(Note: the following article is adapted from a sermon series on ministry and mission preached at St. George’s Church in July and August of 2012 - RLS)
A very unfortunate expression that infects the life of the church and is often said when someone senses a call to ordination is this: “So-and-so is going into the ministry.” Though well-intentioned, it is a familiar expression that reveals a common distortion about Christian ministry: only those who are ordained or specially trained religious professionals are called ministers. This view is mistaken. What kind of Christian is not going into the ministry? All baptized believers are authorized ministers of the church. So the next time we are tempted to say, “So-and-so is going into the ministry,” I hope it is referring to someone about to be baptized.
The message for this article is simple and straightforward: as members of the church, God has given each one of us a unique capacity for ministry and the wherewithal to accomplish it. This is true for every baptized member. Ministry is not a term limited to ordained people and church professionals. Ministry is not limited to formal titles and special leadership positions. Indeed, perhaps the most needed and important ministries do not carry any official church titles at all: husband, mother, sister, friend, school teacher, nurse, banker, CEO, community volunteer, golfing buddy, bridge partner, or neighbor across the hedge row.
I recently came across a quotation from Peggy O’Mara, a speaker and author on the subject of parenting: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”As most sensitive and wise parents know, children’s identity is formed very early and then reinforced very powerfully over the years by the messages we communicate to them. So to a great degree we become what we hear about ourselves. Our identity is shaped by what others say about us, especially those closest to us for the longest time, our parents.
I think there is application here to the church. What talk do people assimilate in the church that so many hear an inner voice speaking suggesting real ministry is reserved for the people who sit in the chancel? What do we need to be saying so that this identity can be recast? And what if we let the Bible talk to us in such a way that it becomes our inner voice on what we hear about ministry rather than a cultural church history that communicates ministry is best done wearing a clerical collar?
As I have wrestled with these questions in recent years, I return often to the Letter to the Ephesians. This correspondence attributed to Paul is dense and rich, but it has a lot to say about the ministry of all believers. I have often said that one could articulate the central theme of Paul’s important letter as the exhortation: “My fellow Christians, be Christian! You have been lavished with grace and have a distinctive identity in Christ. Each of you is empowered to do your important part. Be the church!”
A critical passage from the Letter to the Ephesians is found in chapter four: “I therefore a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul goes on: “Each one of us is given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry…” (Ephesians 4:1, 7, 11-12).
The fundamental point is that each of us is given the same saving grace in Christ Jesus. God does not love some more than others. But with this fierce divine love comes the bestowal of differing gifts. And these gifts are given according to Christ’s will. They are not ours by personal choice or taste or desire. We have what we have in terms of spiritual gifts by the measure of Christ. But everyone is gifted! Not just to apostles like Paul; not just ordained leaders or those who have seminary degrees and wear stoles and chasubles in worship; not just to people with recognized leadership experience or obvious natural talents.
And the giving of gifts for ministry is not merely a passive experience. The grace of Christ activates something. We become equipped to do something ourselves. So the change that happens inside of us when we receive grace begins to change the things outside of us by grace working through us. And the word for that process is ministry.
What needs to happen for all of us to feel encouragement and roominess to explore activating this grace, to trust that we are in fact equipped for serious, impactful ministry? We need to nurture an empowering church environment. I am committed to leadership that tries to help accomplish this goal. After all, don’t we all really want to belong to a community of faith where everyone is encouraged and empowered to exercise their gifts for ministry - a church where we really do believe that Christ’s grace equips all of us? What if we believed that we will never be all we can be unless everyone’s gifts are not only permitted but desired?
If the inner church voice we hear says we don’t have the capacity to be a powerful minister of God, then we need to hear a different church voice speaking to us. We need to return to what we hear from the pages of the New Testament. But let us also ask ourselves a hard question. Are we more anxious that we do not have gifts for ministry or that, actually, we do! If so, what then?
St. Thomas Church in Sheffield, England, exemplifies “the priesthood of all believers.” Over the past 15 years it has become a pilgrimage destination for pastors from around the world, those eager to see a church community where people’s gifts for ministry are activated and operative. I heard a story of an American clergyman who was visiting St. Thomas and who ducked into the church bathroom. Inside, he greeted a man cleaning the toilets. Later that day, there was a worship service in which at the conclusion participants were invited to walk to any of various stations around the church of intercessory prayer. The American visitor went for prayer. As he stood with eyes closed and head bowed, he was amazed at the words a stranger prayed over him. With his hands on his shoulder, this intercessor spoke directly into what was going on in the pastor’s life, words that could not have been known unless God had given them to the one praying. At the end of the prayer, the pastor opened his eyes and looked up, recognizing in that moment that the one who had prayed over him in that powerful moment was the church sexton, the man who had been cleaning the bathroom.
Why is that story so much more compelling that the intercessor was the sexton rather than the rector of the church? The first great miracle of the gospel is that Christ lived, died, and rose again to save us and everyone else. And the second great miracle is that he has enlisted us to help him continue the work as his church. Can we hear the voice that exhorts us to lead lives worthy of that calling and to remember that Christ has given each one of us a ministry and the wherewithal to accomplish it. And can we hear that voice less as a command and more of an incredible compliment and invitation?
- Leigh +