“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” If only that old proverb were true. But words can harm us, especially when distorted. Our religious vocabulary can barricade us from moving toward shared church. Take the words calling and ministry. As Paul Stevens says in The Other Six Days, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It seems God calls just a few special people to serve in official church roles. The rest don’t see themselves as having any calling. Why not, then, just sit back, watch, and enjoy listening to those God has called?
So, preparing Christians for participatory church gatherings will require teaching on God’s calling. “Calling,” writes Os Guinness in The Call, “is not what it is commonly thought to be. It has to be dug out from under the rubble of ignorance and confusion.” The word ministry, too, has gotten buried under centuries of debris. Part of the muddled thinking comes about because calling and ministry often show up as conjoined twins: “I was an engineer before God called me into ministry.” Are Christian engineers uncalled? Are they not called into ministry?
Paul and Peter repeatedly use the phrase “you were called” when writing to Christians in general. We become Christ-followers only in response to God’s summons, his invitation, his “Come to me.” God’s calling initiates our life of faith. So, every believer is called. Wrapped inside that calling is a second calling—to a life of ministry. To minister, in New Testament Greek, means to serve. Paul wrote that God gave the church its leaders “to prepare all God's people for the work of Christian service [ministry]” (Eph. 4:12, TEV).
If, week in and week out, the ecclesiastical professional shoulders most if not all of the spiritual workload during a Sunday gathering, the New Testament concept of a shared ministry gets blurred and even blocked. The Message paraphrase paints the participatory church vividly: “When you gather for worship, each one of you be prepared with something that will be useful for all: Sing a hymn, teach a lesson, tell a story, lead a prayer, provide an insight” (I Cor. 14:26). Paul wrote this letter to the whole church in Corinth. So, “each one of you” means everyone in the meeting was to come prepared to minister to—to serve—all the others.
Our church traditions, though, have conditioned us to think that only the ordained or those on a church payroll are called into ministry. Os Guinness says “there is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.” Check his statement out for yourself. Guinness adds: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. . . . Our secondary calling . . . is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live and act entirely for him.”
As I say in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, “. . . getting our vocabulary right is critically important, because the terms we use become the tools we think with. Just as a hammer is the wrong tool for fixing a leaky pipe, the wrong word can never repair a damaging idea. Does this mean we should expunge the word ministry from our lexicon? Not at all. Instead we need to extend ministry (service) so that it applies to all forms of God-honoring work. In addition to the ministry of the Word, there is the ministry of education, the ministry of construction, the ministry of automotive repair, and on it goes.”
What, then, is the work—secondary calling—of pastors and teachers? It is to serve fellow believers by helping them discover and develop their own secondary callings, their own unique works of ministry. We can see this pattern in Paul’s instructions to Timothy: teach others who will teach others who will teach others (II Tim. 2:2). If we actually practiced this, think of the spiritual workforce it would unleash in and from the church!
Recently I was asked to bring the sermon in a church meeting. My text came from Romans 6 on the truth of our having been set free in Christ. To illustrate how God liberates us from sin’s rule in our lives, I invited a young woman (I’ll call her “Joan”) to share in the message by telling her story. She related how she had gone virtually blind by the age of four. Starting out from an abusive home life, she descended into a life of addiction. Along the way, Joan gave birth to five children, losing custody of them all. Although initially resisting God’s call to faith in Christ, she finally yielded. She began devouring Scripture and experienced God’s deliverance from her former prison. Joan told that she now has a job and for the first time is able to pay child support to those caring for her children.
After the benediction, many from the congregation rushed to surround and thank Joan for her testimony. For weeks afterward, I kept hearing church people talk about what she had shared. Just the other day I learned she will soon give her testimony in another church. In the traditional, distorted sense of being “called into ministry,” Joan never was. Yet there is no doubt that God has called her. And he has clearly given her a ministry.
Church congregations everywhere are filled with Christians who are experiencing God at work in their families, their neighborhoods, and workplaces. Some will need coaching to learn how to tell their stories effectively to their church families. But, like Joan, when they are given opportunities to share what God is doing, believers are built up and God is glorified.