What makes ministry effective? How are people changed? What methods should we use?

In the annals of war, certain leaders and strategies and weapons get the most attention: the tanks and the bombers, the gold and the generals, the noble sacrifices that rightly earn chests of medals and leave loud legacies ringing out to the far horizons of history.

So, too, in our view of the biblical story: Noah builds the ark, David kills Goliath, Elijah summons skyfire, Peter headlines Pentecost, Paul sails the Mediterranean, and Apollos confounds the Jews. Ancient ark-builders, teenage giant-slayers, sky-rending prophets, revivalist preachers, martyred missionaries, and Alexandrian orators adorn the ministry museums of our collective memory.

These all have their place, of course. God used them all, and he uses them still. But it’s also the case that some of the most effective weapons and strategies are simultaneously the most subtle. God’s arsenal is not limited to thundering tanks, high-flying jets, and bunker-busting bombs. No war is won without the less-noticed pieces of the puzzle—the slow-moving supply lines, the rifle-sling designers, the scouts and topographers, the invisible sound-waves piercing the air with vital communication.

So many of God’s weapons are slow, subtle, almost secretive. Like yeast in bread or water coming to a boil, God loves to work in ways that require extended faith and the wisdom of spiritual foresight. With that in mind, here are seven secret weapons in ministry.

1. Prayer

Prayer is the most powerful invisible weapon we have. It prompts heaven to sow seeds on earth. How much of Elijah’s miracle-laden ministry was energized by simple prayer (1 Kings 17:1; 18:41–46; James 5:17–18)? How much of Jesus’s power in ministry came from his prayer walks in the Galilean hills (Matt. 14:23; Luke 6:12; 9:28)? How much of our own fruitfulness is nourished by the unseen kneeling of closeted saints whose cries fill heaven’s cup until grace overflows?

Prayer is the unseen lever that moves the heart of God.

Homebound widows pray for fresh seminary graduates and change the trajectory of history. Weary parents plead for prodigals and, years later, weep on their necks when they come trudging home, drawn back by the invisible cords of prayer. Middle-aged pastors plead for mercy over weak sermon notes, and the Spirit blows heart change through a stagnant Sunday gathering.

Hannah prayed for a son (1 Sam. 1), and Israel got Samuel the kingmaker. Elisha prayed for his servant’s faith, and the hills suddenly flamed with charioted warhorses (2 Kings 6:17). Nehemiah prayed for a second exodus (Neh. 1:4–11), and the holy city of Jerusalem was rebuilt. Prayer is the unseen lever that moves the heart of God.

If there’s any secret weapon in ministry, it’s prayer.

2. Example

Beyond our prayer closets, what kind of interactions have the greatest ministry effect? We know what often gets the credit: the sermons and the songs, the books and the blogs, the retreats and the conferences, the podcasts and the videos, the organized ministries and the scheduled meetings. But standing silently in the middle of every room is our example.

Every time a husband and wife reconcile in front of the kids, those children learn more about sin and grace than they might in a week of family devotions. Every time a college roommate redirects a gossipy conversation, she weaves back together the fraying edges of community. Every time a professor opens up about his weaknesses in front of his class, he’s showing something about what it really means to teach.

No wonder Paul tells young Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). Paul knew that Timothy’s churches were watching before they were listening. Win my eyes, and you’ll win my ears. Fail my eyes, and my ears will follow.

Example is the silent teacher in every room.

3. Consistency

The more consistent you are, the less people tend to notice. It becomes invisible—expected, assumed, unseen. Plowing, sowing, watering, and weeding is nothing spectacular. But full orchards rise and ripen from such monotonies.

And it’s no random metaphor. Jesus sowed the kingdom message into the heartfields of God’s people (Mark 4:1–20). The apostolic activity he commissioned was agricultural labor (1 Cor. 3:6–9). Every Christian pastor must be a hard-working farmer (2 Tim. 2:6).

In ministry, as in farming, repetition is vital. Consistently gathering, consistently preaching, consistently singing, consistently evangelizing—consistently being consistent—these are secret weapons in ministry. Wise repetitions are the stuff of success.

Because consistency only seems boring until the harvest.

4. Structure

Repeating healthy actions is not the only way to achieve consistency. It’s also important to structure certain aspects of ministry.

Like the beams in a building, structure is rarely noticed. But like those beams, structure often bears the weight of beautiful things.

The best structures are the least noticeable. They simply fit—they fit the truth, the situation, the people, the needs. They fit so well that they go unnoticed. Like good lighting, they accentuate beauty rather than distract from it. Like a loyal bridesmaid, they don’t grab the attention but aim the spotlight where it belongs. Like a master trellis, they don’t stifle the vine but support it.

Like rarely noticed beams, structure often bears the weight of beautiful things.

In smaller ministries, structures and timelines and processes and procedures can be easy to ignore. But whether your group is large or small, wise structures increase effectiveness.

The right kinds—principled structures that stay proportional to the needs—help everyone keep the main things the main things.

5. Preparation

You can tell when someone hasn’t planned well. But it takes experience and insight to sense when someone has. The better something is planned, the less you notice. The more someone prepares, the smoother things tend to go. Ever had that experience at an event or a party or a business when you thought, Wow—they thought of everything? That never happens without thorough preparation.

Yes, it’s possible to overplan and overprepare, to cookie-cutter events and squelch healthy spontaneity and air-condition the wind of the Spirit. It’s possible to straitjacket people’s gifts with stifling programs and inflexible plans. But the remedy for overpreparation is not underpreparation, but humble, God-attentive, Spirit-led, flexible preparation.

After all, medal-winning Olympians make their craft look simple not through brilliant athletic spontaneity, but relentless physical training.

Preparation and opportunity are beautiful dance partners.

6. Tone

Good communication is vital in any relationship, especially in diverse communities and hierarchical institutions and multi-department organizations. But good communication requires more than just accurate, clear, and timely words. Good communication requires the right tone.

Speaking with the right tone in particular situations makes your tone virtually invisible (or inaudible). When you strike just the right chord, it may not be consciously appreciated, but it’s felt. It resonates, massaging your message into your hearer’s heart.

But when you use the wrong tone—even if you’re saying the right thing—your tone will undercut your message. Because the same words with a different tone are different words.

Tone is like an umpire doing his job: When he does it right, no one notices, but when he gets it wrong, disorder erupts. An umpire doing his mostly invisible job is central to the game going smoothly, order being maintained, and everyone—from players to coaches to fans—thriving.

And tone is not just a small pragmatic concern. From the highest levels of spiritual, national, and executive leadership, Solomon and the sages of Israel instruct the nation’s royal sons toward gentle speech, a persuasive tongue, and situationally wise tones that build trust and persuade—all because the speaker fears God, exercises self-control, and senses the need of the moment.

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)

A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Prov. 15:4)

Effective ministry requires biblical communication, and biblical communication isn’t just about what you say but how you say it.

7. Rest

If the gospel writers didn’t tell us Jesus rested (Mark 4:37–38; John 4:6) and removed his disciples from the busyness of ministry to rest (Mark 6:31), we probably wouldn’t guess he did. Why rest when you can heal the sick, cast out demons, and walk on water? Plus, even if rest is physically necessary, how is it part of ministry?

Anything in our world that uses power must recharge. Only God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have indefatigable power. And the Son set aside the independent use of this attribute when he took on human flesh. He tired, and he rested.

Jesus had only a few years of public ministry on earth, and he spent a good chunk of it resting.

Jesus’s identity was not bound up in his busyness. He came to do the will of his Father, which required untold messianic labor, but he was not enslaved to work. He was bound to laboring for the will of God, which made him free to rest when his God-given body called for it.

Rest is a secret weapon in ministry, but it’s so often neglected and even denigrated for a variety of reasons that range from physical folly to deep-rooted insecurity to ambitional arrogance.

Just think: Jesus had only a few years of public ministry on earth, and he spent a good chunk of it resting.

Power Matches Invisibility

The most effective weapons in the war of ministry aren’t always the most prominent, the most noticed, or the most remembered. But many of the simple tools God has given us possess a power that matches their invisibility.

In fact, they often possess a power inversely proportional to the attention we give them. So if we’re wise, we won’t just use the obvious or noteworthy methods of ministry. We’ll also learn to trust the God who’s given us subtle ways to win the war.