God often uses the most ordinary people to carry out his extraordinary mission.
My wife, Heidi, and I are good examples of that truth.
After our wedding, we moved into a large apartment complex. We sensed God wanted this to be our “mission field,” so we thought we’d start a small group to reach out to unbelievers who lived there. Yet we had no idea where to start. So I asked Glen Elliott, who was at that time serving as associate minister at the church we attended in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I don’t think you should do a Bible study yet,” Glen said.
“Why not?” I asked. “Don’t you think it would be a good way to reach lost people there?”
“It may be,” Glen replied. “But I think you should start by building friendships with people, praying for them, and then, when the time seems right, inviting some of those friends to a group.”
“How will we know when the time is right?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Just pray. The Holy Spirit will let you know,” he said.
That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. My pragmatic nature wanted a specific date and a 10-point list of how to’s. But we did what Glen suggested—making friends, praying, watching for the Spirit to move. We found out where people liked to gather and hung out with them: at the swimming pool, in the laundry room, in the front lobby. We looked for opportunities to develop friendships as we rode the elevator, had meals together, and helped people who were moving in.
Eventually we were invited to and attended various parties and game nights at others’ apartments. We asked our new friends about themselves, listened to them, loved them, and didn’t judge them. But we lived as Christ followers before them.
A year and a half later we were still befriending, praying, and watching. I thought Glen was crazy. We wondered if the Holy Spirit would ever “let us know.” Then one evening the apartment building manager stopped me. She told me that Sigma, who lived in the building with her boyfriend, Vic, had been approached by a member of a cult on her college campus and invited to attend a Bible study with them. Sherry asked me to talk to Sigma about this group.
Sigma and about eight other people from the building were sitting around a table by the swimming pool. I told Sigma what I knew and answered her questions. In the midst of our conversation, a big, longhaired guy who often reeked of pot spoke up: “So, Mike, you don’t think Sigma should go to this group’s Bible study, right?”
“Right,” I confirmed.
“So . . . why don’t we just start our own Bible study here?”
Someone else chimed in, “Yeah, I’d come to that!”
Another person said, “Me too. In fact, I’ll host it in my apartment and make food for everyone.”
Yet another said, “Why don’t we have it at a different person’s apartment each week, and whoever hosts can provide food?”
“Do you think we could invite other people from the building too?” another chimed in.
I sat there as they planned the whole thing.
Then the apartment building manager jumped in. “This sounds great, but we need someone who knows the Bible to teach. Mike, would you lead it?”
I don’t know. I’m waiting for the Holy Spirit to let me know.
The thought only lasted a second. I said yes and a week later we started a study on Jesus and the basics of Christianity. During the second meeting, Vic asked me a simple question: “So, Mike, how does someone become a Christian?” I immersed Vic in the swimming pool early the next day, a Sunday morning, waking up half the building when Vic let out a whoop as he entered the cold water. Countless people watched the baptism from their windows.
Sigma gave her life to Christ about a year later. Eventually everyone in that group turned their lives over to Jesus as Savior and Lord, some after we had moved from the building.
I believe my experience illustrates at least four important principles.
We Are in a Human-Divine Partnership
“God’s work is accomplished by a combination of human and divine effort,” said Joe Ellis in Church on Target. “We cannot do it without him; he has ordained not to do it without us. We depend on each other.”
Perhaps you sense that God put you in your neighborhood for a bigger reason than just a place to live. Maybe you see it as a potential mission field. But making disciples among your neighbors may still seem like a daunting task. Perhaps you’re not comfortable leading or you don’t think you know enough to teach.
I had been a Christ-follower less than two years when Heidi and I started that small group in our apartment building. Most of the time I didn’t know the answers to their questions, so I admitted as much . . . and we discovered answers from the Bible together as a group.
One of the ways the Bible describes followers is as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). God is the real leader in any ministry. Know that he is already drawing your neighbors to himself (John 6:44; 12:32). We may play our part by planting the seed of the good news, or God may use us to water the seed someone else has planted. But God is the real leader who makes things grow (see 1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
Ministry effectiveness has more to do with God’s power than our abilities. Our priority is to stay connected with Jesus, the vine, and he will produce fruit through us (John 15:1-16).
God Works According to His Plan and His Timing
The Great Commission is God’s mission to save humans from our sin and reconcile the world to himself. But he works according to his own plans and timetable. Working with God has been compared to sailing. We can’t create the wind that moves the boat. That’s God’s job. And we can’t move without the wind. But we can prepare ourselves, wait, and watch for the wind God sends, and then be ready to hoist the sails when the winds come. We depend on each other!
Waiting on God to Move Is Not Passive
We do not sit idly by while waiting for God to move. God has already given every Christian his mission to go and make disciples. He places us in neighborhoods and workplaces and families and in a variety of situations where we can shine his light before the people he has put around us. He has provided us with just the right spiritual gifts to do what he has called us to do.
Do what God has already prompted you to do. Some examples of things you can do as you wait: Regularly take walks around your neighborhood. Talk to people. Place a bench in your front yard and hang out there rather than in a fenced-in backyard. Invite neighbors to a barbeque. Make friends. Pray. Love. Represent him well.
Never Lead Alone
Win and Charles Arn wrote, “Disciple-making is most effective when it is a team effort.” I like how Eugene H. Peterson put it in The Message translation of Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10: “It’s better to have a partner than go it alone. Share the work, share the wealth. And if one falls down, the other helps, but if there’s no one to help, tough!” As I pointed out in my booklet, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, leading alone often leads to frustration, ineffectiveness, and eventual burnout. Instead, gather a core team together to help you lead. You’ll not only be more effective and bear more fruit, you’ll also find, as I have, that it’s more fun to lead as a team!
God tends to use “unschooled, ordinary” people to make a difference in the world (see Acts 4:13 for example). He can use you, too! He is waiting for you to step up and say, “Use me!” Mother Teresa once said, “I’m just a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” Take that same humble yet faithful attitude into your neighborhood!
Michael C. Mack serves as editor of Christian Standard, contributing editor for The Lookout, and owner of Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).