Farmers Do Not Make Cows: The Power of Multiplied Ministry
I learned about the power of multiplication accidentally.
It was years ago, when my daughters were just little girls. My family often would travel with me when I went out to speak, and one weekend we found ourselves, believe it or not, at what was a combination retreat center and dairy farm. How someone thought to combine these two enterprises is a story for another book (Trust me, it was an udder success!). But, one morning the conference center director/dairy farmer invited me to bring my girls down to the milking barn so they could see how cows were milked. To make a long story short, it was cheaper than Disney World and it seemed like a good experience for two kids who have grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs, so we headed down to the milking barn.
But, when we walked into the barn, I think I was the one who was most surprised. I hadn’t been in a milking barn since Cub Scouts so I just assumed we’d see ten or twelve cows being tended to by a farmer with a straw hat sitting on a three-legged stool whistling Old MacDonald. What we encountered instead was a bovine warehouse with row after row of cowage, each animal hooked up to an elaborate system of pipes and tubes.
When we finally persuaded our guide to let the girls actually put hand to utter and milk a cow, it was a little less than I’d hoped. The older daughter just said, “That’s gross!” She really hasn’t liked dairy products since. The younger daughter reached out with her delicate little hand and got a vice grip on the cow and began to pull, sort of the way a trucker pulls his horn when he’s going for a pass (five more minutes and we would have had butter on the hoof).
That’s when we were quickly ushered into a room away from the animals, a small room with wires and electronic gear. At first, I assumed this was the room from which they launched their intercontinental ballistic missiles. But, that’s when our guide gestured to a huge wheel in the middle of the room, a wheel on which there were pie-shaped wedges, each one containing a date and the name of a cow: “Elsie”, “Daisy”, etc. We were told proudly, “This is our gestation wheel; it tells us when each cow is ready to calve.” It was really nothing more than a big cow-clock, a means of tracking each cow’s gestation cycle. And that’s when, in the middle of his explanation, our dairyman guide made a statement I’ll never forget. It was something like this:
“When I first took over this farm, I learned a basic lesson about dairy farming, and the lesson was this: Farmers don’t make cows; cows make cows.”
Immediately, I thought to myself, “That sounds important”, and then that thought was followed quickly by a second: “I’m glad I didn’t have the girls here the day he discovered this!”
That’s when he went on to explain,
“I realized that my primary job with the dairy was to produce milk. But, of course, that meant I had a problem because I don’t produce milk. Cows produce milk. But that was another problem because I also don’t produce cows. Cows produce cows. That’s when I began to ask myself, ‘Well, then, why am I here? What is my purpose?’ And that’s when I realized my job is to feed the cows, to help the cows to grow healthy and mature. And if I do that right – [I could tell he was getting excited at this point, his words coming faster, the pitch of his voice getting higher; this was like dairy gospel] then the herd will grow and the milk will flow!”
I felt that a simple nod of the head wouldn’t be enough of a reaction to these profound words. I felt like it needed to be more emotional, somewhere between “Glory be…” and “I’d like to invite Daisy into my heart.” But I also knew that, in fact, he had said something important. As I thought about it later that day, I realized that this guy had hit the nail on the head for those of us who want to do biblical youth ministry.
The Key to Flowing and Growing
In my early years of youth ministry, I thought good youth ministry was about growing the herd, filling the trough what whatever feed might draw the kids, thinking of ways to rustle stray doggies from the liberal church down the street. Who knows, if we grew enough, the church might even allow us to build a special barn just for the youth group – with all the bells and whistles, staging, lights, a super high-tech feeding trough? But, this crazy little encounter reminded me again of what the Scripture had always made very clear: I am a shepherd. Shepherds don’t make sheep; sheep make sheep. What Jesus told Peter on the beach that day in John 21 in their last earthly conversation was this: “[If you love me] feed my sheep.” Notice: not “breed my sheep,” but “feed my sheep.” It was a ministry approach that took the focus off of addition and put the focus on multiplication.
It helped me to realize clearly that biblical youth ministry wasn’t about wide; it was about deep. It’s a ministry burden shared by Paul when he writes to Timothy, his young son in the faith,
“The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Obviously, this kind of ministry takes time.
It takes commitment. And it requires a vision that extends beyond the question of how many kids are showing up for this week’s meeting. But, it’s amazing to imagine what might happen in and through our ministries if we were to pursue such a vision. And it begins with a youth program that is building disciples – not just building a ministry, but building ministers.
If you’re reading these words and wondering, “Could it happen in our youth ministry? Could we build a ministry that focuses on equipping students to serve?” The answer is Yes! But, remember that it begins with the focus on the few reliable people. It’s not about how big your ministry is; that’s addition. It’s about how deep your ministry is; that’s multiplication. Jesus always ministered to the masses, but he spent most of his energy pouring into the few.
For more information on targeted programming, see BUILDING A YOUTH MINISTRY TO BUILD DISCIPLES, Duffy Robbins, Zondervan (2012)
Dr. Duffy Robbins, professor of youth ministry at Eastern University, is a youth ministry veteran with more than 40 years of experience. He speaks around the world to teenagers and people who care about teenagers. Duffy serves as a teaching pastor at Faithbridge Church, and his conversational style has made him a popular speaker. He’s the author of numerous books, including his latest, Building a Youth Ministry That Builds Disciples.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.