by Justin Lonas
Editor's Note: This is the fourth of 10 articles on areas in which entrenched unbiblical attitudes tend to hold sway in the Church. We are seeking to encourage believers to live up to Paul's command to "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world rather than according to Christ" (Col. 2:8).
Tradition Number 4-Ministry Models
Each week in thousands of churches across the world, a familiar pattern kicks into motion.
It begins early Sunday morning with Sunday school, followed shortly by the main service in which three hymns or praise choruses are sung, announcements made, fellow churchgoers warmly greeted, offering collected to the backdrop of special music, the 30-45 minute sermon is delivered, and the Body departs after a benediction. Many will return for a shortened version of the same on Sunday night. Wednesday brings Bible studies, youth and children's meetings, and perhaps choir practice. A few other outreaches and programs may be scattered throughout the week before the system resets and repeats itself roughly 52 times per year.
In most places, we call this cycle "Church ministry"-it is, by definition, "what we do" as Christians. Often, however, we go through this routine week in and week out without giving much thought to why we do it or how it came to be the norm.
What is ministry after all? We use that term to encompass almost any activity undertaken by a Church, but what does it mean? The word itself has roots in the Latin word "minister", which means "servant". In that sense, true ministry is always grounded in servanthood.
We see this theme in the life of Christ, who culminated His ministry by offering Himself up in atonement. We see it in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35 as the believers of the early Church sacrificed their possessions willingly and did whatever it took to meet the needs of those among them. We see it in the injunction to be subject to one another under the Spirit in Ephesians 5:21 and in James' description of "pure and undefiled religion" found in caring for widows and orphans.
Those aspects of the work of the early Church not directly related to the service of others were certainly carried out in the service of God. The devotion to teaching, fellowship, prayer, and praise described in Acts 2 are acts of service to Christ. The Spirit-let worship in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" of Ephesians 5:19 is also distinctively born out of a desire to do Christ's bidding. Evangelism is two-fold servanthood: it flows from Christ's exhortation to us, but is also a labor of love toward those who are perishing.
Even preaching and teaching are to be done in service to God and His Church, and are anything but "academic pursuits." We are reminded that "the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion," (1 Tim. 1:5-6). As important as the Truth is, Paul understood that knowledge alone is not the goal, but rather as a means to the "profitable godliness" (1 Tim. 4:8) that spurs believers to give their all in service to God's Kingdom. The Word is taught to equip the Church for its mission (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
If the work of the Church is indeed wrapped up in the concept of humble service, then there are facets of the operations of many of today's churches that do not constitute ministry.
The overwhelming focus on individual emotional and spiritual problems in many churches represents a misdirection of the energy and resources of the Body away from its kingdom calling. Individuals should find healing for their issues, but through actively giving service to the cause of Christ in addition to receiving nurturing from the Church. Likewise, when we pursue the study of Scripture and theology to the exclusion of its application through service and evangelism, we develop an unhealthy inward focus that hinders the Church from Christ's purposes.
The opposite extreme of outward pursuits of cultural morality, social justice, and relevance to the lost at the expense of keeping the fire of Truth and life brightly burning within the Church is equally destructive to our mission. Our noblest actions are hollow if they do not grow from within a well-grounded, Spirit-filled body.
We can also distort ministry by how we choose to go about it. Many churches now follow, implicitly or explicitly, "business model Christianity"-they organize programs for every endeavor, plan based on finances and earthly goals, and rely on church professionals to accomplish the work of the Body. Such a system leaves little room for God's leading and reduces church members to sources of economic and social capital instead of fostering in them the desire to live out their faith.
Habits of the world often creep into ministry as well. The shameful tendency of American believers to hop from church to church in search of just the right style of worship and teaching until we've segregated ourselves into myriad homogenous groups reflects the comfort-seeking consumerism of the wider culture and undermines the beauty of Christ's unifying power. Breaking down church members by age into "seniors ministry", "college ministry", "youth group", etc. has its purposes in addressing the specific issues each phase of life brings, but can easily compartmentalize the Body. Loving and fellowshipping only with those in like circumstances is natural to us; love of, service to, and fellowship with one another regardless of age, wealth, status, race, or any other of the world's demarcations is the peculiar marker of the faith that Christ calls us to in John 13:34-35. Our preferences should always be subservient to our commitment to God.
Isolation and separation between churches further contributes to the breakdown of ministry. While some divisions (such as over crucial doctrinal differences) are for the best, most of the competition between churches is petty and detracts from the overarching mission of Christ's family. The proliferation of churches in America should have resulted in a "divide and conquer" approach to reaching the nation for Christ, but more frequently has produced a culture of self-promotion and one-upmanship. This often flows out of pride and desire for significance rather than a commitment to God's work. We should ask ourselves whether we are doing the things we do for the glory of God or for the glory of "First Independent Christian MethoBaptiPresbyCostal Bible Church of God". 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 reminds us that we are to be unified under the banner of Christ and serve only Him.
In all, the focus of our ministry needs to grow out of our collective Christ-following instead of depending on the habits and traditions of men. The life of the Body is less about "what we do" and more about how, under Christ's headship, we relate to God, each other, and the unbelieving world. The purpose of all we do is for God's glory, not for the praise of men, the preservation of comfort zones, or personal benefit. The activity of church services and programs should be just the tip of the iceberg of the work of the Body-the Sunday gathering should be the celebration of the Church's week of work, not its sum total. If, instead, we allow the motions which we go through define us, we are forsaking our true calling.
Justin Lonas is editor-in-chief of Pulpit Helps magazine.