What is Authentic Christian Ministry?
Early on in his apostolic ministry, Paul composes two letters to the Christians in Thessalonica. He writes to them as a father, “encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). Their steadfast faith in the midst of suffering and persecution means that they will “be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (2 Thess. 1:5). He prays for them constantly “that our God may make you worthy of his calling” (2 Thess. 1:11).
Much later, Paul writes to the church in Rome about Phoebe, a benefactor of his who very likely was given the special and vital task to deliver and explain his magnificent epistle to the believers there. They are to “receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people” (16:2). Elsewhere, the apostle appeals to Christians in Ephesus “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). In his epistle to the Philippians, he urges believers to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). And the apostle prays earnestly for the Christians in Colossae that they “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way” (1:10).
What an inspiring and rather terrifying goal! Our first reaction might be to think ‘Who am I to think I could live such a life?’ Yet, it is very clear that throughout Paul’s apostolic ministry, this was a consistent and important way he framed the Christian life. This high calling is not just a call to ‘good behaviour’ (that would be little more than moralism). The Greek word axiōs has a sense of God’s people behaving in a way that reflects or matches the character and actions of God himself. In other words, all that Christians say and do should be done primarily to please and honour God. The motive is love, joy and thankfulness. The mission is that others would be impacted by such living that they see something of the goodness and love of God in his people’s lives.
It is also clear that Paul expected this to be an achievable goal, not an impossible standard which Christians would forever fail to reach. Paul’s appeals and prayers are meaningless unless the Christians he is writing to could make bad choices that led to lives unworthy of their calling.
I think the best and most concise summary of the Christian life I’ve ever heard is ‘Be who you are’. Christians belong to God by his grace. They are therefore to live lives that reflect their new calling and identity.
Implications for Christian Ministry
All this has lots of implications for training for Christian ministry.
A gift is something received; it is neither earned nor deserved. The gift of ministry is God’s invitation to us to be Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20); to represent him to others. Ministry is therefore a privilege to be honoured. Regardless of the type of ministry that we receive from God, we are but temporary custodians. We do not own it.
When we begin to think of ministry as ‘ours’, several temptations tend to follow:
– We can, over time, subtly begin to think we deserve recognition and people ‘owing’ us for ‘our’ ministry to them
– We can begin to see people as instruments to be manipulated to achieve the purposes of our ministry rather than partners in kingdom work
-We can begin to protect ‘our turf’. We become defensive to criticism or refuse to listen to other’s views.
– We can begin to measure success by all that we accomplish for God rather than seeing ministry as something God does through us.
– We begin to take ourselves too seriously and ‘our’ ministry too personally
But if ministry originates with, and is enabled by God, the right response is humility. Paul sums it up: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3).
Absence of Ego
Therefore, the paradox of Christian ministry is to be passionate about serving God, but, at the same time, hold on to ministry lightly. What does that mean?
The gospel is astonishing good news. And it is right to be passionate to learn about and share this good news: to be trained; to come to college; to pursue that calling and use God-given gifts wherever he has placed you.
But it is all too easy to confuse passion with self-esteem and identity. 2012 was a difficult year at IBI; we needed to raise €1 million in 6 months or face the real possibility of closure. I had to ask myself this question. “Does my sense of identity depend upon me being recognized as a leader / teacher / in IBI?” Perhaps you can ask yourself the same question in your context.
If the answer is ‘Yes’, something has become twisted. It means that we are ministering from a warped perspective. ‘My ministry’ has become too important and has become ‘who I am’. But what if it does not succeed? What if people are disappointed? And so we can become obsessed with ‘our’ ministry and ‘our’ success and in the process lose sight of Jesus’ upside-down priorities within the kingdom of God where the first shall be last the last shall be first.
Here’s a testing question: are you willing to give up leadership and ministry if that is what God wants? Or are you functioning out of a sense of my own ‘need’ for this ‘role’ – and the authority, responsibility and respect that it confers?
Let me share one wonderful example of holding ministry lightly: over the years I have had several volunteer teachers say something like this to me, ‘I absolutely love this opportunity to teach, but if ever I am not needed for whatever reason, don’t hesitate to say so. I’m happy to serve, but I’m happy to make way for others if that is best.’ What grace! What kingdom thinking! What absence of ego.
Lastly, how we ‘do’ Christian ministry is more important than what we do. Now this might sound far too passive and unfocused for those of us who are goal-orientated achievers! But I want to stand by this statement. What we do is, of course, significant. But if Christian ministry is to live up to its name, it means doing things Jesus’ way. When we try to achieve things for God in ways that are not worthy of God then we are doing more harm than good – both to ourselves and those with whom we are working.
My point is this: God works from the inside out and there is no shortcut to ‘success’ in Christian ministry that by-passes love: love for God and love for others. This is hardly an obscure theme in the Bible. It summarises the whole point of Israel’s existence in the OT (Deut. 6:5) and Jesus reaffirms it in the NT (Lk. 10:27). The fruit of the Spirit includes love and other deeply relational characteristics. Love is who God is (1 Jn. 4:8, 16) and Christians are to reflect his character. Without love, all ministry is actually a waste of time (1 Cor. 13: 1-7).
Yet, is love the first thing you think of when you consider the church? Is it the first thing people think of when they think of you?
It is all too easy to marginalize love for God and others as an optional extra of relative importance compared to all sorts of urgent and vital tasks such as mission, church planting, evangelism, youth ministry, preaching, fundraising, children’s ministry, building projects, theological training and so on. But when we imagine that improved functionality, efficient methodologies and rigorous performance targets are the primary routes to ‘spiritual success’, we fool ourselves. We become impatient and demanding; we end up pressuring people to conform to our agendas; we prioritize strategies and plans and programs above relationships; we get burnt out by endless striving to meet targets.
These then are three essential foundations of authentic Christian ministry: humility, absence of ego and love. They point to the way of the cross. They give shape to a life lived in a manner worthy of, and pleasing to, God. You can’t be more ‘successful’ in Christian ministry than that.
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