Sunday, February 12, 2017

Who Should Do Ministry?

For anyone who might not know, while working on Quest Forums, I am also a seminary student. Right now, I am in a class focusing on the book of Ephesians. Obviously, there is a lot of good stuff in there. But one thing in particular has me thinking, because of how it ties into the ministry I have been trying to get off the ground. It boils down to, how should we understand Eph. 4:11–13?

Now I don’t mean for this to be a discussion on the nature of the various offices of the church, of whether this is an exhaustive list, or if all of them still exist or not. That could be for another time. The more important point, to me, is in what the leaders of the church are to do.

Ministry for All, or for Some?

Bear with me, because this starts out with some grammar. Should we read v. 12 as saying ministers exist “for the equipping of the saints[,] for the work of ministry, [and] for the edifying of the body of Christ?” Or did Paul mean for us to take it as saying their calling is “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ?” Those are really subtle differences from one another. In the first version, I added a comma and one word to the NKJV text. In the second, I removed one comma. But it makes a big difference. Read one way, it says that the ministers of the church are supposed to do basically everything for it. Read the other, it means that ministers prepare everyone in the church to do ministry.

Rather than leaving you in any suspense, let me first say that I have always held to the second option, and I have not been given a reason to change my mind. I would contend that ministry is for all of us. In the most basic sense, it means “service.” And that is the primary point of this article. But I wanted to share the other option in the interest of fairness. I have learned that it is a very ancient view, for one thing. For another, the reading is about as nuanced in the original language as it is in English, so it is open to interpretation. One is superior to the other because it fits the context of the rest of the chapter better. But it is at least possible to read it the other way.

The reason this matters is because it helps to explain what I consider to be a very unfortunate development in the church. In far too many congregations, there is a tendency to treat ministry as something that is beyond “regular people.” And this is not merely the assumption of those in the pews. Church leaders and ministers are just as likely to either believe this, or to act like it is true. Though this is unfortunate, we can partly attribute it to a good-faith reading of Scripture that is merely inaccurate. If ministry is an exclusive calling, as they take it to be, then it is an awesome responsibility that ought not be treated lightly or left to the uninitiated. I simply believe they take it wrong.

Ministry for Some, in Practice

Yes, we can partly attribute this attitude to a certain reading of Eph. 4:11–13. But only in part. There are other issues at play, and I consider them to be far more influential (in evangelical churches, anyway). For the most part, they do not hold an exclusivist view of ministry. At least, they do not talk about it as doctrine, except perhaps in the most traditional of them. Instead, they do it in practice without attempting to defend it. Many even give lip service to the idea that ministry is for everyone.

Why do they say one thing and do another? All too often, it is a result of size. And no, I don’t mean only megachurches are guilty of this, or that all megachurches are. The sizes that cause a problem are big egos, big programs, big expectations, and big debts.

None of these things can really be separated from another, and it is hard to say which even comes first. My best guess is, it is the programs. It starts with the assumption that you can never have enough of a good thing. Every possibility is to be explored. That is not necessarily bad in itself, but you then have to add to it that many churches are run as businesses. Success is measured as reaching quantifiable goals. Every minute of every program they offer has to be sleek and professional because business is the defining characteristic of American life, and that is how businesses do things. You have to be the best in order to make money. The attitude of the office is translated to the church.

It does come down to money, too. You see, if you want your programs to be professional, then you have to have professionals to run them. Hence, ministry is not for everyone. It is for the specially trained, which is why many churches are seeking out ministers who have high-level master degrees, at the least. But that special training costs money. Ministers who go to school for eight or nine years expect to be paid well. They have to be, to cover their costs. So they are prone to looking to the churches that can help them meet their debts. It leaves smaller churches in the lurch. Or it would, if the smaller churches were only looking for someone with the calling, the aptitude, and a little less training. But they don’t. For some reason, churches with 30 members think they have a right to say “MDiv.’s only need apply,” too. Just like the big guys, they need those perfectly-administered mountains of programs. Then they offer to pay these ministers sums that would be unconscionable in almost any other field with that level of education.

Churches have egos wrapped up in the presentation of what they have to offer, but ministers have egos, too. Theirs are wrapped up in defending their territory. And in a sense, it is hard to blame them. Many are just scraping by. They need to be indispensable. So they need to be in control. They cannot trust the ministry to anyone else, because that would mean they are not worth their keep.

Do you see how this just sort of feeds on itself? The churches need perfect programs. Perfect programs need to be run by professionals. Professionals need to be impeccably trained. Impeccable training costs money. Money, whether offered in a torrent or a trickle, needs to be justified. Justification comes in the form of tightly controlled programs. The church needs perfect programs. And then back around we go again.

Ministry for All, in Principle

This is what brings us back to Ephesians 4. I’m not saying that ministers should be uneducated so they can be unpaid, or that they should be unprofessional. That would fly in the face of 1 Timothy 5:17, 18, which says that they ought to know the word, be accountable, and be salaried. We could certainly use some rethinking on what credentialing is required and how much would be fair to pay them. But my primary point is that churches need to carefully and intentionally reconsider what their ministers, and ministries, are supposed to be doing.

In fact, it is one of the guiding principles behind the church I eventually hope to plant. The goal all along has been to make the church more participatory. That is what I take “equipping for the ministry” to mean. The meetings I hold are already part of this, because they are centered around giving people a place to ask questions. They get to be more involved, more invested, because they are discussing the things they want to talk about. Along with that, my aim will be to create opportunities for ministry. Everyone has different aptitudes, interests, and talents, and I want them to have a chance to use them for the Lord. The church has so many things it can do: music, teaching adults and children, prayer, counseling, visitation, community outreach, missions support, facilities, technology, and charitable services for inside and outside the congregation. And obviously, these are just a few broad categories under which there are seemingly infinite variations. Is it wise to attempt to fit all these hats on one head? Is it healthy to have so many professional ministers in one church that most of the people don’t have to do anything other than sit back and watch?

I certainly don’t think so. I also believe it is part of the reason why the churches are struggling to bring in, and even keep, Millennials. It is a cliché, but the young are energetic and driven to change the world. That needs to be tempered by practical considerations, but the business atmosphere of the modern church stamps down their enthusiasm with gusto. Given nothing to do, they are given no reason to stay. That is only part of what is making them feel they do not belong, but I truly believe it is a part.

For them to be invested, for all of us to be the gifts that God intends for us to be, ministry needs to be opened up to more hands. That means the pastor’s job is not to do everything, or to micromanage every project. It is to know the people. He needs to know what they know, so they can be taught more. He needs to know their personalities, so he can affectively reach their hearts and minds. He needs to know their abilities, so the church can have an idea where to put them. He needs to know their service dreams, so he can help them pursue those first. He needs to know their limitations, so he can help them grow further. He needs to know their networks, so he can train those in the church on how to reach out. He needs to know their needs, so he can point them to the God who supplies them all.

With this knowledge, ministers can do what they are really called to do. They can be building their congregations up to the point that everyone is serving the Lord in whatever capacity they can. And we all have a capacity. We all have a part. Church is not a spectator sport, and it is not a show. It is a body in which every member has an indispensible role, whether they think it or not (1 Corinthians 12). When people are taught once again that God Himself has something for them to do, can there be any doubt of our power to change lives together?

Of course, it won’t always be pretty. It will occasionally be rough around the edges. There might be missed notes, awkward silences, answers that cannot be given, projects only carried out on a small scale. But what does that matter when it is real? Why should we pursue human perfectionism, when it means everything is so tightly controlled that there is no room for the Spirit to move in it? I would rather do it right than do it flawlessly.

Ministry for All, Moving Forward

In some ways, this is a reflection on myself and on the ministry I am trying to build. But I haven’t really offered any specifics, for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s no church yet, so there is no specific example for me to offer. For another, though, I am never going to be able to spell out the programs in which this is occurring because it would completely defeat the purpose. This isn’t a science. It is an attitude. And it is one, no matter what I do, that needs to take hold in the American church.

So it is useful that I am not offering specifics. I have not given a “recipe for success” that can be followed step by step. That way, I cannot be accused of saying I am trying to tell anyone the one right way to run a local congregation. But I am saying that there is one right principle. It doesn’t matter what type of church you have, where it is, or how many people show up on a Sunday. If you agree that Paul is talking about ministers equipping others to do ministry, then you need to encourage your churches to incorporate that mindset. Otherwise, church is just entertainment, and it isn’t even very good at that.

If we want to go forward, we need to go back to what God intended in the first place. He sees all of us as useful. We need to see ourselves and others that way, too. If we do, and if we act like it, then He will be glorified. And that is what it is all about. Ministry is for everyone, because everyone can serve the Lord. We should let them.

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