October 18, 2006

Celebrating Uniqueness

2006 1529 page8 capCENE 1: CHURCH MEMBERS ON A weekend retreat have been asked to introduce themselves by sketching a “coat of arms.” Each sketch is to deal with the question: “Where do I fit in the body of Christ?” One of the group shares his drawing, a page filled with a big “2.” When asked for an explanation, he replies, “Why, I’m a layman, of course!”
Scene 2: A young man comes into my office to talk about changing his prospective career from electrician to “pastor, missionary, or something.” “It’s time I begin to serve the Lord seriously,” he announces, revealing the frustration of a person who cannot connect his current vocational life with ministry.
Scene 3: A middle-aged dentist calls me to expound on his favorite thesis: “Sabbath school has nothing to do with being a dentist.” The class members are interested in his occupation, but they fail to provide any support for his efforts to apply his priesthood at the frontier of his medical profession.
2006 1529 page8These three Christians, and many others like them, continue to demonstrate that the much-heralded “lay renaissance” of the 1950s presents the church 50 years later with a sharp challenge: moving concept to practice. There is no doubt that during the past decades some biblical concepts have been restored to the church’s thinking. It would be difficult to dispute the following arguments:
1. The biblical use of the word laos has nothing to do with amateur or lower class church member status, but instead it is the Bible’s favorite expression for all the people of God—including the clergy.1
 2. All baptized Christians are ministers (2 Cor. 3:6). “Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary.”2
3. The direction of ministry is toward the world. And in this ministry all Christians are the key personnel. “Our Lord teaches that the true object of life is ministry.”3
The problem is that many church members still do not identify themselves as ministers, or know how to fulfill their ministry within the context of their daily lives. The pastor preaches that church members are ministers in their neighborhood, at work, among friends, and other places. How? Does he mean talking about Christ at every opportunity? Does he mean always being honest and ethical? The role of the pastor can be easily defined. He or she preaches, calls on the sick, teaches, baptizes, conducts the Lord’s Supper, and is involved in many activities relating to the parish and community. Some years ago Professor Samuel Blizzard4 made a survey of the Protestant ministers’ image of their roles. He wanted to learn how pastors ranked their tasks: first, in regard to significance in their scale of values, and then in regard to the amount of time they devoted to these ministerial tasks. Here is what he found:
            Rank of “importance”             Rank in “time given”
            1. preacher                               1. administrator
            2. pastor                                    2. pastor
            3. organizer                               3. preacher
            4. administrator                        4. organizer
            5. teacher                                  5. teacher
Note that teaching occupies the last place in both lists. Would such a hierarchy of ministerial preferences be compatible with the New Testament conception of the ministry?
James Smart in The Rebirth of Ministry makes it clear that where there is no teacher but only a preacher, one need not expect to find disciples. “A preaching and pastoral and priestly ministry” he writes, “may build large congregations and impressive organizations, but only when there is added to them an effective teaching ministry does the church begin to become a fellowship of disciples.”5
Another part of the problem is actually moving from the concept of “lay” ministry to its practice outside the congregation. How much attention is given to support systems for church members who apply their priesthood through the week? One writer suggests that sending a person into the structures of society as an individual Christian is like sending a soldier to meet the enemy alone.
A third problem lies in the organizational dynamics of congregational life. Church leaders easily get trapped into being controllers of ministry rather than supporters of ministry. Thus the concept of every member being a minister means a frantic effort by the leader to find something for everyone to do, resulting in a profusion of questionnaires, new jobs, surveys, and frustrations. The common concern of church council members—“If only we could get more members involved”—betrays the assumption that ministry is done only within the confines of the congregational program, or at least in some way determined by the church board.
The problem is not easily solved. The very nature of congregational life tends toward consolidation—members need each other, they enjoy working together, and common endeavors require their closeness to each other. As Paul reminds us, in this one “body” the interrelationships and mutual helpfulness are to be as cooperative and complementary as the various members and organs of the human body (1 Cor. 12:12). The very term congregation indicates those who have congregated. However, defending congregational life does not eliminate the need to look for ways to strengthen centrifugal forces.

Formidable Difficulties

How can the ministry of church members happen? Certainly not without the pastor. What is his or her major role? The pastor is supplied to equip all God’s people for their ministry in whatever station they are in life, and in all areas of life. And what is involved in the equipping task?

2006 1529 page8Four Greek words used in the New Testament inform our answer. The first is artios, a noun that means “complete” or “sound”—used only once in the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:17. The second is katartismos, a noun used once in Ephesians 4:12, in which it means “preparation.” This most closely resembles the dictionary meaning of “equipping”: “making ready or competent for service or action.” 

That is the basic idea of “equipment” or “equipping” or “for the preparation of the saints,” as it is variously translated. The third is katartisis, a noun that means “being made complete.” It is used this way in 2 Corinthians 13:9: “Our prayer is for your perfection.” 

Finally, there is katartizo, a verb used 13 times. It means “to put in order, to restore and to prepare.”6 But it is Ephesians 4:11, 12 that gives us the basic directive. Today’s English Version renders it well: “It was he [Christ] who ‘gave gifts to people’; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ.”* 

In plain English, this means the pastor’s role is not merely to keep people with Christ, but to develop them for Christ’s service in the church and in the world. A pastor is the head of a “seminary,” a training school for workers. The pastor is the dean, and the members are his colleagues in ministry.


Models of Ministry

R. Paul Stevens suggests that the New Testament offers three exciting models of equipping structures in the local church.

The first model is the “walking seminary.” He cites Paul using his missionary journeys as opportunities for mobile equipping. Surrounding himself with those who could later replace him, he begins with Barnabas, then Silas. Then Timothy in Lystra; Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth; Erastus in Ephesus; Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus in northern Greece; and Gaius in Derbe.
The second model is the “open school in the marketplace.” Paul’s longest missionary stays, especially in the hall of Tyrannus, inaugurated the prototype of the second model, where for seven hours daily he equipped the local Christians for evangelism and lay training (Acts 19:9, 10).
The third model is the “advance-retreat pattern.” This model appears in Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus led His disciples in active ministry, retreated with them for reflection, evaluation, and further instruction, and then led them out again.7 The question is: Would such equipping models take place without the initiative of the pastor?
Besides the pastor giving himself or herself primarily to equipping members, a creative starting point for the institution of the above models is the discovery that a church member already is a minister! The impression often given in sermons and church literature is that one could be a minister, or that one should be a minister, and the result is that members spend a great deal of time struggling to achieve ministry. They think if they hold a certain office or perform an eleemosynary service, they will be ministers. The usual result of such legalism is guilt and dissatisfaction.
In contrast, the biblical teaching is that Christians are ministers. Interestingly, even those of the Corinthian church, torn as it was by factions and including many who were immoral, proud, and hypocritical, were not told, “You could be a letter from Christ.” Paul writes, “You are a letter” (2 Cor. 3:3, RSV, italics supplied).†
Christians begin to get excited when they realize that the question is not “How can we be ministers?” but “How did our ministry go last week?”

Gifts and Giftedness

Ministry has often been constricted because needs were stressed and gifts were forgotten. A member becomes a Sabbath school teacher, for example, because the Sabbath school council has identified a need and no one else will do it. But only the balanced formula of need and resource (gifted person) spells ministry. If I see you drowning, would I jump in to save you if I could not swim? Many efforts at ministry are futile when giftedness and service do not match.

2006 1529 page8The apostle Paul enjoins all Christians to engage in sober self-evaluation of their giftedness (Rom. 12:3, 4), resulting in a personal assessment that neither exaggerates nor depreciates. For instance, persons may think they have the singing excellence of a Sarah Brightman or an Andrea Bocelli. However, when they open their mouths it is clear that they have exaggerated their vocal furnishings. The result: they punish the people in the pews! Conversely, if God has given a person the gift of teaching and by sinful diffidence he or she refuses to use it, then they are depreciating the gift God has given them.
Each of us represents a unique part of God’s creation. When I die, I will not be replaced. Be grateful for the gift God has given you. Each believer makes his or her own contribution to the total church (1 Cor. 12:18, 28).

How Can I Minister?

One way to identify and fulfill one’s ministry is to discover one’s own uniqueness—what one is, what one likes to do, what one sees in the world, what one can offer. Then begin looking for situations in which to make that offer. Gordon Cosby suggests “we’ve got to find out what we want to do, really, because nothing else is going to help anybody.”8

Charles R. Swindoll in Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life tells the story of a group of animals who organized a school. They adopted an activity curriculum of running, climbing, swimming, and flying in which all the animals took all the subjects. “The duck was excellent in swimming . . . but he made only passing grades in flying, and was very poor in running. . . . The rabbit started at the top of his class in running, but developed a nervous twitch in his leg muscles because of so much makeup work in swimming. . . . The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but he encountered constant frustration in flying class because his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. . . . The eagle . . . in climbing classes beat all the others to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own way to get there.” Swindoll concludes by saying that “each creature has his own set of capabilities in which it will naturally excel—unless it is expected or forced to fill a mold that doesn’t fit. What is true of creatures in the forest is true of Christians in the family. God has not made us all the same. It’s OK to be you. . . . Enjoy your capabilities, cultivate your own style.”9

Watching Each Other’s Back

Congregations can be the arena in which Christians identify their gifts and offer them to others. I’d like to suggest two ways congregations can be especially helpful.

First, the calling forth of gifts is best done in the community of believers. The surrounding group provides support, feedback, clarification, and insight. A congregation should be a place in which small groups of people meet to identify their gifts and find ways of offering them “for the good of others.”
These groups need to resist two temptations. The first is to look only within the congregational structure for possibilities of utilizing the gift. If our mission is the world, then we need to be especially imaginative in finding ways to send each other, with our gifts, into situations outside the church. A second temptation is to control the offering. When the congregation determines the value or significance of a service, this reduces the infinite variety possible through the Spirit.
A second challenge for congregations is to create support systems for ministers. Ministry is not a problem to be solved in a Bible class, but a lifetime of discipleship to be constantly shared.
Congregations need to stop asking, “How can I get more people involved?” and instead find out what kinds of support its members need for their weekly activities—inside and outside the congregation. Let me explain.
Mark Gibbs has pointed out that the entire people of God (the laity) include three general categories of ministers. About 1 percent is what we normally call professional clergy. About 10 percent might be called “churchly” laity, those persons whose gifts are indeed well-offered primarily within the institutional church. They are indispensable to the life of the church, and need to be encouraged to fulfill their ministry with joy. But more than 80 percent, whom Gibbs calls “secular laity,” are not basically involved in the structure of the institutional church. Some are rather nominal church members, but a sizeable number “do wish to serve God faithfully in one way or another; they will not do this primarily in church organizations, but in the other secular structures of their lives.”10 The best support for such ministers should involve setting up consultations and other forms of dialogue within those structures.
Losing and Finding
It has been said that the more effective the leader of the group is, the less the group will look to him. Perhaps it could be said that the stronger the ministry of God’s people becomes, the less that ministry will be controlled by church leadership. For when the concept moves to practice it will no longer be neat, uniform, or manageable. Each unique child of God will be fulfilling his or her ministry. As Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, remarked: “How ironic if the church were to find life by losing it, by giving it away.”11 Paul makes it clear that there are no unimportant spiritual gifts, and that the exercise of this universal priesthood does not do away with the institutional church or the necessity of the pastoral office. It is a God-ordained means to multiply the church’s ministry. This ministry, however, is carried out not only in the church edifice, but in the family, the neighborhood, the community—in fact, throughout the world! In this way it fulfills the Great Commission, which Christ gives to all who accept Him as Savior and Lord.
*Bible texts credited to TEV are from the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1976; New Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976.
Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1See Acts 15:14, TEV; 1 Peter 2:9, 10, TEV.
2Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 195.
3Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 326.
4Samuel Blizzard, “The Training of the Parish Minister,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review (New York), XI, 2. 47.
5James D. Smart, The Rebirth of the Ministry (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 93.
6William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 120.
7R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), pp. 55-59.
8Gordon Cosby, “The Calling Forth of the Charisma” (mimeographed sermon), Church of the Savior, 2025 Massachusetts Avenue NW., Washington, D.C. 20036, 1963.
9Charles R. Swindoll, cited in The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), pp. 1, 2.
10Mark Gibbs, “The Structures of the Church and the Different Kinds of Laity,” Audenshaw Papers #26 (Audenshaw Foundation, 1 Lord Street, Denton, Manchester, M34-2PF, England, 1974).
11Brian McLaren, cited in ChristianityToday.com (www.christianitytoday.com/leaders/newsletter/2004/cln40629.html ).
Rex D. Edwards, D.Min., is an associate vice president and dean of religious studies at Griggs University in Silver Spring, Maryland. Edwards’ book A New Frontier: Every Believer a Minister is available from the General Conference Ministerial Association Resource Center.