Relational Thinking vs. Terminal Thinking

A relational thinker is a person who is able to relate the activities of his or her daily life to some greater purpose or goal.  For the Christian, of course, that greater goal is to know God and to make Him known to others.

A person who learns to think relationally will experience some dramatic benefits:

  • Everyday activities of life and ministry become more meaningful
  • Decision-making is facilitated
  • Clarity of direction is sustained
  • Ministry efforts become more effective

Jesus provides the ultimate example of relational thinking.  In his classic book, Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman writes:

“His (Jesus’) life was ordered by His objective.  Everything He did and said was a part of the whole pattern.  It had significance because it contributed to the ultimate purpose of His life in redeeming the world for God.  This was the motivating vision governing His behavior.  His steps were ordered by it.  Mark it well.  Not for one moment did Jesus lose sight of His goal.”

Relational Thinking and Terminal Thinking Defined

As a minister to international students, you will be thinking relationally if you first set your goals and then organize your ministry to reach those goals.  By doing so, you’ll be following the example of Jesus.  Basically, you should always know why you are doing what you are doing.

You will be thinking terminally, on the other hand, if you engage in various activities without having a clear plan in mind.  You may be busily doing good things, but you won’t know exactly why you are doing them or how they relate to overall goals.   Activities done with terminal thinking are “terminal” because they are an end in themselves.

Imagine taking a number of boards, nailing them together, and hoping that if you nailed long enough and put in enough effort, you would end up producing a building.  That would be an extreme example of terminal thinking.  A relational thinker, on the other hand, would go to a blueprint to study the plans for the finished building, and then he would direct his efforts accordingly.

In a ministry to international students it is especially important that we are relational thinkers.  We will face many obstacles and distractions along the way.  The students may be quite busy with non-spiritual matters–they may struggle with English, they may be slow to respond to the gospel.  However, by practicing relational thinking we can maintain our motivation (we’ll be reminded of these students’ great leadership potential), and we can make wise decisions (choosing activities that are most strategic for “winning, building and sending”).


Scriptural Examples of Relational Thinking

Consider how relational thinking is demonstrated in the following passages.

In each passage, who was practicing relational thinking, and what was the chief goal that this person was pursuing with his thoughts and efforts?  What might have happened if this person had not practiced relational thinking?

  • Hebrews 12:2
  • Philippians 3:7-11
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
  • 1 Corinthians 9:22-27

Relational Thinking–A Matter of Perspective

The story is told of a certain man who was walking along a street and encountered three bricklayers.  Since he was in no particular hurry, he turned to the first man and asked him, “What are you doing?” The man didn’t turn to answer, but grumpily continued with his work and replied, “I’m laying bricks–what do you think I’m doing?”

After walking further, the man came to the second bricklayer.  Again he asked, “What are you doing?”  The man turned, looked him in the eye, and responded, “I’m building a wall.”

Finally, the man reached the third bricklayer and asked, “What are you doing?”  This man stood up, turned around, and enthusiastically gestured upward.  With a warm smile and twinkle in his eye he declared, “I’m building a great cathedral for the glory of God.”

When we learn to think relationally, we will be able to do even the mundane tasks of ministry and still maintain our motivation.  Much of the work of ministry boils down to phone calls, emails, paperwork, and errandskind of like laying one brick at a time.

The relational thinker is able to see the cause and effect between these “to-do lists” and the ministry environment he is creating for his international student movement.  He is able to see how his work is helping to fulfill the Great Commission to the glory of God.  He will see the cathedral of the future when he looks at the bricks.


Relational Activities Worksheet

 1. Evaluate your ministry activities

Think for a few minutes about your present ministry responsibilities. Have some become un-motivating?  Maybe you have lost sight of their ultimate purpose.

What are several activities in a typical week that sometimes seem boring or pointless?   Make two columns on a sheet of paper.  Write these down on the left side.

2. Review your vision and ministry objectives

What are the main elements of your personal vision for international students?  What are the main objectives you have set for your ministry?  Write these down on the right side column.

3. Consider how your activities relate to your vision and objectives.

Ask yourself this question about each of the two or three “un-motivating” activities you listed above: “How can this activity relate to my vision and objectives?”

4. Identify terminal activities

Identify the most prominent terminal activities in your schedule.  Write these at the bottom of the page.  What do you think you should do about these activities?

Are there any other terminal activities in your life?  What can you do about them?

Relational Thinking and Personal Direction

Relational thinking will help you keep your motivation high, thus helping you to persevere in the efforts critical to your vision.   But relational thinking is also indispensable in decision-making and overall direction. The relational thinker uses his or her overall vision as a “north Star” to provide guidance with daily decisions.

This thinking is critical for such decisions as:

  • Which group of internationals to reach out to and how to best reach them?
  • Whether or not to schedule a fall leadership retreat?
  • When to set up an appointment with a student from Saudi Arabia and what to talk about with that student?

All of us have many alternatives to weigh in our ministries.  Constant focus on an overall vision will help us in making these decisions.


Case Study:  Relational Thinking

The following example provides a case study in relational thinking.

1. My Vision:

To help advance the cause of Christ by using my gifts, abilities, time, and energy to see international students at my campus won for Christ and discipled in the faith.

2. My Objective and Goal:

To build a team of laborers on my campus who will join me in establishing regular outreaches, small group discipleship, and eventually a multiplying movement among internationals.

3. My Decisions for the Coming Year:

  •  Who are the most strategic internationals I should reach at my campus?


  • How can I best make connections with these internationals?


  • How will I engage in spiritual discussions with these students?


  • What are the primary evangelistic approaches or activities I will implement?


  • Who are the students I am presently discipling?


  •  Who of my present disciples should I spend the most time with, and why?


  • What can I do in personal discipleship to best build these disciples to become spiritual reproducers?


  • What activities or events can I plan which will most help them develop as leaders in the movement?


  • Who should I invite to join my leadership team as a co-laborer?


Discuss your answers with a team member to sharpen your ability and that of your teammate to think relationally.  Discuss how your answers relate to the fulfillment of your own vision.



As has already been stated, relational thinking is a pattern of thought where a person evaluates and relates his present activities and decisions to his ultimate vision.  Like many patterns of thinking, this mental skill takes discipline and time.  Once caught, it helps the Christian align the agendas of life and ministry in a way that brings greater fruitfulness and peace of mind.  In a ministry to internationals-involving many inherent challenges–relational thinking is especially helpful.  Learn this skill as you would any other.  Invite your teammates to join you in the process and use this style of thinking and planning as often as possible.