And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
Ephesians 4: 11-12
How do you and I view ministry? We all bring our own ideas of what we believe ‘ministry’ to be to the table. Our opinions on what ministry should look like is influenced by many areas, such as our background, our church denomination or lack thereof, and our personal experience. While these elements do shape our view of ministry, there is one that should take a preeminent position, and that is what scripture teaches on ministry.
Firstly, it is really important to clear up what the word ‘ministry’ actually means. The word literally means service. So in the context of Ephesians 4, ministry is any service - for God - that builds up the church.
How we can often view ministry
Some tend to think that the work of ministry is to be carried out solely by the ranks of the clergy, ministers, pastors and the like. Although in Scripture it is clear that there is a special call on those who serve as elders in the church - to devote themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), to “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1: 9) and “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5 : 2) - the work of ministry is by no means limited to this.
Service that builds up the church goes far beyond the role of the elder, and also in my opinion, far beyond the boundaries of the gathered church.
If we hold the view that those ‘called into the ministry’ in the church are the only ones really to be involved in ministry, then we have limited it to something that only happens when the church meets. This is not the case!
Or if we don’t view ministry as just the ‘job for the minister,’ perhaps we picture it as church members serving throughout their church. While it is good for this to be case, people using their gifts to serve God and the body, and having the workload spread throughout the congregation - we still have some difficulties with this definition of ministry.
If we think that ministry only happens when the corporate church is gathered, or in various church organisations, then what about the devoted followers of Jesus who simply don’t see a place for themselves to serve in the church? When we hold the view that ministry only occurs in the church, or as an extension of the church, then the temptation is that we start as many church programs as we can, so that everyone has an area that they can ‘minister’ in.
What about those who faithfully share the gospel with the people in their workplace? What about the person who witnesses about Jesus on the building site, and shares his life with those he works with? What about the church member who gives their time to help out with the local sports team, sharing the good news of Christ with those they encounter? Are they not ministering? Of course they are!
The problem those in a growing church can face is that so many are needed to serve, and so much is needed to be done, that they often squeeze so much of their time into the church’s ministries, that they are simply unable to engage with ministry outside the church. We are to spend time with people who are not followers of Christ, help those who need help, and shepherd our families. Sadly, the first place that we are called to minister in - our homes - is often the first place we neglect. So what can we do?
Simplify and encourage
How can we reform a view of ministry that is unhealthy and unbiblical? It is the job of the elders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” One of the ways I believe that we can do this is by simplifying the way in which we ‘do church.’ As I have mentioned, one of the pitfalls that a church can face is feeling the temptation to begin new programs. We need to resist this urge to ‘do more,’ as more programs simply means that more people are spending more time in church, rather than being salt and light where God has placed them, among the people that He has put around them.
Perhaps this calls for an evaluation of current programs in the church. If we find that they are not fulfilling the function of “building up the body of Christ” then they may need to be stopped or re-thought. Although this may be a painful process, it is essential if we are to be faithful to what God has called us to, namely, making disciples of Jesus (Matt 28:19). Often, church ministries and programs can become ‘golden calfs’ that we cling onto on and treat as if they have intrinsic value in and of themselves, even though they are not fulfilling their original purpose.
We must encourage one another to see all of life as ministry. This was very much the thought of both Martin Luther and John Calvin. Calvin especially saw that our vocation in life, whatever that may be, was assigned by a sovereign God. He commented,
“Every individual's line of life, therefore, is, as it were, a post assigned him by the Lord, that he may not wander about in uncertainty all his days."
We should therefore encourage our brothers and sisters that wherever we find ourselves - be that the office, the building site or the hospital ward; teaching, studying or raising children at home - that is exactly where God has placed us, that is where he would have us ‘minister.’
The danger in elevating ministry within the church is that we devalue ministry outside the church. Each is as valuable as the other, and we should be strive to be content in where God has set us.
As we consider what ministry truly is, it is good to ask ourselves some hard questions. What am I called to? Am I content in that calling? I am praying that through seeking God in prayer and through the scriptures, we all find the answers to those questions.