I want to begin today by saying something that might sound crazy, or provocative, or both: in the total ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ, the role of ordained clergy like me is secondary. You people are the primary ministers.
I believe this is a fundamental truth: front-line Christian ministry takes place seven days a week in the lives of ordinary followers of Jesus. It happens in a Christian home as members of the family learn to set their natural selfishness aside and serve one another in the name of Jesus. It happens in an office as a Christian businessperson struggles with the issue of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in an atmosphere dedicated to the creation of worldly wealth. It happens in a convenience store as a Christian behind the counter tries hard to treat her customers as human beings loved by God. It happens day by day as followers of Jesus learn to love their enemies and pray for those who hate them, to care for the poor and suffering, and to share the good news of Jesus with others.
Why am I talking about this today? Because we’re doing a series called ‘Helping My Church to Grow’, and we’re trying to identify things that each one of us can do to help our church grow with integrity. We’ve talked about making a commitment to our own spiritual growth as disciples of Jesus, and making a commitment to welcoming newcomers and visitors to our church as if they were the guests of Jesus – which they are. Today I want to go on to the next thing we can do: making a commitment to ministry. And I want to say very clearly that ‘ministry’ isn’t just something done by people wearing clerical collars. The word ‘minister’ just means ‘servant’. Are you a servant of Jesus Christ? If you are a Christian, the answer is ‘Of course you are!’ We’re all called to serve God as followers of Jesus, and God has given each of us gifts to enable us to do that.
But ministry isn’t just about what we do in church. Ministry is about what God is doing in the world, and how we can take part in that work. The Bible tells us that God is committed to the transformation of the world from a place of evil and hate into a place of love and compassion. And that means success isn’t just more people coming to church on Sunday. Success means that on Monday morning, when you folks get into your cars to go to work, you see yourselves first of all as disciples of Jesus and partners in God’s work to change the world. That means that you don’t just go to work to make a living; you go to make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God. And of course, this also applies to those who go to school, or those who dedicate their lives to making the home a place of love and nurture for those who live there. Wherever they go, Christians are ministers of Jesus Christ.
So Christian ministry is about the entire Christian community working for God in the world. It’s a team thing! Every member of the team is important, and every member of the team has gifts from God that are necessary to the whole team.
God’s team is a team with a vision. In the seventeenth century a great fire burned down a huge portion of the city of London, including many churches. Sir Christopher Wren was a great architect who designed many of the new churches and other buildings, including the present St. Paul’s Cathedral with its distinctive dome. The story is told that one day a team of visitors was walking around the construction site of St. Paul’s. They knew very little about building, and so they kept stopping and asking the various workers what they were doing. When they asked one man, he replied “I’m digging a hole, can’t you see?” Another one said “I’m hauling stones, obviously”. But the third looked at them with a smile and said proudly “I’m helping Sir Christopher Wren build a great cathedral!”
That man had a sense of vision, and because he saw the big picture he understood how important his little job was. In the same way, we Christians are members of the construction team of the Architect of the Universe, and we are helping to rebuild a ruined world. In this work, what we need more than anything else is a sense of where our work fits into the whole plan.
What is the whole plan? In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. This is parallelism, a form of Hebrew poetry in which the second line repeats the first, only in a slightly different way. So if we ask “What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come?” the reply is “It means that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven”. At the moment, of course, this is not the case; the reason there is so much suffering and misery in the world is that God’s will is not being done on earth as in heaven. But as God’s kingdom advances in the world, as God’s loving will is done, then our broken world will be healed. And this is what we are doing as Christians: we’re living to heal the world.
This is what ‘ministry’ is: using your God-given gifts and talents to help God’s plan for the world become a reality. Every legitimate human occupation can be a means of doing this. A teacher who devotes herself to the shaping of young minds, or a policeman who gives himself to the protection of vulnerable people – these folks are fulfilling God’s plan every bit as much as the pastor who preaches on Sunday morning. And this means that as Christians we can’t build firewalls and keep God out of our work. Jesus wants to be your Lord at work as well as at church! Sometimes this means wrestling with hard issues. What does it mean for a Christian in business to be part of a corporation which uses cheap labour in Third World countries? Questions like this are tough, but wrestling with them is part of our responsibility as Christians committed to following Jesus as Lord at work as well as at church.
So this is the vision: God wants to heal the world, and the job of the Church is to help that happen. That means we go out into the world to share the love of God in both words and actions. In words, we share the Good News of Jesus and invite people to become his followers. In actions, we do all we can to alleviate human suffering and make the world the kind of place God wants it to be. Keep this vision in mind as we continue to talk about Christian ministry.
We’ve said that God’s team is a team with a vision. God’s team is also a team with no passengers.
Imagine that the Saskatchewan Roughriders are coming to Edmonton to play the Eskimos. The game starts; the Roughriders move out onto the gridiron and take their places. Then, to everyone’s amazement, out to face them on the other side comes the Edmonton Eskimos’ coach. You know what the result would be in this situation! And if the Eskimos continue to ask their coach to be the sole player in every game, two things are going to happen. First, the coach is going to get crucified. Second, the players are going to lose their skills because they won’t have opportunities to use them. So this situation is not only bad for the coach; it’s bad for the team as well.
This is the situation in many churches; the people think that the coach should be the one to do all the ministry. They think that they haven’t really been prayed for unless the pastor prays for them. They haven’t really been visited unless the pastor visits them. They haven’t really been taught unless the pastor teaches them. What’s the result of this? The pastor gets crucified and the church members don’t grow in their ability to use the gifts God has given them.
The reason we have this problem is that we’re working with the wrong model of church life. I’ve been using the model of a team and its coach, but many church members are working with an entirely different model. Their model is a bus and its driver. In this model, the pastor is the bus driver and the congregation are the passengers. This is why they get annoyed when the pastor suggests that they ought to do some of the ministry in the congregation. It’s as if they’d paid for their bus ticket, only to discover an hour into the trip that they were expected to do some of the driving. “Why are you asking me to drive? That’s what I pay you to do?”
But this model of a bus and its driver is completely unbiblical. Every image of the church used in the New Testament stresses the team concept. The Apostle Paul says that the church is like a body with many parts, and he points out that every part has a vital role to play if the body is going to be healthy.
So the proper model for church life is a team with a coach. The purpose of the church is to help Christians grow so that they can do God’s work in the world. The role of pastors is to train Christians in order for them to be able to do that work. Paul says, ‘The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Ephesians 4:11-12).
The Church is not a bus. Healthy churches don’t carry passengers. They may sometimes carry injured players who need time to rest and heal up from their wounds. But this is not intended to be a permanent situation. As soon as they are well again, the injured players will be redeployed on God’s team so that God’s work in the world will go forward.
So God’s team is a team with a vision, and a team with no passengers. Thirdly, it’s a team with God’s gifts.
Pastors and preachers sometimes use the phrase ‘spiritual gifts’. What that means is simply this: if God calls you to do a job for him, the Holy Spirit will give you the gifts and talents you need to do the job and do it well. When my friend Joe Walker began to work as a university chaplain, I heard someone say that he had the spiritual gift of ‘hanging out’ with students! That simply meant that God had given Joe a talent for going where students where, doing things with them, and striking up significant conversations.
In the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible, there’s often this wonderful combination of natural and supernatural abilities. The supernatural gifts tend to get our attention, but the natural abilities are just as important. For instance, one of the characters in the book of Acts is named Joseph, but the apostles gave him a new name: ‘Barnabas’, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’. Why do you think they gave him that name? I can just imagine the coffee row discussion after church one day in Antioch: “That Joseph! No matter how bad you’re feeling, all you need to do is talk to him and he lifts you up!” Or the two young preachers in training comparing notes, and one of them saying “I thought I’d made a real mess of that sermon, but old Joseph came over and pointed out two or three things that he really liked about it, and I felt so much better”. Joseph had the gift of encouraging people, and that’s why they nicknamed him ‘Barnabas’.
Listen to what Paul says in Romans (I’m quoting from the New Living Translation):
‘In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly’ (Romans 12:5-8).
This list has that same combination of the unusual and the ordinary. Some people have the gift of prophecy; they’re able to hear God speaking to them with a message to pass on to others. You might think that’s a pretty high-calibre gift and not one an ordinary Christian like you or me could aspire to. But at the end of the list we see the gift of kindness: some people are really good at feeling other people’s pain and reaching out to them with just the help they need.
Think about all the gifts a church needs in order to fulfil its mission for God. We need parents with the skills to bring up children in an atmosphere of love and nurture so that they grow into mature disciples of Jesus. We need businesspeople who can think through the ethical issues of being in business today and run their companies in such a way that God’s will is done. We need teachers who understand that all truth is God’s truth and who understand that the forming of young minds is a sacred trust from God. We need politicians, judges and lawyers who will put doing the will of God ahead of narrower concerns in their daily work.
And in the daily life of a congregation we need musicians who can lead us in worship; people with financial skill to handle our books; administrators to make sure everything is run efficiently. We need compassionate people who will give their time to listening and being there for others who are in pain, and gifted evangelists who can share the good news with non-Christians. We need people with skill in maintenance to look after our buildings, and good teachers for our Sunday School. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the ministry of pastors yet!
There is hardly a human skill in the world which God does not need for the extension of his kingdom. Or looking at it the other way around: if God asks us to do a job, you can be sure that he will give us the gifts we need in order to complete it.
So we’ve seen that ministry is a team thing: God’s team doing God’s work in the world. It’s a team with a vision: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. It’s a team with no passengers; everyone works together to achieve God’s purposes. And it’s a team with God’s gifts: God will give us the talents and gifts we need to accomplish the work he’s given us to do.
What’s your place in that work? What ministry has God called you to do for him? Let me close by asking you four questions.
First, what do you enjoy doing? What excites you, what gives you a sense of pleasure when you think about doing it? What gives you the sense of ‘This is what I was made to do?’
Second, what do other people tell you you’re good at doing? Sometimes there are things we think we’re good at doing, but other people know better! And conversely, sometimes there are gifts we don’t know we have, but other people notice them right away! So we need to ask other people ‘What do you think my spiritual gifts are?’
Third, what bothers you when it’s not done well? Sometimes this is a good indicator to us of an area God has gifted us in! When I’m in a different church and the sermon really isn’t very good, it bugs me! And I know that’s because one of my spiritual gifts is preaching. For you it might be shoddy bookkeeping, or grounds that don’t look well cared for. Again, that’s often a good indicator that God has called you to minister in a certain way.
Fourth, what need has God put on your heart? If you are in the habit of praying and listening to God, you know what I mean. Sometimes you’ll just get the sense that God is putting a burden on your heart for a particular piece of work. It might be a surprise to you; you might never have felt any interest in this sort of thing before. But the Holy Spirit is guiding you, and so you do your best to listen, and then you check it out with someone else and say, ‘What do you think? Do you think God might be calling me to do something about this?’
Churches that grow, grow because each member is discovering their spiritual gifts and using them to minister – to serve God as a member of the Body of Christ. You are part of God’s ministry team. So am I. So let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will help us discover our own spiritual gifts, so we can all work together to be part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’.