This is the first in a series of four articles. I want to develop this theme into a book. Please send any feedback to [email protected]
We settled down as a family in great anticipation. It was 1984 and I was nine years old. The Sarajevo Winter Olympics were in full flow. As a British family there wasn’t much to cheer for. We didn’t have great skiers, bobsledders or speed skaters. However, we did have our sights on one gold medal; figure-skaters, Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean carried the hopes of a nation desperate for success as they took to the ice for their final routine. We held our collective breath for the next few minutes as Torvill and Dean glided around the rink with flawless synchronisation to the evocative tones of the song Boléro. Upon completion, the crowd showered flowers on the ice in appreciation of the perfection they displayed. The judges sealed the historic moment by rewarding them with the highest scores ever achieved by figure skaters. In our house, and across the nation, we marvelled at how effortless they made it seem.
The perception of effortlessness was only accomplished because they had put in years of hard work. When they received their gold medals they embodied a philosophy of the modern era: effort = rewards.
This philosophy has shaped the 10,000 hours mantra that became popular in the early 21st century through the writing of Michael Gladwell. Following his theory, former international table tennis player, Matthew Syed, writes.
“the path to excellence… is steep, gruelling, and arduous. It is inordinately lengthy, requiring a minimum of ten thousand hours of lung-busting effort to get to the summit.” (Syed, Bounce, 2010:168).
It is easy to see how this approach to life has been embraced by 21st Century Christian leaders. Schooled in the Protestant ethic of hard work and imbibed within the cultural climate of the constant pursuit of success, the goals of most Christian leaders don’t often appear much different from their unbelieving counterparts. It is not uncommon for this philosophy to also encroach on our ministry, believing that our results are determined by a combination of our giftedness and effort.
Superficially, it may appear there is nothing wrong with these ideals. Yet, I have some nagging questions. What if the results we are seeing in our lives are a fraction of what God has for us? What if we are merely leading a merry dance of performance-based Christianity, akin to secular ambition? What if the way we disciple people is leading them to greater dependence on themselves rather than the Holy Spirit? What if life in Christ is meant to be different from the simple equation of success being directly proportional to the amount of effort we put in?
I believe it’s time to rethink how we view the success-based (Western-influenced) worldview, particularly in relation to how we approach leadership. We need to have our minds renewed (Romans 12:2). I believe that we are called to lead with exponential impact that is disproportionate to our efforts. In fact, Scripture doesn’t use the language of success but of fruitfulness. The source of fruitfulness is not our effort, but reliance on the Holy Spirit. In this paradigm, the end goal is not popularity and plaudits, but Spirit-inspired, God-exalting worship.
I believe this approach to life and leadership emanates throughout the whole of the bible. The scene is set in Genesis. From the mandate to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), through to God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be countless, and a blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:2-3). Then in Genesis 26:12, we see a physical example of the effortless principle in action where the Lord blesses Isaac and provides him with a life-changing hundredfold harvest. The language here provides the context for Jesus’ promise that those who receive the good seed of the Gospel will produce a crop… “some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown” (Mark 4:20). Jesus is clearly not talking about personal prosperity but about Kingdom fruitfulness. The fruit was disproportionate to the effort because it is based upon receiving and believing the Word! As Jesus went on to say in John 15:8, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
I describe this approach to leadership as the effortless paradigm. It’s not that there is no effort on our part. Rather, the fruit is disproportionate to our effort to the extent that, when observing what is happening, we have to admit that we played a minor role which, in reality, was effortless. The effortless paradigm is embodied in the beautiful promise of Isaiah 60:22, “The least of you will become a thousand and the smallest a mighty nation. I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly.”
The effortless paradigm is a counter-cultural approach to life, ministry and leadership which starts with laying down our own selfish ambition and committing to a life of Gospel ambition. When we look at this objectively, who wouldn’t want to live effortlessly? When we operate in the success paradigm, it leads to the all-too-common results of exhaustion, frustration, anxiety, stress and burnout. But when we live a Spirit-empowered life that is dependent upon Christ, it enables us to have a sustained impact for the long haul.
I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he referred to the abundant life in John 10:10. It is also the kind of faith that Paul exhorts us to have as we trust in God who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, because His power works within us (Ephesians 3:20).
This should be our testimony to the world; that the fruitfulness of our lives is not dependent on how smart we are or how much effort we have had to put in. Rather, the fruit is disproportionate to our effort and therefore, by comparison, it is effortless because all fruitfulness is a gift of God’s grace and declares his glory. Richard Foster put it like this,
“…one of the clearest signs of the grace of God upon us is when the results of our labour are far in excess of the amount of work we do” (Foster 1992:183).
So, what am I advocating then? Is the Christian life a spectator sport where we sit and observe God at work while we laze around? Not at all! In the next few articles, I want to explore three paradoxes of effortless leadership which are tensions that we live with as those on mission with Jesus. It is in the seeming paradoxes of waiting and working; striving and surrender; struggle and security that we find the sweet spot for Kingdom fruitfulness.