Empowering new leaders

In my personal Bible reading and journalling over the last few weeks, I have been working my way through the books of Acts.   In God’s providence, I am also reading a fascinating book about church planting movements in South East Asia —T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution: The Story Behind the World’s Fastest Growing Church Planting Movement and How it Can Happen in Your Community!  The authors of the book and developers of the T4T process (Training for Trainers) have based many of their principles of rapid church multiplication on what happened in the book of Acts.

So as I am re-reading the book of Acts, I am struck by how quickly the church is multiplying, and also how quickly relatively new believers are moved into leadership and public ministry.  The principle of empowering and expecting new believers to begin leading others to Christ and starting new churches is key to the development of a church planting movement.

In a later post, we will talk about the T4T book, and its implications for church planting.   But today, I want to comment on those people in the book of Acts whom God used to propel new leaders into significant leadership and ministry.

They recognized their spiritual maturity.   In Acts 6, the church has a leadership problem.   The apostles are no longer able to manage the needs of their burgeoning congregation in Jerusalem, and ask the church to select men who will be assigned the responsibility of distributing food to needy widows.  So in Acts 6:5-6, we see the church in Jerusalem choosing seven men from among them whom they recognize as being full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.  Somehow these seven men had distinguished themselves, even in those early months in the life of the first church. But what is amazing to me is that nothing is ever mentioned about how well these 7 new leaders manage the food distribution. Rather than commenting on their “table-serving”, instead, Acts records how these men began preaching the Gospel publicly.  Stephen performs signs and wonders, boldly confronts the Jerusalem religious hierarchy, earning him the title of the first Christian martyr.  Philip is used mightily of God to plant the first church among the Samaritans and then to lead a high ranking Ethiopian government official to the Lord.   One gets the impression that once the church recognized these men for their spiritual maturity, they then had the confidence and platform for a public ministry.  Their appointment to a leadership role, however mundane, empowered them to do things in ministry that they had not done before, even though those ministries were outside of their original appointment.

They validated their calling.  Then in Acts 9, we read the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion.   Christianity’s chief prosecutor becomes its most ardent missionary.   Saul’s conversion is inextricably tied to his call from God to be God’s “chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  But again, we see the vital role that other believers have in empowering Saul to act upon his calling.  In fact, until Ananias comes and lays his hands on Saul, it is doubtful that Saul even knew what God wanted him to do with his life.   According to Acts 22:10, the Lord informed Saul that only once he got to the city of Damascus, would he be told what he had been assigned to do.   It was Ananias who tells him that Saul is to be the Lord’s witness to all people (Acts 22:15, see also Acts 9:15).   Ananias accepted Saul as a brother in the Lord, healed him of his blindness and baptized him.   But just as importantly, Ananias validated this brand new believer as having a special calling and leadership role.   As a result, we immediately see Saul beginning to preach in Damascus, and leading a group of his disciples (Acts 9:20-25).  We hear nothing more of Ananias’ ministry, but this validation of a brand new believer’s call launches Saul into a ministry that impacts the entire Roman empire and all of church history.

They invited them to exercise their gifts. Finally, we come to Barnabas.   When Saul comes to Jerusalem, it is Barnabas that endorses him to the believers and the apostles, giving him credibility as a brother in the Lord (Acts 9:26-28).  But because of the intense opposition from Saul’s former Jewish colleagues, his life was threatened, and he was forced to abandon any ministry aspirations in the Jerusalem area.   But some time later, when the first multi-cultural church gets off the ground in Antioch, Barnabas takes a trip up to Tarsus to invite Saul to join the pastoral team of which Barnabas appears to be the senior leader.   Again, note that Saul’s first call to “full-time ministry” comes from another believer, rather than direct communication from heaven to Saul.   Barnabas does more than give Saul a job.     Barnabas recognized his gifts and gave him an excellent opportunity in which those gifts could be fully utilized.  

From these three examples, we see an important principle in leadership development.  It is important and even critical to publicly acknowledge the maturity and leadership potential that we see developing among new believers.   Yes, we run the risk of being wrong.   Yes, we can be accused of favoring certain believers.   Yes, those we recognize might become proud.  And yes, as in the case of Barnabas, your young protege may end up taking your place of leadership – and leading you.  But recognizing someone else’s spiritual maturity, calling and gifts is part of our stewardship of those whom God has called us to serve.    By doing so, we can empower and embolden others for ministry – ministry that they would never have dared without that affirmation and recognition.

I am thankful for those who recognized my leadership gifts and placed me in responsible positions while I was still in my 20’s.   Some of the positions I was “given” were not glamorous or even something that I welcomed.  I think of my Language School director assigning me to the housing coordinator for all the language students while I myself was still a 25 year old Tagalog language student.   Initially I resented that additional responsibility, because I saw it as a distraction from my primary task of learning the language.   But because of I was given this responsibility and some corresponding authority, I developed some confidence and courage to make personnel decisions, including some that were not always popular.

Then a few years later while still in my first term, to my great surprise, my Area Director asked me to head up the church planting department for the mission in the Philippines.  Admittedly, I was inexperienced and under-qualified.  I lacked confidence and expressed my reservations.  But my area director gave me his unconditional vote of confidence and assured me of his help and support.  Because my senior leadership was willing to take some risks and entrust significant leadership to me, I gained the confidence to guide other team leaders in making plans for new works and the formation of new church planting teams.    I was by no means a great leader — but I was given the opportunity to develop and learn from my mistakes, and I am deeply grateful for that opportunity.

I hope and pray that I will have the same discernment and courage to recognize the maturity of young men and women, to validate their calling and to invite them to exercise those gifts in significant leadership and ministry roles.

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