launching any new ministry.

Ask the Holy Spirit to birth ministries that rise out of your people’s dreams, passions and skills. Give permission for creativity and experimentation.

Maybe the pre-packaged ministry will be a right fit and will be productive.

On the other hand, it might be better to design your own. Some of the most successful ministries are home-grown and will never be packaged for mass consumption.

And that is a good thing. Just like tomatoes, the best church ministries are often home-grown.

Charles Revis is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Northwest. A version of this article first appeared on the ABC-NW blog and is used with permission.

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