Alps from Above is a documentary with aerial views of breath taking mountain ranges in Austria. One scene highlights Regis Borg Castle, a magnificent structure that dates back to the 17th century and perched high on a hill where the mountains run out into the plains. Since the 1980’s the castle has served as a lodging place for birds of prey (falcons, owls, vultures, and eagles).  In the episode, a young intern is interviewed.  He talks about what it’s like to work with birds of prey and describes their wild, undomesticated nature. Each day he follows the same routine, taking one of the magnificent birds onto his arm and releasing it to fly high into the sky.  The amazing thing is that for all of their wildness and the daily opportunity to fly away, the birds always come back. I found his explanation quite intriguing: “They never actually listen to a command.  It only works if you build up trust over time.  It is a great feeling when you’ve won the trust of a bird, and that it keeps coming back to you.” Those words sound a lot like effective ministry:  “trust over time.” They sound like the relationship of a young armor bearer to Jonathan, when Jonathan said to him:
  • “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” “Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul” (1 Samuel 14:6-7).
  • Erwin McManus writes, “This is the essence of influence, to win the heart and soul of another person through the strength of your own character and personhood.  This is why influence is always more powerful than authority.  Authority can [determine] what a person does, but influence shapes what a person becomes.  Influence is born out of trust, and finds its strength in the connection of heart and soul” (Seizing Your Divine Moment).
“Trust over time” sounds a lot like a relationship with Jesus.  His sheep “follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:4-5). Birds of prey do not respond to a command, they respond to influence.  Apparently, according to Jesus, sheep do as well. In working with young people over the years, I’ve learned an important lesson:  when it comes to changing a life, it’s the “heart and soul” connection that really counts. Or, to quote Parker J. Palmer,
  • “The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge” (Let your Life Speak).
One of the blessings of long-term ministry is to visit with students once they have moved on from their adolescent years, graduated and moved away.  During those brief moments when they return, it is most rewarding to hear the stories that are etched into their minds from youth group days.  I’ve never heard a student talk much about “the program.”  It’s the stories of human connection they remember.  So maybe it would be helpful to think about it this way:
  •   “What converted you to Christ?  Was it a person, or a program?”
The temptation of ministry is getting consumed with creating the best programs.  And while programs have value, we must never forget the all-important need for human connection, for loving like Jesus loved, for memories made together, for “trust over time.”