Written in April 2002 for a book on Youth Ministry edited by Duffy Robbins
THE LEADERSHIP STYLE OF JESUS
The first chapter of Mark gives a crisp and comprehensive picture of what Jesus’ style of leadership was like.
1. His first public act was his baptism by John (v. 9), a thing which was not necessary for him but which he subjected himself to so that he could identify with the people he came to serve. He was the Lord of creation who took upon himself the form of a bondservant (Phil. 2:6-8). As part of his identification with his disciples he spent time in the home of Peter (vv. 29-31). He also visited homes of unbelievers and new believers. Because the home is the most important place in most people’s lives, visiting homes is a great means of identifying with people. He walked at least 20 miles to the funeral of the brother of two of his female disciples and identified so much with their sorrow that, even though he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he wept (John 11:35).
When Jesus went to Peter’s home he saw his mother-in-law sick and healed her (vv. 30-31). Later he broke with custom to touch an “untouchable” leper when healing him (v. 41). Meeting needs was a key part of his ministry (vv. 23-35). When we identify with people we see needs and adjust our ministry to meet those needs, sometimes doing things we never dreamed we would do. As their servants (2 Cor. 4:5) our focus is on their needs and not our preferences.
I find that the older I get the harder I have to work at my talks to teenagers. I need to know what their questions are and see how we can give biblical answers to them. This takes a lot of time, and even though I have been speaking to youth for about 36 years I am still quite nervous before I speak, much to the amusement of my younger colleagues. If we are to be good servants of youth we will need to work really hard at identifying with them, devoting for them what others may consider a waste of time and resources.
2. Before he started his public ministry we find that Jesus got many priorities straightened out. The Spirit anointed him for his work (v. 10), and God affirmed him about his personal identity and call (v. 11). Then he retreated into the wilderness to fast and pray, and to be tempted by Satan about the priority of being committed God’s will over all other attractions (vv. 12-13). After an extremely busy and exhausting Sabbath day, he rises up early in the morning and goes to a quiet place to pray (v. 35). Later we have many references to his spending time alone in prayer.
If Jesus needed to consciously concentrate on the priorities of his relationship with God and his will, how much more should we. Youth workers can get their primary identity and fulfillment from busy activity and from the people they minister to. Some often work themselves into spiritual deadness and burnout by not replenishing their spiritual lives. Some cling to their youth so closely that they can’t release them when they need to. Some concentrate more on the tie that the youth have with the youth program and the youth worker rather than their tie with God and his Word, and they fail to prepare them adequately to live for God in the world.
Three years ago, when I turned fifty, I made a list of the biggest battles I have in life, and first on that list was finding adequate time to pray. Last year I celebrated twenty-five years in Youth for Christ and was asked to write an article for our prayer bulletin. I wrote on what I felt was the most important thing I have done as a youth worker. I said I did not think I did enough of it, but the little I did was the most important thing I did. I was talking about prayer. We must put first things first if we are to have effective long-term ministries.
3. All three answers that Jesus gave during his temptations came directly from the Scriptures. This signaled a pattern that he followed in his ministry. The New Testament records Jesus citing the Old Testament at least ninety times. While we need to be relevant to the needs of youth, our entire ministry must spring from the Scriptures. This is a discipline to work hard at, because youth workers could be satisfied by attracting crowds through relevant programs that fail to adequately equip youth with biblical principles to live healthy Christian lives in society.
4. Mark summarizes the message Jesus preached as, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (v. 15). Jesus had a clear conviction that his was the message that the people had been eagerly waiting for. It was a message of such importance that it called for the radical response of repentance and faith.
However uninterested or hostile to the gospel people may be, we go to them with the confidence that the gospel answers their aspirations, and is so important that without it they are eternally lost. This confidence drives us to find out what their felt needs are and to seek ways to communicate this message so that they would respond by giving their lives to Christ. If not for this conviction I would have despaired in our work of reaching youth from other faiths and gone to something easier. We face so much opposition! There is so much pain when parents find out that their children have given up the family religion. Of course this means that we must work with the parents too. But the knowledge that this message is the most important news they can hear eliminates the option of giving up this work.
5. Right at the start of his public ministry Jesus selects a few disciples (vv. 16-20). The group expands to a team of twelve, and he does his entire ministry in companionship with them. One of the most significant aspects of his work in the Gospels was being with and ministering to the twelve and equipping them for ministry (Mark 3:14-15). He taught them, went to their homes, washed their feet (John 13:5), prepared their meals (John 21:9-13), and prayed for them (John 17:6-26). Before leaving this world he fired them with a vision of the work they are to do by giving them his Great Commission at least seven times, each time focussing on a different aspect of it.
Similarly we too will encounter a few keen people who will become our primary ministry team. We will open up our lives to them and do our ministry through them. One of the most important tasks of leaders is to be servants of the teams they lead. However busy we are with public programs and urgent tasks, ministering to the team is one thing we cannot neglect. I see the tasks of praying for the teams I lead, spending relaxed time with them and ministering to them as the most important features of my job description. Keeping this group united is a key priority (John 17:11) and, in my case, has been the most absorbing challenge that I have faced in ministry (Eph. 4:3).
The key to remedying the problem with lack of commitment in the church is for leaders to be committed to their people. The example of Jesus in giving his life for his friends was going to motivate these friends to give their lives for each other (John 15:12-13). Similarly when leaders show costly commitment to their people, the people will pay the price of commitment to the group to which they belong. We mustn’t forget that in a majority of the times that the New Testament presents Jesus as an example to follow he is presented as an example of suffering.
Essentially, then, Jesus was a person sent by God with an urgent message to proclaim. He lived in communion with God while identifying with people, working through a team and adopting a lifestyle of costly servanthood in his relationships with others. We may get other helpful principles of leadership from the corporate world. But these principles that our Lord exemplified remain the basic principles of Christian leadership.
Coleman, Robert E. The Master Plan of Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1993.
Coleman, Robert E. The Mind of the Master. Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 2000
Fernando, Ajith. Back to Basics in Ministry (Working title). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1993.