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Less is More

“Less is More” is a saying made famous by the German designer and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who is regarded as one of the pioneers of modernist architecture. This style contrasted with the architectural style of the day that had featured decorative and ornate lines and shapes. It was best described as simple or even minimalist, with its geometric shapes and straight lines. “Less is more” aptly described the style – stick to the essentials, avoid clutter and pursue utility and efficiency, doing away with anything that serves no useful purpose.

The Motto of the Kingdom of God

“Less is more” could easily be a motto of the Kingdom of God. We see it in many different ways in the ministry of Jesus. Consider the following quotes from Matthew’s Gospel which give glimpses of this upside-down, less is more Kingdom:

  • The meek will inherit the earth. (Matt. 5:5)
  • The first shall be last and the last shall be first. (Matt. 20:16)
  • Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant. (Matt. 20:16)
  • If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matt. 10:39)
  • None is greater than John the Baptist, yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! (Matt.11:11)
  • My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt. 11:30)
  • When you did it to the least of these you did it to Me. (Matt. 25:40)

Many of Jesus’ parables emphasized similar less is more emphases:

  • The parable of the seed and soil (30, 60, 100 times what was planted).
  • The parable of the mustard seed (the smallest seed becomes the largest tree).
  • The parable of the yeast (only a little yeast permeates the whole dough).
  • The parable of the lost sheep (the shepherd places the needs of the 1 above the 99)
  • The parable of the good Samaritan (The one regarded as the “least” did the most to help)
  • The parable of the widow’s offering (the one with the least money gave the “most”).
  • The parable of the prodigal son (the wasteful son was given the greatest feast)
  • The parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (the most sinful was the most justified)

Not only did Jesus talk about “less is more”… He lived it. Consider the following incidents:

  • Water to wine (produced more than was needed: 100+ litres!).
  • Loaves and fishes (5 loaves and 2 fish feed 5,000, 7 loaves and a few fish to feed 4,000)
  • The great haul of fish - twice (abundance following scarcity)
  • Forgiving the most sinful (Zaccheus, adulterous woman)
  • Healing the most insignificant (Blind Bartimaeus, Gentile woman’s demon-possessed daughter, centurion’s son)
  • Blessing the children (Important adults were told to become like unimportant children)
  • Investing in just twelve disciples (who were “average” at best)
  • Unhurried, yet finished His work. (“I only do what I see the Father doing.” (Jn. 5:19))
  • Leaving the sick and needy to be alone with His Father (Jesus accomplished more by doing less)

Consider this final point. Who wouldn’t love to accomplish more by doing less?!

When less has been more

As I look back, I see a number of instances where someone’s “less” accomplished more in me. There was the young man who saw me looking lost at my first youth group social event and kept an eye on me and talked to me. There was the young leader who noticed when I was absent one week and visited me at home to talk about the teaching I had missed. Then there was the denominational youth leader who encouraged me to train as a youth pastor after spending time talking with me one to one. Finally, there was the couple who stood by me and supported me when I was facing criticism and was tempted to quit the ministry.

In each instance, the time and energy they invested in me was small compared to the fruit that was borne. I have literally talked to hundreds of leaders about these people and the effect they had on me. I’m sure many of you have similar stories.

Some of you will also have stories of how small things you have said and done had a big impact in the lives of others. I think of the man I visited in prison who expressed a desire to talk with me, fifteen years after he’d left our youth group. The thing he remembered most was me taking time to play basketball with him after our weekly prayer breakfasts before he headed off to school. There was also the father who approached me at a youth ministry training day his daughter was attending. He wanted to thank me for the talk I’d had with him when he was a student that challenged him to set his life back on track. Then there was the girl who confessed the only reason she agreed to become a youth leader was that I believed in her. Thirty years later she is on the preaching roster in her church.

“Less” can produce “more”, but often it takes time for the “more” to become apparent.

What can we do then that is practical in order to produce this “more” in our ministries – without  having to work longer hours.

Psalm 40:1-3 gives us some insights.

1 I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
    and he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
    out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
    and steadied me as I walked along.
3 He has given me a new song to sing,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
    They will put their trust in the Lord.

Patience

1 I waited patiently for the Lord to help me,
    and he turned to me and heard my cry.

It seems counterintuitive but the older I get the more patient I become in doing ministry. Generally, youth leaders are not patient. We jump from one great idea to the next and we want to see results now! Yet As time becomes shorter I’m more willing to wait on God and allow Him to do what He wants to do, when He wants to do it.

When I started working for CCCNZ as their youth enabler I wanted to build a national team. Two years into my role I’d got to know people well enough to approach a number of potential candidates. Almost all said no, not because it was a bad idea but because they had good reasons to decline. Two years later, the time was right and the team started coming together with very little effort. If I had been more patient I’d have seen that less can be more.

In his book, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”, author Alan Kreider sets out to identify why the church was able to grow so quickly during a time of great opposition and persecution. His conclusion was that they prized the quality of patience rooted in an unshakeable conviction that “God Himself is patient, working inexorably across the centuries to accomplish His mission”. He noted that “patience is not in a hurry; it accepts incompleteness and waiting and is not found in human attempts to manipulate outcomes.”

One of the verses that governs my approach to ministry is John 5:19, “I can do nothing by myself. I only do what I see the Father doing.” If this would only become our mantra I suspect we may do less but accomplish more.

Substance

2 He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
    out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
    and steadied me as I walked along.

How good a grasp of the Christian faith do our young people have? A few years ago we did a “walk through the Bible” experience with our youth group in which we covered the lives of about ten important Biblical characters. For each, we planned a fun related activity such as finding the largest leaf they could (Adam) or making a paper boat that holds a weight and floats for 1 minute (Noah). Before we began we gave them the 10 names and asked them to place them in the order in which they appeared in the Biblical narrative. Few managed it correctly; even most of the youth leaders struggled! (At the end of the night they almost all got it right)

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I recall the principal of a Bible college once telling me that most of their first-year students are similarly hazy about how all the Bible stories they knew, fitted together.

I wonder if the reason for this lack of very basic knowledge is that we’ve spent too much time either playing games or talking topically about the issues young people face and throwing in some verses to help them. Imagine teaching maths this way? Or science? Try reading some of the textbooks your years 13’s are using at school? Is it any wonder they get bored with our content? In some cases, it’s a repeat of what they heard in year 9.

When I was thirteen we didn’t have “youth group”. It was called Bible class and it was overseen by our church’s Christian education committee. I know, it all sounds so old fashioned now, but words matter and what we call something somehow predicts what it will become.

Less is more when the “less” provides young people with “solid ground” to stand on. This solid ground includes knowing what we as Christian believe and why. Perhaps we need to start handing out our own year 13 “textbooks”: a concordance, a commentary and a systematic theology book.

One of the more effective programmes I have run with young people was simply called “Solid”. It was held on a separate night from our weekly youth programme and during it, the young people who came studied, theology, discussed living as a follower of Jesus, memorised Scripture and prayed for each other.  Those who came, undoubtedly felt they benefitted more from this programme than anything else we did. Less produced more.

Dependence

3 He has given me a new song to sing,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what He has done and be amazed.
    They will put their trust in the Lord.

A key point to grasp when we say “less is more” is that we are not simply talking about quantity, but quality. A little done well will always outscore a lot done poorly. How do we maximise quality? By not doing ministry on our own strength and according to our own plans but allowing God to do it His way and in His time by working though us. His “new song” in us allows many to see and be amazed at what He has done.

This starts by prioritising our walk with Him. The more you are faithfully following Jesus and being renewed and refreshed daily by His Spirit, the more you will see His fruit as you minister to young people.

One of the traps we face in ministry is the desire to be noticed, but paradoxically, the more impressive you try to make yourself look, the less effective you will be. The greatest compliment you will ever get as a leader is, “How did you do that?!”. When asked this in amazement we will know it wasn’t us but God working through us.

I recall a young man, a brand new Christian, coming with us to an Easter Camp. On the final night as our young people were praying for each other in small groups he stood there looking dazed as he watched God at work. Shaking his head he said to me, “I can’t believe how everyone is so supportive and encouraging.” At the time I had stepped right back and stood on the fringes as God lead the ministry time through our young people. Less was more.

Andrea del Sarto

The saying “less is more” was not original to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He took it from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning about the artist Andrea del Sarto. In it, del Sarto is addressing his wife Lucrezia and laments his failure to break through in the world of art. He was a contemporary of Michelangelo and Raphael and believed himself to be a more skilful artist than them but recognised that his work lacked what he called “the soul” of these more famous artists. 

In his poem del Sarto describes these other artists as follows:

To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less! 

He then goes on to reflect on what makes these artists truly great next to him:

Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them. 

What is the “more” you bring into ministry? What are you depending on? Is it your own gifts – your charismatic personality that draws people in? Is it your ability to preach a good message – to be both challenging and funny? Is it your skill in leading a good Bible study, counselling with wisdom and insight? Or is it the “true light of God in you”.

Remember, we don’t accomplish more by being lazy. We accomplish more when we deeply believe that anything we have a hand in that is of eternal value is the truer light of God working through us.