The dizzying list of buzz words goes on. Ours is the generation of 20-minute sermons, scrolling through headlines, playing audiobooks at double speed, and feeling phantom vibrations from our pockets long powering off our phones. Immediacy is our currency—and a highly inflated one at that.
But in breathing in this thick cultural air of endless fascination with speed, youth, and novelty, we are almost inescapably predisposed to whatever most quickly delivers measurable results in ministry.
As stewards in God’s world, it is proper for us to care about the returns on our investments in the home, at work, and in ministry. Growth and results are good—in fact, God’s first command (albeit in a different context) was to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28)! The problem arises when our virtual idolatry of the fast, measurable, and replicable is applied to the church of Jesus Christ.
When our anxious expectations go unmet, we trade the ordinary means of grace for the world’s toolkits, not realizing that God’s prescribed methods of ministry are fine-tuned for the long-term flourishing of God’s “field” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). Consequently, we settle for microwaved methods.
Microwaved ministry models can be found everywhere, both in the domestic church and on the mission field abroad. Preoccupied with converts, baptisms, and rapid multiplication, we cut corners on prayer, discipleship, exegesis, and discipline. We sometimes allow the maximal preaching of the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) to be supplanted by the bare minimum needed to achieve our strategic goals, sending untrained and sometimes unconverted “disciples” out into unreached context to do the tough work of evangelism for us.
The negative effects of microwaved strategies are most pronounced in work among the least-reached, which lack the safety net of historic Christianity in a culture. The ubiquity of access to churches and theological resources in North America tends to blind us to the long-term damage of truncated teaching. But the negative effects of truncated, microwaved teaching overseas go largely unaddressed simply because of geography.
“Out of sight, out of mind” unfortunately marks the church’s attitude towards the 87 percent of evangelical fellowships worldwide that are led by untrained pastors. In many such contexts, syncretism can fester unnoticed, young Christian movements can fizzle away, and fair-weather followers can gradually revert to ancestral religions.
We have a problem—one that can’t simply be blamed on the values thrust upon us by our consumer-driven marketing culture. Our pragmatism is a spiritual problem.
Trees Versus Chaff
Psalm 1 lays the foundation of the psalter with its organic metaphors for the wicked and the righteous. The people of God are compared to deeply-rooted, enduring trees to the extent that they meditate upon God’s law (vv. 2-3). The wicked, starved of spiritual nutrition, are as fleeting as dry chaff (v. 4).
Several psalms pick up on this language, including Psalm 92—but there the imagery is slightly different. The righteous are still like trees, flourishing like palms and majestic cedars (v. 12), planted in close proximity to God (v. 13), and bearing fruit even in old age (v. 14). But the unrighteous, according to the writer, “sprout like grass” yet are “doomed to destruction forever” (v. 7).
Why the comparison to grass? I’m no horticulturalist, but I’ve spent enough time plucking crabgrass from my old sidewalk and gravel driveway to realize that grass is characterized by immediate growth and its lack of endurance.
In the worldview of the psalmist, it is the wicked who, like weeds, rapidly multiply and rapidly dissipate. In the parable of the soils, Jesus likened these to the seeds which “fell on rocky ground and immediately… sprang up, since they had no depth of soil” (Matthew 13:5). Such persons endure only for a little while, receiving the gospel with joy but tossing it aside as soon as life becomes difficult (vv. 20-21).
I’m not saying that every rapidly-made disciple is a false convert. I am saying, however, that a common trait of false disciples is the rapidity with which they are made. We must exercise caution. We shouldn’t judge the health of ministry and spiritual formation by the speed of the results. Immediate, visible fruit is not necessarily indicative of true gospel growth.
Psalm 92 illustrates that the true church of Jesus Christ is planted and grown like a cedar in the courts of God—strongly, surely, and slowly. God’s most enduring works among his people are played out over the long-term as the church is built, disciples are made, children are raised in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and Jesus puts his enemies under his feet one-by-one.
The Bible trains us to think of our mission not in terms of microwave speeds but in categories like “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) and “to a thousand generations” (Exodus 20:6). And when we catch a glimpse of God’s glorious eschatological endgame, we will exclaim with the psalmist: “How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!” (v. 5).
A New Way Forward
If building Christ’s church is more like growing a cedar or sequoia and less like cultivating a grass bed, we have to scrutinize our methods and bring them into alignment with those of our Lord and his apostles.
Jesus didn’t reverse-engineer his mission strategy to simply capitalize on “what worked.” Knowing that God had sovereignly ordained all who would come to him (cf. John 6:37), Jesus flipped his missional sales funnel upside-down during his earthly ministry. He front-loaded his public message with the hard sayings first—the weight of the law, the reality of hell, the necessity of self-denial—to ensure the right kind of responses. And when people rejected him and walked away, he entrusted the outcome to God, knowing that he would lose none of those given to him by the Father (cf. John 6:39).
There is nothing wrong with growth or rapidity of results per se. We should pray for God to bless our missionary labors—and quickly, if it be his will! But we cannot prioritize immediate return on investment at the expense of long-term discipleship, spiritual health, and doctrinal stability.
In the short-term, patient evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training may seem unfruitful. Field stories of employing the latest pragmatic methods, after all, certainly make for more enticing newsletters. But our Lord doesn’t give us the option of microwaving the mission. And if we trust him to operate sovereignly (and even slowly) through ordinary gospel proclamation and discipleship, we’ll see him build his church as he promised.
We have much to learn. We must trade our hunger for the immediate and measurable for an emphasis on the biblical gospel, the true cost of discipleship, and a long-term diet of the kind of ordinary preaching, teaching, and church life that shapes generations of healthy disciples over lifetimes.