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Replicating Jesus’ Team-Building Strategy In Your Church

By Neil B. Wiseman

The way Jesus led amazed the world. No one before Him ever attracted prospective lay leaders with revolutionary, demanding ideas like submission, sacrifice, and service. But He did. He astonished everyone even more when He used grace and love to sculpt disciples into sturdy Christians who became key members of the start-up team of the Early Church.

His leadership strategies astounded the Romans who ruled the world with military might. His ways confused the Greeks who valued culture as the cornerstone of civilization. And He amazed the Jews who lived by strict observance of the Law. They also could not believe their Messiah would die on a cross.

Our Lord’s strategy also stands in sharp contrast to what is sometimes found in churches today. Some congregations have become enamored by leadership concepts borrowed from the corporate sector. Admittedly, we have discovered some leadership strengths in this process. However, some unwanted by-products — image, slick, manipulation, and hunger for power — have also turned up. Other churches, at the opposite extreme, have chosen control, status quo, and seniority as the stifling qualities they most desire in lay leaders.

Jesus provided a miraculous remedy for both of these extremes that are sometimes found in today’s churches. Whenever the Twelve asked questions concerning position, power, or privilege, the Master quietly changed the discussion to service, sacrifice, and self-forgetfulness. He taught them, and us, that lasting satisfaction is found in giving ourselves away in spendthrift service.

Our Lord appealed to the disciples’ inner longing, a longing that is shared by every human being — the desire to make life count. As they responded to His call, He shaped each disciple’s talents, backgrounds, and experiences into a force for the gospel. He showed them who they were and gave them a vision of what they could become. Jesus not only showed them how to “do” ministry; He also took time to explain the “why” of ministry. He even gave them the mind-boggling promise that they would do even greater things than He had done.

That promise turned into historical fact as we can see from even a quick reading of the record of the Early Church. As Christianity marched across the pages of the Book of Acts, the Church adjusted its organizational patterns as it grew from 12 to 120, then to thousands of new believers. But even though organizational patterns changed for increased efficiency, they did not lower the spiritual qualifications for potential lay leaders. Nowhere are the qualifications stated more concisely and clearly than in Acts 6, a passage that describes the selection of the first group of lay leaders.

The list of required qualifications included common sense, faith, a good reputation, and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Notice that the first group of seven were chosen to serve, not to decide. Their first assignment was to wait tables and the second was to help settle grievances among church widows.

Surprisingly, two of the seven chosen to serve tables and settle misunderstandings soon found themselves in the thick of battle. Stephen became the first martyr. His witness he gave at his execution has influenced the world for generations through the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Philip opened the Samaritan and Ethiopian worlds to the gospel. The victories continue page after page in the Book of Acts as the first-century Christians do God’s work from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus commanded.

For our churches and ministries, we must ask several pressing questions: How does the dynamic way Jesus trained and gathered His disciples speak to the work of the church today? How did He do it? And how can we learn from Him? To make the application more specific, how can pastors develop lay leaders today?

Use Truth And Grace To Draw People To Christ

Jesus drew people with truth, grace, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness, and service. His self-giving love attracted people; His warmth drew them like a magnet. Like every generation for 2,000 years, getting close to Jesus produces a spiritual contagion called servanthood.

Today, every pastor has dual responsibility as shepherd of people and as head of his church. And there need not be competition between the two. Obviously, a pastor cannot allow his responsibility for people to be undermined by a church’s institutional demands. But neither can the pastor allow the institutional church to be ignored or destroyed.

The choice is not between individual or institution, but how to make both strong and healthy so they are mutually beneficial to each other. The need is to weave love, grace, trust, sacrifice, and service into the fiber of all the church does, especially into the details of the work of the decision-making group.

Maximize Impact Of Intangible Resources

The church has tangible resources that need to be managed well — money, property, and personnel are examples. The grass has to be cut, pews cleaned, newcomers welcomed, and bills paid.

But unlike most secular organizations, the church has intangibles that make it unique, significant, and different from every other organization on earth. Though the intangibles never appear in budget reports, checkbooks, pdas, or calendars, they are among the most real realities in the work of God. These realities need to be described, defined, cherished, and applied to the entire ministry of the church, especially to the development of lay leaders.

Cherish The Uniqueness Of People

Jesus chose disciples who had incredible differences in their personalities, perspectives, and backgrounds.

Check the diversity in Scripture: Peter was a hot reactor, a talk-before-you-think character. John had a burn-up-the-village mentality, but was later called the beloved. Matthew was a loathed tax collector. Thomas was called the doubter. Andrew showed the traits of a live-out-of-the-limelight personal evangelist.

Every disciple had a separate, important function. Together the disciples made up a team with complementary abilities that impacted their world for the gospel. That amazingly diverse group is a clear demonstration that Jesus highly values individuals.

The apostle Paul, who had experience with hard-to-lead people, explained how uniqueness and unity combine to strengthen the work of a church: “The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body — that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your ‘part’ mean anything” (1 Corinthians 12:25–27, The Message).1

Perhaps these differences are part of our Lord’s strategy to help us realize complementary giftedness makes the church strong, healthy, and effective. Management leader and author Peter Drucker unpacks the idea even more when he says, “A common mistake is to believe that because individuals are all on the same team, they all think alike. Not so. The purpose of a team is to make the strengths of each person effective, and his or her weakness irrelevant.”2

For the maximum use of complementary gifts and skills, a pastor might consider this advice from professional baseball manager Joe Torre: “You have to take the pulse of your players, so you know who needs in-depth personal attention and who doesn’t, who needs coaching and who doesn’t, who needs a private dialogue with you and who doesn’t, who you can count on in tough spots and who you can’t.”3

The dynamic of what made it work near the dawn of Christian history was centered on Jesus who talked the talk and walked the walk. But there was more — to borrow a phrase from Coach Vince Lombardi, Jesus understood and used the fact that “a leader’s walk talks.” Like our Lord, the pastor has to talk the talk, walk the walk, and always remember that his walk talks.

Every eye in the congregation is on the pastor. Almost everything a pastor says or does sends a strong message about what he believes and what is important to him.

Make Use Of Training Opportunities

Check the biblical record again to see how Jesus related to His disciples. He saw them through eyes of potential, and developing their potential was high on His list of priorities. As a result Jesus was always teaching His disciples how to live, how to relate to each other, and how to win the world.

Jesus used active ministry to develop His disciples. He gave them intense on-the-job training. He talked with them, prayed with them, affirmed them, warned them, and challenged them. He cared for them and trusted them. He shaped their perspective and strengthened their souls. They saw how He loved people. They learned much from receiving His ministry — a personal impact they could not get in a classroom.

Jesus’ teaching and their learning often took place on hillsides, roadways, and seashores. As they traveled together, Jesus drilled them on the fundamentals of love, forgiveness, transformation, dependence on God, and holy living. He stretched their spiritual stamina almost to the breaking point when He took them to Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the empty tomb.

Better People Equal Stronger Churches

Jesus developed spiritually sturdy people and then used them as key personnel for the work of the gospel. Regrettably, too many church decision-making groups today view their role as that of a corporate board of directors rather than as a team of spiritual pilgrims. As a result, some churches are run as a commercial venture — the church then becomes a human organization rather than a holy organism. In those settings a person is often chosen to lead for what he knows, whom he knows, or what he owns rather than for who he is or what he can become. Sometimes lay leaders mistakenly view themselves as holding an office rather than being servants of the Lord and His church.

The results can be frightening when a church becomes a well-oiled machine that does good works rather than becoming a redemptive force that offers miraculous transformation. Or, in other settings, the church may become like a mom-and-pop convenience store where everybody knows everybody rather than being a rescue station for persons drowning in despair and brokenness.

But the situation need not be so glum. Often when lay leaders are shown the possibilities and taught the obligations of the servant side of leading, they sense a need in themselves to establish a closer personal connection with Jesus. Wonderful new adventures take place in their inner life as they draw nearer to Him. As a result, they often experience an all-out-for-others perspective, a fulfilling feeling of belonging, an imaginative creativity, a holy energy, a sense of partnership with God, and a confidence that hindrances can be overcome.

Their new relationship with other believers and their closer connection with Jesus make the lay leader a better person and a stronger Christian — a noble serendipity that is often overlooked. The exercise and discipline strengthens their spiritual stamina. They help create positive peer pressure that encourages others to keep at the task. Morale snowballs. They grow in Christlikeness. And outsiders are attracted to the church.

Serving on a church decision-making group can radically transform individuals from spectators to team players and from critics to advocates.

Inspire With Purpose

In western society — after having food, shelter, and clothing needs met — people want to know if their lives have meaning, if they count for something, if living is worthwhile. Researchers Richard Leider and David Shapiro conclude, “Having lived a meaningless life is one deadly fear of most people.”4

Jesus answered the meaning question with a concise 14-word summary: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). As He developed His disciples into authentic, wholesome Christians, He was preparing them to establish the Early Church. He showed them agape love. He gave them opportunities to grow, to test their talents, to succeed, to make mistakes, and even to embarrass themselves. He seemed willing to do almost anything to help them succeed.

Give Them A God-Sized Mission

This concept was radical and visionary in Jesus’ time. Think of it — an itinerant teacher challenging a small group of ordinary followers to win the world. Occasionally Jesus’ followers must have turned to each other and said, “Does He know who we are? He must be exaggerating. No one has ever won the entire world.”

Although there were only 11 disciples after the defection of Judas, their Master gave them the Great Commission. With that assignment He promised to empower them and to be with them even to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20). Eleven plus One made them so invincible in spreading the gospel that the world has not been the same since.

That is our Lord’s pattern for then and now. He gives His church a task so great it requires their best all-out effort plus wholehearted dependence on God. The personal serendipity is that the disciples then and lay leaders now develop spiritually as His divine empowerment works through them.

Expect Conflicts

The gospel by its nature creates conflicts. It is always calling people to change, and change often causes resistance, and resistance produces conflict. So the gospel replaces old with new, sin for salvation, status quo for transformation, darkness for light, brokenness for wholeness — and the list could continue indefinitely. Such drastic changes will disturb somebody — count on it. Pastoral leaders must make sure conflict is rooted in the gospel instead of their opinion or strong need to control.

Conflict caused by the demands of the gospel should be welcomed and resolved. The objective is to manage conflict so it is creative and useful — not destructive. People should be free to stand up for what they believe provided they do so in humility and with respect for others.

Leaders often worry needlessly about possible conflict. Many issues that might be expected to harm a church seldom happen. Calvin Coolidge’s advice needs to be considered: “Never go out to meet trouble. If you will just sit still, in nine out of 10 cases someone will intercept it before it reaches you.”5

Make The Decision-Making Group A Loving Fellowship

In the local church, and especially among decision makers, most issues revolve around human relationships. Part of the process Jesus used to get His disciples ready for His departure was to show them how to love each other and to love Him better. He taught them that love is the main ingredient of everything the church does. Love connects people to the Lord. Love is the motivating force in every effective church. Love overlooks faults and failures. Love treats others the way we want to be treated. Love attracts people to the Lord. Love is the basic distinctive of the New Testament church.

When asked to quote the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).

My friend summarized it well: “Calvary love melts harshness, fosters forgiveness, heals relationships, creates fellowship, and sparks witness.”6

In a time when relational needs and ideas are prevalent, the church needs to be the church. The cry for community has reached a fever pitch in American society, especially among those who are Generation Xers or younger. Words like relationships, family, belonging, home, fellowship, community, teamwork, communion, acceptance, and togetherness must be the everyday language of an effective church. The church must love what the Lord loves — everybody without exception. It must accept the love of the Father as a guide for living. It must love the Lord, and His people, and His world.

Scripture is clear, warm, affirming, and reassuring, too, when Jesus reminds us how important love is in the church: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

The Overwhelming Need For Pastors To Develop Lay Leaders

As we have seen, Jesus’ way of building His church was to build stalwart disciples and then build the Church through them. To implement this idea in a local congregation will require much more than offering a few administrative training sessions. It will require the pastor to do everything possible to help members of the decision-making group become authentic models of the Church within the church.

For that to happen, a confusing dilemma must be recognized and solved. Often, people are selected to serve on key boards and committees who have no idea of what the church is to be. They try to lead something they do not understand.

There are several possible causes. Many serve in churches that are committed to many good things while neglecting their raison d’étre. Other congregations place new converts in key assignments too soon — usually because the veterans are tired, bored, or apathetic. Some churches are led by pastors who do not see the need for developing leaders. Any good ole Joe, Harry, or Jane who are willing to attend a few meetings are good enough. Some churches provide formalized training opportunities without dealing with personal piety and purity, so they have efficiency without spiritual authenticity. Still others believe lay leaders would be offended if they were expected to commit to development and growth as a condition of their leadership. As a result, confusion reigns in too many places.

One good way to work through this muddle is to review what the church is supposed to be. Among the strongest metaphors in Scripture is Paul’s descriptive phrase “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12). Note: not just body, but body of Christ.

Paul rejoices in the complementary ministry of all members of the body of Christ when he writes, “Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love (Ephesians 4:16, NLT,7 italics added).

New Testament scholar William Barclay sharpens our understanding with these inspiring sentences: “The church is the instrument, the agent, the weapon, the organism through which the purposes and the plans of Jesus Christ must be carried out. It is through the church that Jesus Christ seeks to bring life and light and salvation to men and women. Herein is the glory of the church, that the church is the necessary instrument in the hands of Christ”8 The body of Christ — or some might call it the agape family of Jesus — becomes His hands, His feet, His voice, and His love at work in the world. And note the results from Scripture — the Body will be healthy, growing, and full of love.

In His choosing to work through the church, God has taken pastors and lay leaders as His partners in the work of the gospel. Jesus, the Master Teacher, taught His disciples — and teaches all who come after them — that knowing why we serve in His church and knowing whom we serve in His church are equally important with knowing how to serve. The whom we serve is Jesus. The why we serve is to offer new life to everyone.

In Jesus’ development process, three issues are clear: (1) development of lay leaders is needed; (2) development of lay leaders must be continuous; (3) development of lay leaders impacts the person being trained, the church, and the spiritual life of the pastor/trainer.

Pastor friend, go for it.

Neil B. Wiseman

NEIL B. WISEMAN is a writer, speaker, and educator. He also serves as founder and director of the Small Church Institute. He resides in Overland Park, Kansas.


1. Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright ©1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Company.

2. Quoted by h.b. London and Neil B. Wiseman, Becoming Your Favorite Church (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 2002), 40.

3. Joe Torre and Henry Dreher, Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners: 12 Keys To Managing Team Players, Tough Bosses, Setbacks, and Success (New York: Hyperion, 1999), 11,12.

4. As quoted in Laurie Beth Jones, The Path (New York: Hyperion Books, 1996), x.

5. Footnote Calvin Coolidge, quoted in Louis E. Boone, Quotable Business (New York: Random House, 1992), 85.

6. Paul S. Rees, “Lift Up Your Eyes — From Reporting to Interpreting,” World Vision Magazine, November 1973, 23.

7. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

8. William Barclay, The Mind of Paul (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958), 248.

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