June 7, 2020

Thoughts on “Ministry”

Disciples, Bro. Sylvain of Taize

Monday, Scot McKnight had a post reflecting on Graham Buxton’s book on pastoral theology, Dancing in the Dark: The Privilege of Participating in the Ministry of Christ. I haven’t read the book, but Scot’s post made me want to; and in the meantime, I like Buxton’s definition of “ministry” alot:

“Christian ministry is fundamentally about participation in the ongoing ministry of Christ himself, who invites us into all that he is doing today by the power of the Spirit.”

This is what I understand the Book of Acts to be saying in its introduction: “The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1).

The clear implication is that the words to come in the second account are about what Jesus continued to do and teach after he was taken up to heaven — through the apostles and the new community filled with the Spirit at Pentecost. Though we often call Luke’s book, “The Acts of the Apostles” (and they are active in it), the real Actor is Jesus himself, by means of the Spirit he poured out on the Church.

That is the theological foundation of the truth that all believers are “ministers.”

Now, I hear that all the time, but the application usually made doesn’t quite fit the teaching.

“Ministry” has become one of those Christian code words, an insider term that reflects a proprietary interest. We are “in” ministry, we “have” a ministry, we “do” ministry.

  • Being in ministry refers to having some kind of official position within an ecclesiastical or mission organization.
  • Having a ministry is about running a religious organization or leading a Christian cause.
  • Doing ministry means participating in some intentional, organized effort to evangelize, promote Christian teaching, or provide charitable services.

So, for example, I, Chaplain Mike, am a minister in a number of ways according to the common perceptual template.

  • I am in ministry because I have a position as a hospice chaplain. In fact, I have been in ministry most all of my adult life because I have served as a pastor or chaplain throughout my career.
  • I have an additional ministry of writing on Internet Monk, prompting conversation on religious matters from a post-evangelical perspective.
  • I do ministry in my church when I serve in the worship and music ministry, fill in for my pastor when he is on vacation, teach a class, or make a hospital visit. I have done all kinds of ministry throughout my career, including ministry in various parts of the world by participating on mission trips on teams of people doing ministry together.

Alleluia, Bro. Sylvain of Taize

The focus in this perspective is on what I do and what we do together as partners, whether under the auspices of the Church or a mission organization. We are the actors, and we trust that God will act in and through our efforts to bless, help, convert, and edify others.

However, if I understand Buxton right, he is saying that “ministry” is what Christ does and is doing in the world, all over the world. “Ministry” for me, then, means discovering what Christ is doing in my portion of the world, and finding ways of participating in that, as an individual and with others.

This also means that the Christian concept of “ministry” must extend beyond the proprietary reach of the organization, our intentional agendas, and coordinated efforts. Christ is already at work, ministering to my neighbor, my coworker, in my community, and in every nook and cranny of life around me. He does not wait for me (us) to strategize, plan, and organize ministry efforts. Also, each believer carries the Spirit everywhere he or she goes, and therefore has the capacity to manifest the presence of the living Christ through the fruit of the Spirit in every situation. Seeing oneself as a “minister” means, at its essence, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25, NIV).

We must stop using the word “ministry” as though we were talking shop — as a Christian-ese term for official Christian efforts to evangelize or do good works. Those things are a part of ministry, but our language has become too attached to them. Such a constrained and proprietary use of the term turns us into representatives of a divine program rather than friends and neighbors who share the divine life through loving service.

Comments

  1. Our ministry is more defined by who we are and what we are becoming than what we do. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills . Doing at the expense of Being is dead work. Martha and Mary.

  2. Love this and toally agree!

    Acts 6:1-4 gives an incident that can show us something about what ministry is, I think

     “Some time later, as the number of disciples kept growing, there was a quarrel between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Jews. The Greek-speaking Jews claimed that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of funds.2 So the twelve apostles called the whole group of believers together and said, 
             It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God’s word in order to handle finances.3 So then, friends, choose seven men among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and we will put them in charge of this matter.4 We ourselves, then, will give our full time to prayer and the work of preaching.”

    What’s going on here is interesting – the Greek shows us that the same word “diakoneo” is used in both these instances that I’ve underlined.  Both “handling finances” and “the work of preaching” are built from “diakoneo”.

    And “diakoneo” literally translates “ministry”.  And if we insert the literal translation, we see how it fits.

    “It is not right for us to neglect the preaching of God’s word in order to [minister] finances. 3 So then, friends, choose seven men among you who are known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and we will put them in charge of this matter.4 We ourselves, then, will give our full time to prayer and the [ministry] of preaching.”

    The way I read this, the apostles aren’t claiming that their ministry is more valuable than the work of giving funds to widows!  Rather, that they have been called to a certain type of ministry, and that they need to appoint seven men to look after another type of ministry… One which sounds much more like “friends and neighbours who share the divine life through loving service”

    Amen!

  3. Good post, as always, CM. I believe that the same line of thinking could be applied to the term “calling” or “called”. We’ve watered down the language of faith so that it barely resembles the use of the same terms in early Christianity.

  4. Clay Knick says

    Thanks for this. I preached Acts last summer and noticed this, too. That book is hard to find. No longer in print.

  5. You are exactly right. But just like the idea of grace, I have heard a lot of lip service to this concept but in our actions we mostly default to law, professional priesthood, etc. What is it about us that it is so easy for us to forget and go astray on these sorts of things?

  6. I wonder how much of our focus on “ministry” comes from the American tendency to define ourselves in terms of what we do and to get our self-worth from what we accomplish. Jesus gave us a picture in the Sermon on the Mount of what the body of believers ought to look like, and it has a lot more to do with how we structure all the mundane, ordinary aspects of our lives than with particular times in our lives that we should set aside for “ministry.”

    I see my first calling as: avoiding anger or violence, living a pure and faithful life, speaking honesty and simply, loving and forgiving my enemies, giving generously, abiding in God’s presence through prayer, not making a show of my faith, trusting in God, non-judgmentalism, seeking diligently after God, and living the sort of life that will create a space where the poor are blessed, the meek are exalted, mourners are comforted, the hungry are fed, and mercy and peace have the final word.

    Giving part of our time to participate in a Christian “ministry” and then figuring we’ve done our full Christian duty is actually a whole lot easier and less revolutionary than really asking ourselves what it would mean to live a Christian lifestyle.

    • Well said.

    • David Cornwell says

      “American tendency to define ourselves in terms of what we do and to get our self-worth from what we accomplish.”

      Many times one of the first questions we ask of or about someone is what does he/she “do.” The next time you meet someone notice how easily that question comes to mind or to your lips. We may or may not ask it at first, but eventually we will want to know. When a person retires the question asked “what DID you do?” I’m not sure this is always a bad thing, but we need to be careful about where we attach value. Is a rich capitalist of more interest and value than a factory laborer? Read the obits and you get an indication of this.

      But the thing is, once we are identified with Christ, this is far from primary importance. Then, as Chaplain Mike says above: “each believer carries the Spirit everywhere he or she goes, and therefore has the capacity to manifest the presence of the living Christ through the fruit of the Spirit in every situation.” This is what becomes important, and it just might be the laborer, who will end up with an obit of a just a few words, who has less of a problem.

  7. I am basically repeating my earlier comment in different words but wanted to say, God can find anyone to do what I do but no one to to commune with Him on my behalf. It is out of that communion that ministry is born.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Ministry” has become one of those Christian code words, an insider term that reflects a proprietary interest. We are “in” ministry, we “have” a ministry, we “do” ministry.

    * Being in ministry refers to having some kind of official position within an ecclesiastical or mission organization.

    * Having a ministry is about running a religious organization or leading a Christian cause.

    * Doing ministry means participating in some intentional, organized effort to evangelize, promote Christian teaching, or provide charitable services.

    Can you say “Clericalism” — the heresy that only those “in official position within an ecclesiastical organization” have any importance before God. Also known as “Priestcraft”. Except you call them “full-time Christian workers” or “Pastors, Missionaries, and Praise Singers” instead of “Priests, Monks, and Nuns.”

    • Ephesians 4 says that all these ministerial posts are to be filled and utilized UNTIL we all come in the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Paul was fully aware that the matured bride would have no need of these offices but that maturity has not yet arrived. The lambs will always need leading but eventually we must all grow up to be seers and mystics – to see the unseen and hear the still small voice. Anything less is preservation of power. The people of Israel asked their minister to stand between them and God. Moses then gave them the law. Christ fulfilled the law and wishes to speak directly again.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Again, English instead of Christianese.

        And don’t try to tell me “those minsterial posts” are not held up as and thought to be More Godly, More Spiritual, More Christian than all us unwashed mortals. Just like Holy Orders and Cloistered Religious were held up during the Middle Ages and time of Luther.

        • Why the bias against Christianese? This is, after all, a Christian site and much of the theological discussion can’t be understood outside of that context. Christainese kind of goes hand-in-hand with that.

          • I agree but if I have to put it another way it would be that you are critical to the economy of this thing and you don’t get to sit on your arse and let the pastor spoon feed you porridge. You have a role to play so get to it. A kingdom is waiting. God has a vibrant other dimensional experience on hand for all of us. Don’t be a baby.

          • The Bible is far less Christian-ese in its language than we’ve made it.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            It’s gone from a Technical Language to a Mystery Language.

            Technical Language is jargon that is used to express precise technical meanings. Examples are Church Latin and Contract Law, where every word has one and only one precisely-defined meaning.

            Mystery Language is jargon for the sake of jargon, a password of Admission to the Inner Ring of Those With Special Sekrit Knowledge (as opposed to the mere sheeple on the outside looking in).

  9. Forgive my ignorance, but it’s common in the evangelical world to use the phrase “do ministry” instead of simply talking about good works? I have an evangelical friend who is always saying things like, “I ministered at the homeless shelter last night,” or “In my ministry at my Bible study, I led a discussion on grace.”

    It always sounded strange to me, but I thought it was just her. Is there something wrong with simply saying, “I volunteered,” or some such? Does it mean something different than “doing ministry”?

  10. Tokah Fang says

    Pentecost for us easterners was this week, so we’ve just caught up. Both the homily on Sunday and Metropolitan Jonah’s address to the OCA touched on what you wrote here. (Met Jonah’s address is online here: http://oca.org/holy-synod/statements/metropolitan-jonah/pentecost-2012).

    I think it’s a lot easier to be proud of having an official ministry position, and it’s certainly easier to tell others when they ask “what do you do?”, then it is to try to live a Spirit filled life in service to others with no special title or demarcated job role. That’s a bit of a two edged sword, because there’s both “taking pride in a job well done” AND “puffing yourself up pride” in that.

  11. I believe our 1st calling is to proclaim Christ and His forgiveness of sins.

    You don’t need to be a Christian to take care of people. That is everyone’s concern.

    • I think both John and James warn us about taking that too far and thinking practical love is not part of what it means to show Christ’s love to others.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Otherwise, you can slip into the mode of High Pressure Salesman, and the Gospel becomes nothing more than the Fire Insurance you’re pushing (with a complementary Rapture Boarding Pass to sweeten the deal).

    • It’s been my experience that taking care of people is hardly everyone’s concern. People may have a few people in their immediate circle they’re concerned about, but beyond that, people on a whole are pretty ignorant of what’s happening around them. I think that’s why Jesus is constantly reminding us to look out for those who society ignores. If the body of Christ doesn’t do it, no one else will.

      I also don’t think think we can elevate forgiveness of sins to the status of the whole Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation and demonstration that Jesus is Lord against all the other gods that would set themselves up against that fact. When we help the helpless we are demonstrating that the priorities in Jesus’ kingdom are different than the other kingdoms in the world.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A year or two ago in TIME magazine, a book review mentioned how the Social Gospel of the Victorian era (still associated with the mainstreams) ended up as “a Gospel without personal salvation.” The 20th Century backlash to this (still being played out in the Evangelical Wilderness) is a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. (“It’s All Gonna Burn…”)

        Communism begets Objectivism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        A year or two ago in TIME magazine, a book review noted that the Social Gospel of the Victorian era (still associated with the mainlines) was “a Gospel without personal salvation.” Its post-WW1 backlash (still playing out in the Evangelical Wilderness) was a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. (“It’s All Gonna Burn.”)

        Communism Begets Objectivism.

  12. Not to go all “Episcopalian” on you, but in the catechism section of our Book of Common Prayer, it states: “Q: Who are the ministers of the church? A: The ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests, deacons.”. The fact that lay persons is not only mentioned, but mentioned first, is not a misprint. Most of the time, people know mostly other lay people, in fact, we are oftentimes the point of “first contact” for newcomers. I take my charge from God seriously as generally the first and sometimes only minister of God peopl encounter. If we lay it all on the ordained, we abdicate an important role God has given us in His ministry on earth.