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.
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.