Modest proposal #4: Everyone ministers

Everyone does the work of the ministry. “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” (1 Cor 14:26).

In both concept and practice, this description is probably one of the least recognizable to contemporary believers, many of whom are used to being spectators while the work of the ministry is done by someone on stage or behind a podium.

Of course, this division is partly true for all public gatherings of the church, where there is a leader or leaders and a congregation being led. Obviously, Paul’s use of everyone is not meant to be interpreted too broadly, because in even a relatively small gathering that means a lot of participants and a lot of words of instruction, revelation, etc., most of which will be forgotten.

In a truly Spirit-led meeting there is a thematic harmony that isn’t enhanced proportionally by a greater number of participants. It’s what is expressed, not how many expressing it, that matters.

So, Paul’s instruction on order in worship touches on this. “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). Not eight or nine or twelve.

After his teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit in chapter 12, everyone has to do with who can participate. “All these [i.e., gifts] are the work of the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (12:11).

In the practical instructions he gives in this chapter, and in light of the themes he’s addressed already in this letter, I suspect there were prima donnas in Corinth in the habit of demonstrating how “spiritual” they were by giving prophetic words or otherwise assuming some public role to get others’ attention. When you have competing egos you usually have colliding egos, which is at least distracting if not disruptive.

But there’s a more fundamental difference, not only in public worship services but in the ministry that goes on the other six days of the week: the division between clergy and laity that remains the template for the division of labor in many churches today.

In this view, Ephesians 4:11-12 (“he gave some . . . to prepare God’s people for the work of ministry”) gets turned on its head. Instead of us going forth and ministering, it’s only the some who do ministry. Therefore, under this arrangement, it’s our responsibility to bring others to the some to receive ministry that only they are qualified to dispense.

Aside from a plain misreading of the passage, this is wrong for a number of reasons. The majority of persons we work with, chaperone school trips with, know from recreational basketball, field hockey and soccer programs, etc. will never darken the door of a church. I’m not saying it’s wrong to invite friends or acquaintances to church, just that by itself it can be the religious equivalent of a cold call to sell you replacement windows (i.e., lots of rejections).

But it also ignores the dynamics of personal communication which are critical to delivering a persuasive message. Imagine for a moment you are a manager in an office, a nurse on the ward or a welder in a local shop. Your pastor has made an appointment to go to lunch with you to discuss some things and he shows up 10 minutes early.

If introductions are made to your co-workers, what happens? A wide-ranging discussion of spiritual things? Probably not. More likely it looks like Prince Charles visiting the neighborhood coffee shop: lots of prolonged, forced smiles, small talk and generally persons acting unnaturally around your guest in ways you’ve never seen in the other 39.75 hours of the week.

I know that’s an exaggeration, but my point is simple: Who’s there with your co-workers those other 39.75 hours of the week? You are.

They know you, they see you working, they hear what you say, they see how you react to difficult situations, you’re a living demonstration of how your faith is integrated into your work. Inevitably, because you don’t compartmentalize your life—you don’t, do you?—the elements of your faith will become the topic of conversation.

Every so often, you hear about some athlete, actor/actress, or celebrity who professes a newfound faith in Christ. In some cases, they decide to launch “a ministry.” I don’t want to sound cynical, but I’ve seen this happen many times. They start making appearances on religious cable outlets, radio shows, the dinner-and-a-speaker circuit.

They never needed to “start a ministry” unless what they really wanted was a following. If that’s the case, everywhere they go they’ll be lionized, cheered and applauded, their books and DVDs sold by the score. They’re still performing, but for a different (i.e., targeted) audience, not “scattering” indiscriminately like the sower in the parable.

You can judge for yourself how fruitful this type of ministry has been. But no matter who you are you cannot get around this principle of the kingdom: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).

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