One of the common myths of the Second World War is that the Germans were equipped with far better weaponry. It is certainly true that German equipment was often technically more advanced. They were the first to introduce jet aircraft into the front line (the Me262 fighter and Arado 234 light bomber) and use ballistic missiles (the VI “cruise missile” and V2 rocket). Much western and Soviet military technology of the 1950s-70s, especially aircraft design, was based on captured German technology or the expertise of captured German scientists. As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landings, we would do well to reflect that it was largely a German achievement, building on their rocket programme and led by Werner Von Braun.

Although individual German equipment, such as the Tiger Tank, might have been more technically advanced, this does not mean that it was superior to the Allied equipment. My colleague Adrian Reynolds encouraged me to read James Holland’s recent book Normady’44, where he thoroughly deconstructs this myth. His assessment is that German military equipment was over engineered and too sophisticated for the task at hand. It was difficult to manufacture, more expensive to build, harder to operate and near impossible to repair in the field. Allied equipment was more rudimentary but more robust, cheaper to produce, easier to operate and simple to repair. Individually each item might have been slightly inferior, but collectively it did the job much more effectively in the conditions of the front-line.

The Tiger Tank, for example, had an incredibly complex 6-speed hydraulic gearbox. In contrast the Allied Sherman has a simple 4-speed manual gearbox based on conventional automotive designs. Only 1,347 of the complex Tigers were built, compared to 49,000 Shermans. The German Panther Tank has 18 wheels that were interleaved, which all had to be removed before any could be replaced. The standard German machine gun, the MG42, could fire 1,400 rounds per minute. However, it took 75 man-hours to manufacture compared to 45 for the Allied equivalents, and cost roughly twice as much to make. The rate of fire meant that the barrel overheated, requiring multiple barrel changes such that German machine gun squads had to carry at least six spare parts.

It seems to me that there are parallels with our gospel ministry.  We are involved in spiritual warfare, but we can all too easily make the task more complex than it needs to be. God has supplied us with all that we needed to fight and win the battle. We wear his armour for protection, and our weapons are the gospel-word and prayer. Gospel ministry ought to be fundamentally simple: Glorify God, love people, pray for opportunities and boldness, tell people about Jesus.

The danger is that we over-engineer these fundamentally basic tasks. We complicate the message and the method, and insist on such a high level of training for the messengers that we cannot meet the needs of the hour. For example, sermons become overly complex lectures on systematic or biblical theology that do no preach Christ with a clarity and directness. Evangelism becomes high-level academic apologetics addressing the questions that most ordinary people are not even asking. We presume that a high level of education is essential for pastoral ministry. I am astounded by the job adverts that assume that a Doctorate or Postgraduate degree is somehow a necessary qualification for pastoral ministry. Some  seminaries spend years teaching their students a high level of competence in biblical languages that is, in all likelihood, of marginal benefit to their gospel effectiveness. Ministers can parse Hebrew but not connect with people. This desire for technical mastery is a feature of conservative evangelicalism and deeply rooted in our history, and our idolatry of academic and social respectability.

I am not at all rejecting the need for a high level of ministry competence, nor for appropriate spiritual gifting. However there comes a point at which we need to have confidence that what we have is adequate for the task in hand, no matter how much we could improve it. There is always an opportunity cost in working to achieve further marginal improvement, meaning that there are other vital things we will not be able to do. A pastor who expects to spend 20 hours a week preparing a 35 minute sermon, for example, will inevitably have less time for other ministry activities that might grow and build his church more effectively than the marginal gains to his message produced by the last 5 or even 10 hours of his sermon preparation.

This tendency to over-engineer ministry also makes it harder to multiply ministry. If we make evangelism over-complex and intellectual, requiring lengthy training, then it is no wonder that we fail to produce confident church members who can speak simply to others about Jesus. We set examples and establish expectations that disempower them and make them feel inadequate and incapable of ever attaining the skills we have inadvertently taught to be essential. The most rapidly growing evangelical movement around the world is Pentecostalism, which has a less intellectual approach to gospel ministry but far greater scale and ability to deploy members to work in evangelism. There is much we could learn from it.

The vast majority of the work of the gospel in the world today is, as it always has been, done by relatively uneducated church members who love Christ, rely on the power of his Spirit, pray fervently, and have confidence that the simple gospel message declaring Jesus to be Lord is God’s power for salvation. They are the equivalent of the Allied Shermans, less sophisticated but adequate, and they get the job done. We can too easily be the equivalent of the German Tigers, individually more advanced but unable to be produced in enough quality and insufficiently robust to thrive in the front-line.

We need to avoid the danger of over-engineering gospel ministry. It looks more impressive but is wasteful, unnecessary and ultimately reflects a lack of confidence in what God has supplied that will win the war.

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This blog appeared on Tim Challies, INFORMING THE REFORMING; June 24, 2019.