Watch Your Language: Part Two

The previous blog explored how the clergy-laity divide works against shared church. In Part Two, we’ll look at how misuse of the word ministry has a similar effect.  

“When words shrink, people get smaller,” wrote musical composer Paul Crabtree.

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Among us Christians, the withering of the word ministry has done just that to people. Originally, any Christ-follower could engage in ministry. But the term has undergone something like what happens when you drag the corners of a computer image to resize it. What began as large-box ministry has become small-box ministry.

Diakonia. That’s the Greek word usually translated into English as ministry. One Greek-English dictionary says it means “the role or position of serving” or “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people.” Most legitimate work, paid or unpaid, serves and cares for the needs of others. “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others,” says Lester DeKoster in Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

Enter Ministry-Lite

But in today’s church circles, the ministry has narrowed to mean work such as serving as a pastor or missionary. It’s easy to find examples online:

  • “Five Signs You’re Meant to Enter the Ministry”
  • “Should You Enter the Ministry?”
  • “He left the ministry to follow business opportunities.”  
  • “She . . . left the ministry to pursue a writing career.”

It seems, then, that the resized ministry has come to resemble a room with a swinging door. You may enter it today and leave it tomorrow. Which raises serious questions. If you, as a mature believer, enter the ministry, what were you doing before that? And if you leave the ministry, does that mean you have now entered “non-ministry”?

What if you switch back and forth? A friend of mine asked an acquaintance, “You’re retired, aren’t you?” The reply: "I’m still working part time with a parachurch, international students’ organization.  We recently spent a year where many of these students had come from. So we taught them English for 20-30 hours a week.  The rest of the time we did ministry.” Was this person stuck inside a revolving-door: entering-leaving-entering-leaving? Did Paul rotate in and out of ministry, making tents now, doing ministry then?

Those words, “entering” and “leaving,” show that the ministry has been professionalized. Lawyers and doctors may enter or leave their professional careers. But as Os Guinness points out in The Call: “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.”

Does the Small-Box Ministry Issue Matter?

Yes. First, because the resized word works against shared church. It tends to supersize those in the ministry. This only increases the distance between “clergy” and “laity.” Pedestals do not promote healthy one-anothering.  

Second, small-box ministry lets far too many Christians slip, so to speak, off the hook. It is easy to justify not laying down our lives in service for others by thinking, “But I’m not in the ministry.” Shared-church means every-member ministry. No one called by God gets a pass on serving him and others full time.

Third, countless Christians who wholeheartedly desire to serve the Lord in their work, get the strong impression—some are even taught—that this means they ought to “enter full-time ministry.” This is, they are often led to believe, a "higher calling." Far too many learn too late that God has not wired them to be pastors or missionaries. Some even end up needing the help of a psychiatrist or counselor.

Can We Find More Accurate Words?

Why do we continue to describe only the work of pastors and missionaries as the ministry? Do we lack the language to express the true situation? To find better ways of saying what we mean, it will help to keep a couple of truths firmly in mind:

  1. The church operates in two modes—gathered and scattered. Neither outranks the other. Each needs the other. Some have compared the rhythm to the body’s circulatory system. Blood gathers in the heart and lungs to be replenished, then scatters to the extremities to deliver life-giving oxygen and nutrients. Practicing shared church requires that we recognize both church gathered and church scattered and to give each its rightful place.
  2. God has called all of us to serve him and others—to minister—both with our words and our works. Many Scriptures emphasize both kinds of serving. For example, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed [literally, work], do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). The word-to-work proportion varies from member to member within the Body of Christ. Some are more word-focused. Some more work-focused. But each of us should engage in both.

With these gathered/scattered and word/work truths before us, perhaps we can discover new ways of speaking without falling back into the small-box-ministry language. Instead of saying, “He entered full-time ministry,” perhaps say something like, “He now serves as a shepherd in the gathered church.” Instead of saying, “She did not enter the ministry,” say something like, “She serves as a social worker in the scattered church.”

“Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36, The Message).

Seeing the Church in Both Its Modes

The benediction ended minutes ago. The last car has just pulled out of the parking lot. At this point, where is the church? Thirty minutes ago, most could have said exactly where the church was: they were in it. But now, this family heads home, that salesperson drives to the airport, and a twenty-something clocks in at Starbucks. Where is the church now? Does the Body of Christ go into suspended animation until next Sunday?

Where is the Church Between Sundays?

Neil Hudson, Imagine Project Director, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Unfortunately, our vocabulary fogs the answers to these questions. Centuries of tradition have trained us to apply the word church to a building. It is to the building that we drive or walk to “go to church.” Once inside, we are “in church.” But such terms do not clarify what happens to the church when we disperse. Since we are no longer together in the church building, are we then out of the church?

The experience of the Church in Acts 8 offers a word that can help us think all this through. Persecution ignited by the stoning of Stephen slammed against the Jerusalem church. As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered. . . . Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4). So, the church, once gathered, had now scattered. Still the same people (minus the apostles). Still, therefore, the same church. Still doing the work of the church. But now, telescoping outward, operating in its extended form.

So, the church functions in two modes: gathered and scattered. If your weekend meeting typically runs 75 to 90 minutes, the church appears in that gathered mode less than one percent of the 10,080-minute week. Even if you add in, say, another two hours per week for participation in small groups, gathering still accounts for only two percent of the time. So, between 98 and 99 percent of the time, the church lives and works in its scattered mode.

We are Kingdom Seeds

Scattered, in Acts 8, translates a word related to the Greek diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed across a field. In one of Jesus’s parables, the seed means God’s word. But in another parable, the seed stands for God’s people. Jesus reveals that he sows the “people of the kingdom,” as “good seed,” throughout the world-field (Matt. 13:37, 38, NLT).

In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), God scattered Daniel and his friends into a workplace right inside the idolatrous core of the Babylonian government. In that pagan context, they sprouted, took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today, in addition to knowing ourselves as priests, we Christians need to see ourselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the soil of the world to carry out God’s agenda where we live, work, and play. God has so arranged life in his Church that it does most of its work not in its gathered but in its scattered form.

Literal seeds, like Christians, need to be both gathered and scattered. After harvest, corn or wheat grains go to a seed company. There, the gathered seeds may be fortified to make each one more productive when it is scattered. For example, some seeds get treated with a fungicide to protect them from damping off or root rot. Bathing seeds in insecticides can safeguard them from harmful pests. Others may be coated with fertilizer to spur growth once they sprout in the ground. These seeds need this together-time. But the real reason for the gathering is to prepare the seeds to produce fruit when scattered.

Seed Preparation

In a similar way, the tiny fraction of time spent in our gatherings as Christians should prepare us for the far larger amount of time we will spend as the church in its scattered mode. In gathered-church meetings, we need to hear from those gifted and qualified to preach and teach. But we must also hear from those who can tell how they are seeing God act in every phase of scattered-church life. In most cases, a pastor serving full time on a church payroll has little or no experience with what confronts people in, say, the ethical dilemmas of a contemporary workplace. This lack of work-world contact poses no problem if the meeting format of the gathered church provides opportunities for others to voice reports from the scattered church. How has God been moving in this spiritually dark workplace, that conflict-torn neighborhood, or those alienated families?

Sadly, church life in the gathered mode can become addictive. The camaraderie and closeness, fellowship and friendship we experience when together feels far safer than the abrasive, dog-eat-dog world we often face in scattered-church mode. Yes, assembling together is vital. But danger develops when we begin to act as if gathered-church is the goal, the only form of church that matters.

Why Gather?

To counter that notion, we need to keep asking ourselves: Why do we gather? According to the New Testament, we do so to encourage, spur on, build up, equip, and strengthen each other for the mission of God outside the meeting place. In boot camp, NASA astronauts spend time together in training. But everything they do in this gathered mode aims at equipping them for their mission “out there.” The hands-on experience of those who have actually lived in space becomes an important part of preparing other astronauts for what they will face in zero-gravity conditions.

The scattered church not only has a mission, it is itself a mission. During their time in the gathered church, Christians who will spend most of their week “out there” need to benefit from hearing reports from others who have “been there, done that.” In our roles as scattered seeds, the world’s soil will confront us with spiritual counterparts of pests, fungi, viruses, and weeds. Over and again, we must hear others tell fresh stories of how God came to their rescue when these forces threatened to make them unproductive.

The small fraction of time we spend in the gathered church is precious. For the sake of God’s mission in the world, let’s make the best use of that time.

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part One)

True or false: “The New Testament reason for meeting with other Christians is to worship God.”

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If you said true, your answer lines up with what most of us have been taught. One website, which suggests how to speak to children about church, begins with: “People go to church to worship God.” We call our main congregational meetings “worship services.” In those meetings we sing “worship songs,” led by “worship leaders” in charge of “worship teams.” Sometimes we call church buildings “worship centers.”

I know it is not RC (religiously correct) to question the nearly universal idea that gathering with other believers is all about worship. So please grant me a little grace as I ask you to examine the evidence for this rarely questioned conviction.

Right off, I’ll reveal my assumed starting-point. I believe Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice. Faith involves what we believe—truths such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and so on. Practice involves what we do, including how we meet with other Christians. I am assuming the New Testament, not church traditions, should have the last word on why we assemble.

Check It Out

What is “worship”? In the New Testament, the Greek words for worship of God all reflect attitudes and actions directed toward him. Duties carried out toward God. Esteem and reverence directed toward him. Obedience and service oriented toward God. Bowing down toward God. In short, in worship, we aim our attention in a God-ward direction. Think of a single arrow pointing upward from us to God.

If you have a complete concordance, trace the uses of “worship/worshiped/worshiping” in the New Testament. You’ll find that, together, those English words appear about 70 times (NIV version). Yet you will not find those words used in contexts that speak about what we Christians do in our regular gatherings.

Yes, in Acts 13:2, while fasting and praying, a group of prophets and teachers were “worshiping.” Not so much a church gathering as a prayer meeting among church leaders. And in I Cor. 14:25, Paul says an unbeliever, after hearing gathered Christians prophesy, might be led to “worship” God. Here, an unbeliever—not believers—is worshiping. Neither text describes what typically goes on in church meetings. But this is about as close as the New Testament comes in connecting the word “worship” with Christian assemblies.

By contrast, a great many verses describe worship as taking place not in church gatherings but by individuals in other settings. The Magi, upon seeing baby Jesus, worshiped (Matt. 2:11-12). Anna, presumably by herself in the Temple, worshiped (Lk. 2:37). The disciples worshiped Jesus in a boat (Matt. 14:33). As they hurried away from his empty tomb, the two Marys worshiped Jesus (Matt. 28:>9). The man born blind worshiped Jesus (Jn. 9:38). And so on. These are not what we call “corporate worship” occasions.

Others Agree

After a study of all the Greek words translated as “worship” in the New Testament, the late I. Howard Marshall (well-respected as a New Testament scholar) says: “It is a mistake to regard the main or indeed the only purpose of Christian meetings as being the worship of God.” (See "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

And in Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks writes, “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of ekklesia [assembled church] for his contemporaries, whether Jews or Gentiles, must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to ‘worship.’ Not once in all his writings does he suggest that this is the case.”

Then Why Should Christians Gather?

The New Testament leaves no question that we believers should meet. But why? If not to worship, what should be our main purpose for getting together? Think of it this way: you and I are to worship anywhere and everywhere—all alone, with our families, in our workplaces, and in our church gatherings. In other words, worship can rise to God even when no one else is around.  

But time after time the New Testament calls us to do something we simply cannot do by ourselves: one-anothering. In his new commandment, Jesus calls us to “love one another” in the way he has loved us (Jn. 13:34). These words became the seed from which the dozens upon dozens of New Testament one-another/each-other instructions grew.

For example, the two one-anothers in Hebrews 10:24-25 explain why we should never stop meeting together: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Getting together lets us see and hear each other. This  creates the setting in which we may spur on and encourage each other.

This focus on one-anothering when we meet, although in different words, shows up in I Cor. 14:26: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” Each of us has been given one or more gifts to use in building each other up. The New Testament term “fellowship” is a one-anothering word. The church is a body made up of mutually-supportive members. It is a family whose members huddle to help each other. This is shared church.

(Part Two will explore why the single-arrow model does not reflect the gathered-church picture seen in the New Testament. It will also ask, “Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?”)

Walking in Ancient Paths

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Two friends of ours—Millennials—don’t know each other. Yet in separate conversations I heard them use exactly the same word about a church in our community. The church meets in a building that, until a few years ago, had been a movie theater. Our friends, a man and a woman, at different times had each attended this church briefly, then left. She and days later he described the Sunday meeting as a “show.” Apparently the former theater building still draws an audience of watchers.

Participatory Path in Passover

Although young, these two are seeking an old way of gathering with other believers. A way that includes relationships, interactive body life, shared church. Two-way communication in church meetings is not a new idea. Christ-followers practiced it when they gathered back in the first century. During their last Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples engaged in a lot of back-and-forth conversation. Check it out. Count the “asked” and “answered” words in just John 13.

Paul called for the Corinthian believers to practice shared church: “So here’s what I want you to do. 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, The Message).

Monologue: One-Way Street

In his 1963 book, The Miracle of Dialogue, Reuel L. Howe says, “Monologue is not effective communication.” He based his statement on research done by the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies and other experts in communication. “Young ministers,” he says, “are disillusioned about the effectiveness of preaching and suspect that ‘telling’ is not a sure means of communication, but because they know of no alternative, they are caught in the one-way street of monologue.”

Less than a decade later Ray Stedman, in Body Life, lamented that “Christian meetings have turned into dull, stodgy rituals where many Christians gather to go through completely predictable performances, all conducted in an atmosphere of ‘reverence’ which permits no interchange with one another, no exchange of thought, no discussion of truth, and no opportunity to display Christian love in any but the most superficial of ways.”

Soul Rest in Old Paths

So the roots of shared-church reach far back in time. Jeremiah the prophet quoted what the Lord said to the Israelites: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). But today, far too many churches have not learned the power of walking in those “ancient paths” when they gather.

Millennials and others may not be able to articulate it. But they are looking for the kind of relational, church-body life seen in the New Testament. The Barna Research Group reports that, “The first factor that will engage Millennials at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.” Barna President David Kinnaman says, “. . . the most positive church experiences among Millennials are relational. . . . huge proportions of churchgoing teenagers do not feel relationally accepted in church.”

Much of the one-anothering seen in the New Testament can be recovered in our main congregational meetings. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, 25 church leaders explain the paths they are exploring as they pursue that goal.