God doesn’t want you to plan everything.
Don’t get me wrong. Planning is a beautiful thing. God is a magnificent planner — in the bigness of the universe and the smallest molecules. Many things in life simply do not happen without planning. Stadiums aren’t built, sewer systems aren’t installed, power grids aren’t maintained, children aren’t educated, books aren’t written, churches aren’t planted, weight isn’t lost, and often prayer doesn’t happen without a plan.
Jesus’s Largely Unprogrammed Ministry
And yet the most powerful ministry encounters recorded from Jesus’s life seemed to take place during unexpected, informal, unprogrammed moments. If you skim through the Gospel of John, you’ll see what I mean. Most of what John recorded of Jesus’s ministry — from his baptism to his post-resurrection appearances — were experienced by his followers and observers as unplanned, spontaneous events.
In other words, the picture we get of Jesus’s earthly ministry strategy is not a highly structured three-year plan with a detailed, efficiently executed travel schedule and preaching itinerary. Rather, what we see is Jesus remaining in a state of constant prayer, confident in the Father’s plan, watching for his Father’s initiative (John 5:19), and, in response to that initiative, making decisions to stay or move or preach or heal — decisions that from a human perspective seemed spontaneous.
Not By Might, Nor By Power, But By the Spirit
So what, if anything, does this mean for twenty-first-century Western Christians who live in a very complex technological culture that highly values strategic planning in just about every area in life — from exercise to school to parenting to yard work to our 9-to-5? We must remain aware of and critically evaluate our cultural values. We learn from our culture that success is owing to effective planning and execution. We absorb this value just living in our world.
But the examples in the Gospels and Acts tell us that the kingdom of God is being built according to God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23), not ours (Isaiah 58:8–9). We cannot build the kingdom of God like the new, billion-dollar stadium is being built in Minneapolis. Success for us is not merely a combination of the right goals, the right blueprint, the right budget, the right resources, the right timeline, the right talent, and the right materials. The reason is that we often don’t even know what the key factors are in ministry — what faithfulness and fruitfulness look like in a particular situation or relationship.
God purposely plans to build his kingdom through works of his sovereign Spirit rather than sheer human might and power (Zechariah 4:6). God purposely chooses to build his kingdom using means and people that from a worldly standpoint are weak and foolish (1 Corinthians 1:22–29). God purposes to build his kingdom in ways that are different from the ways the world generally works because the kingdom is a new creation, not part of the old one (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s a new world order (Isaiah 65:17). And therefore it is very important to God that we, as citizens of his better, heavenly country (Hebrews 11:16), do not rest our faith “in the wisdom of man but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).
Some Diagnostic Questions
This is a significant reason why God chose to move like he did in the Gospels and Acts. He wanted to show the world that he exists and rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6), and he wanted his people to not depend on their own wisdom, but to be prayerful, watchful, and responsive in faith when he works in unexpected ways.
And this reason hasn’t changed.
Given our cultural assumptions, we must ask ourselves, how prayerful are we in our plans and programs? I mean, really prayerful.
Are we really asking God for specific things?
Are we really listening? Are we really watching?
Are we flexible and available to respond to an unexpected, unprogrammed move of God?
Do the structures we’ve constructed in our lives and ministries even allow for this?
Do we even want God to move in such ways?
These are just questions. I’m asking them freshly of myself, and so I’ll pass them along to you. This is a diagnostic exercise. We who are often enamored with plans and programs must question our cultural assumptions. We must hold up our lives next to Jesus’s and to the early church, and let them speak into us and our strategies.
God isn’t against ministry plans and programs. The highly structured temple worship described in Leviticus, the complex, multi-dimensional administration required to govern Israel, and the normative rhythm of corporate worship and life together found in the New Testament show us this. God is glorified in good planning.
But God doesn’t want or intend us to plan everything. He is working a highly detailed plan and he wants us to follow his lead — perhaps more than we are today. Let us ask ourselves if and where we may be leaning too much on our own understanding in pursuing God’s kingdom advance.