An effective church will employ a ministry strategy that will fights both the air war and the ground war. In a military campaign the air war and the ground war complement each other. You need both, and they need to be co-ordinated well. Likewise, the large-scale “in the air” ministries must be co-ordinated with the small-scale “on the ground” ministries. I first heard this analogy used almost six years ago and have found it to be helpful in ministry.
A Six Hour Sermon
Nehemiah 8 gives us a good picture of the co-ordination of the air war and the ground war. Having returned to Jerusalem and completed the wall, the 50,000 residents of Jerusalem gather together in the square. They set up a platform, and set before the people the book of the law, and from early morning until the middle of the day Ezra preached from the book of the law, reading and teaching, giving the sense of it, so that the people would understand. Here we have a great model for expository preaching. During the reformation the preaching of the Bible was recovered as central. This was even reflected in their furniture as the pulpit was moved from the side to the front and centre of the sanctuary. When we gather, we place before the people the Bible on a pulpit. And beyond the bible stands the preacher, teaching and explaining for the people to understand. This we call the air war.
But that’s not all. In verse 7 we’re told that “the Levite helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.” So amongst this large group of people were scattered Levites who were there to explain and answer questions and apply to text to individuals. This is what we call the ground war. The ground war complements and supplements the air war, bringing God’s word to bear on individuals in a specific way that really can’t be accomplished through a wide and general preaching ministry.
Because of this co-ordinated effort, we’re told in verse 12 that they left celebrating and rejoicing, “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” They were able to respond appropriately to God’s word because they understood it well. They understood it well because of Ezra’s preaching and the Levites explaining and applying it to them.
Air War and Ground War
The “air war” refers to big group proclamation and teaching. It’s the preaching of sermons, teaching seminars, writing books and blogs, and the like. Due to the size and public nature of these ministries, exhortations are general and varied and built off general perceptions of the needs of the church and community as a whole. The air war is excellent at laying out biblical truth, but not as great as specifically applying it to an individual’s specific situation.
The “ground war” follows the air war with on-the-ground support including prayer, counselling and discipleship. It’s the ministry that happens in one-on-one situations and small groups. It’s pastoral counselling, follow-up, answering questions, praying with people, groups for recovery and the like. At our church it includes membership and baptism classes. We’ve chosen to make this a ground war ministry rather than an air war ministry. For instance, right now we have about 15-20 people going through our baptism & membership class, but instead of doing one air war style class, we are doing 4 customized classes with groups of 3-5 people. Due to the size and private nature of the ground war, exhortations can be personal and specific and built off of personal knowledge and trust.
It’s important to keep the air war and the ground war on the same page. One of the major ways we do this is by building our Community Groups off the sermon series. Each week our groups discuss and apply the text from Sunday’s message. They dig deeper and try to apply the text specifically to the needs and situations in the group. In this way the ground war is following up and complementing the air war, thereby multiplying the effect of both, rather than competing with each other.
A healthy and effective church needs both. A lot of younger guys are attracted to the air war ministry because it seems more glorious. They watch preachers on the web and want to do the same. But pastoring isn’t just preaching. To pastor effectively we need both air war and ground war.
A church with great air war but no ground war will have great preaching and worship gatherings, but they won’t see the life transformation that comes through the hard work of relational ministry, counselling, prayer, confrontation and accountability. They won’t experience meaningful community and growth as a family. They’ll look healthy because of the size, but large gatherings with no ground war are likely not healthy at all, but are just an exciting event to attend.
Likewise some devalue the air war and just want to do ground war. They emphasize relational ministry against preaching. You end up with a church where everyone loves everyone and there’s great community, but the people aren’t being taught well and the gospel is not advancing. We need proclamation to fuel the ground war. We need proclamation to win new people to Jesus, grow the church and drive the ground war forward.
The Example of the Acts 2 Church
In the ministry of the early church we see both air war and ground war type ministries at work. After Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon they baptize 3000 people. On day one they were a megachurch. We read that they were devoted to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…” and daily they were “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” Throughout this description we see both the large scale air war-type ministry as well as the small-scale, in-home, relational-driven ministry as well. The two synced up together to create a vibrant and effective church as they sought to disciple and minister to thousands of new converts and more every day.
Some guys have an air war type of gifting. They are excellent preachers, writers and communicators. They thrive in this ministry. Other guys have a ground war type of gifting. Their preaching is adequate, but not exceptional. But one-on-one they really flourish. They counsel and challenge and pray and lead so effectively in these smaller, more personal settings. The air war and the ground war need each other. Both are more effective when accompanied by the other. Let’s encourage both types of gifts and both types of ministries, not seeing one as more important than the other, but as each being a different critical side of the same gospel work.