Will the Real Christian Minister Please Stand Up?

  • Nathan Schneider
God's Servants at Work yard sign

Twenty years ago, John Piper wrote the book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals in which he pleaded with pastors to forsake thinking of pastoral ministry the way we would think of other full-time professions. Yes, the pastor’s day-to-day job includes a fair bit of administration. Yes, he must lead and organize a team of staff members. Yes, he must work at an “executive” level. But he’s not a CEO. He’s a pastor. He’s a shepherd. He is a servant. The apostle Paul described his own apostolic ministry this way: “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). That’s a lot of humility for a man who wielded a lot of authority.

There’s always the danger that the pastor will begin to slip into the function of the “professional.” It’s a pretty natural tendency, actually. But it’s not the only one. Let’s take a step back and look not just at the church’s leadership but at the whole church and consider for a moment what the tendency is for most Christian’s to settle into in today’s American culture.

If the temptation of the average Christian pastor is to professionalize pastoral ministry, then the temptation of the average Christian layperson is to patronize the church. The church isn’t a place for a man to “build a career.” It’s also not a place where a Christian goes to consume a product. Yet that’s perhaps the default paradigm of the typical American Christian and thus the default ministry philosophy of the typical American church.

It’s easy to see how we got here. America is, after all, a capitalist economy with a very aggressive consumerist culture which produces aggressive consumers. Consumers are interested in what benefits them. They’re willing to patronize the business that can give them the best product which meets their needs for the least amount of money. Church leaders, hungry for growth, begin to “compete” for attenders. This kind of capitalist competition might be healthy for innovation and product development in the economy, but it actually leads churches to try to attract people with things other than what really mattes. After all, the gospel isn’t exactly a consumer-friendly product.

In one sense, you could say that the aggressive consumerism of the church that typified evangelicalism in the 80’s and 90’s went away by the turn of the new millennium. People were sick of shopping-mall churches. They wanted community. They wanted authenticity. But they still wanted. And a new generation of churches arose ready to offer a new kind of product. This product was raw, it was authentic, it was the experience of “real” Christianity. It was still a product.

The reality is that we’re never going to get away from the consumerist church until we understand what the church really is and how every Christian is supposed to fit into it. Now, I can’t give a comprehensive study of the church. There’s resources out there that can give you a much broader, well-rounded theology of the church. But what I can do is point to something I see as the big issue in a lot of churches and how we can change our thinking. Here’s the overarching principle I want you to take away from this:

Brothers and sisters, we are not consumers. We are ministers.

That probably comes at a surprise to some of you. After all, we’ve been conditioned to look at ministers as a special class of people in the church responsible for doing the ministry activities on behalf of and for the benefit of the people at church. That’s how the IRS looks at it. A minister (“religious clergy” according to IRS tax code) is a narrow group of individuals who hold special office within the church for carrying out certain “sacerdotal” duties.

Can I just stop and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving that our ecclesiology isn’t based on IRS tax code? Because it isn’t. It’s based on the New Testament, and there, the idea of “minister” is much broader than the IRS or our American culture defines it.

The word “minister’ translates the Greek term diakanos, a term that originally denoted a table waiter but eventually came to encapsulate the general concept of “service” Throughout the New Testament, it came to form the foundational thought for the ministry of Christians because it was able, more than any other Greek term, to express the concept of loving service and care for others.

Christians follow Christ. Christ was a servant.

There’s no getting around the fact that Jesus Christ is the supreme model of service. That was the point of his humbling exercise in the upper room when he washed his disciples’ feet. “Do you understand what I have done to you?” he asked after he had finished washing their feet. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Then he hammers the nail home with the next statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12-17).

Service (i.e., ministry) is a distinguishing mark of Jesus’ life. As prophesied Servant of the Lord (Isa. 42:1–4; 49″1–6; 50:4–7; 52:13–53:12), he fulfilled “by word and deed . . . the great themes of obedience, witnessing and suffering, climaxing His servanthood with the giving of His life for the world” (Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 130). His own words testify to the fact that he “did not come to be served but to serve [diakoneo] and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28; cf. Mark 10;45).

Minister is an office in the church. It’s also a name for a Christian.

Every Christian—every person who has repented of sin and placed their faith in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—has been freed from the dominion of sin and the law and has been called into a life of spiritual service to God.

Now, some might make the argument that “minister” (diakanos in the Greek) is used in the New Testament to talk about a particular office in the church, often referred to as “deacons” (1 Tim. 3:1ff). That’s true. There is an office in the church labeled with that very term. But as Robert Saucy explains,

By choosing the term diakonia to describe the work of the ministry, the early church deliberately steered clear of the many alternatives which would have pointed toward the concept of “office” and distinction in rank. After an examination of the other possible word choices, Schweizer concludes that in diakonia, “the New Testament throughout and uniformly chooses a word that is entirely unbiblical [non-Old Testament-based] and non-religious and never includes association with a particular dignity or position. Thus it can be applied to apostleship (Acts 1:17, 25; Col 1:25) as well as to all saints (Eph. 4:12). It is the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4), of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18), of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6), as well as serving tables (Acts 6:1). All in the church serve in the capacity received individually from the Lord (Col 4:17). [Saucy, 132]

What all that means is that even though there is a particular office in the church called “minister” (i.e., “deacon”), it’s not an office that limits the act of ministry and service to that office. Deacons aren’t a special class of Christian any more than pastors are a professional class of Christian. To be a believer is to be a follower of Christ. Followers of Christ serve because their Lord was a servant. Some serve in a special office of the church, but their service isn’t intended to relieve others of their service but to organize it, energize, and inspire it, just like pastors and teachers are given to the church to equip the saints specifically for the work of service in the church (Eph 4:12).

I don’t know what my spiritual gift is. Serve anyway.

The apostle Peter told his readers, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:7-8). His exhortation was for godly living in light of the final days we’re living in. He wanted his readers self-controlled and serious in their thoughts. But more than anything else, he wanted them to love each other. But how should they show that love? He outlines it in pretty broad terms:

  1. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling (4:9)
  2. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another (4:10)

In other words, love each other by taking care of each other as you see needs, and use the gift God has given you to serve each other. Now, he goes on the describe to overarching categories of gifts given to believers for effective ministry: “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God”—that’s talking about speaking gifts like teaching—”whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies”—that’s talking about serving gifts.

But notice how they’re all tied back to the idea of loving one another. We serve because we love each other, and God has equipped his church with various gifts to accomplish this service in a way that demonstrates reliance on him and not ourselves.

Now, here’s where we run into some problems. We’re supposed to love each other through service. We’re called to serve as each has been gifted by God. But that inevitably leads to the question, “What if I don’t know what my spiritual gift is?” Let me just say that this is the #1 perennial excuse given for why believers don’t serve in the local church. And to give credit where credit is due, I think some people genuinely mean it. I can understand why there could be apprehension over whether a person is “serving in the right place” because they don’t know with what gifts the Lord has given them to serve. If you’re a person who falls into that camp—who feels inadequate and ill-equipped to serve because you’re unsure about your gifting—may I give you a little bit of encouragement as a pastor? Serve anyway.

The reality is that you don’t have to have the gift of helps (1 Cor 12:28) in order to provide physical help or relief to the church when there’s a need. When there’s a need and you can meet it, then meet it. Likewise, you don’t have to have the gift of exhortation (Rom. 12:8) in order to exhort someone in the church. As Robert Thomas said in his superb volume on spiritual gifts, “We all should be performing this service to fellow members of the body of Christ, but the fact remains that some of us have been specially endowed for that sort of thing” (Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, 197). In other words, even though God has specially-equipped certain people to exhort others in the church, that doesn’t limit such an activity only to a select few.

But let’s go back to the original statement for a moment: “What if I don’t know what my spiritual gift is?” Now, I said that for some people in the church that is a legitimate and heart-felt question and leads to genuine apprehension. After all, who wants to serve anxious that they aren’t serving “the right way.” That’s where we can relax and understand that you’re not stepping outside God’s will by serving, even if you’re still not sure how God has gifted you. But I’m equally convinced that there’s another segment of the church for which that question is not genuine. Rather, it’s a convenient reason for why they don’t serve. And for that person, there’s no spiritual gifts inventory test or weekend seminar that’s going to get them from consuming to serving because it’s not really their gifting that’s the problem.

There’s a well-known axiom within church ministry that’s discussed at the leadership level called the 80/20 rule. It basically purports that 20% of the population of a church is usually responsible for 80% of the church’s ministry activity. In other words, there’s a very small segment of the church body actively engaged in ministry. And they’re pulling the weight of the other 80%. This applies not just to ministry activity but to monetary giving as well. So when you hear someone say, “Why doesn’t the church do ___________ (fill in the blank), perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s hard to accomplish _____________ (fill in the blank) when the pool of active, servant-oriented believers in the church is small. That’s why you end up seeing the same people doing a lot of different things in the church. They see ministry as a lifestyle and they’re willing to jump in because (1) they know they should, (2) they want to, and (3) they have purposely oriented their lives to enable them to do it.

The risk for the 20%, of course, is burnout and overextension. You get the same people doing too many things just so that the very basic needs of the church are covered from week to week and you can see how this could tire some people out. Fortunately, the 80/20 rule isn’t one of the laws of physics. This isn’t some un-malleable rule. It can change as the culture of a church shifts from a consumer-oriented church to one that embraces and celebrates service.

A good amount of folks who fall into this camp don’t serve for the sheer reason that they can’t. Life is too busy, there’s too many things going on. They’ve stretched themselves way too thin and they have absolutely no margin. The same could be said for a good many people who don’t give monetarily to their local church. They’ve like to give, but they just don’t have any financial margin. They live all the way up to their means. If this is you, I understand. There’s a million things competing for our attention and our time and many of them are important and well-worth our time and effort. School. Kids. Work. Family. Chores. So now, let me give you a word of encouragement/exhortation as a pastor: we make time for the things we care about and value the most. So if church keeps coming up last, then you have a pretty good idea of where it stands on the scale. I’m not saying it’s easy to reprioritize the commitments and activities in our lives, but if you’re starting to be convicted that service isn’t a very high priority in your life right now and it should be, then you’re going to have to do some hard work to figure things out.

Serving isn’t just giving. It’s also receiving.

In Acts 20:35, Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s a true statement. But that doesn’t mean that giving or serving doesn’t come with temporal benefits. Here’s a couple things to understand about serving in the church that might help you recognize just how important it is:

Service in the church is part of spiritual worship

Yes, we worship when we sing praises to God. But Paul makes it very clear that our “spiritual worship” we give to God as we “present our bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1-2) is accomplished first and foremost in our service in the local church:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving, the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:3-8).

Do you see the connection? When you serve someone from a heart of genuine humility, using the gift God’s given you, you are engaging in authentic spiritual worship to God. On the flip side, if you come to church every Sunday and sing a song or two, listen to a sermon and leave, you really can’t say you’ve engaged in New Testament worship. You can sing at home in the shower. You can listen to a sermon on your phone. But you can’t serve alone. New Testament worship is integrally focused on the body ministering to itself. And as we serve each other, particularly with the auxiliary gifts like helps, mercy, giving, and administration, we support the speaking gifts and make them more effective. As Thomas put it, “Without those kinds of support, the body would be crippled, rendering the speaking gifts of little or no value” (p. 198).

Now let’s put that into practical perspective. You’re a mom with young kids. You come to church. You drop your kids off at Kids Ministry. There, a group of youth and adults are giving their time and energy ministering to your kids by teaching them the Bible, interacting with them, and serving them. But they’re also serving you. They’re meeting a need in the local church because it makes it possible for you to engage in the teaching ministry of the local church without distraction. That gift of helps—meeting a basic and immediate need in the church—supports the speaking gifts and makes them effective.

And the overall goal of that speaking gift is to prepare you—the saints—for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12). The blessed people giving their time and energy in kids ministry are engaged in real, spiritual worship to God because they’re using their gifts and meeting the needs of the body. The hope is that by freeing you up to engage in the main worship service, you might be equipped to use your gifts to serve the church as well.

Service in the church matures you

The goal of Paul’s apostolic ministry is summarized in one statement: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28–29). Pauls’ ministry was about the maturation of every person so they might be “complete” or “mature” in Christ.

Let me say in no uncertain terms that you cannot be a mature believer without serving the church. Service is following the example of service laid out by Christ himself. It’s humbling ourselves by considering others as more important and looking to their interests and not your own (Phil. 2:3-4). It’s about loving your neighbor with the same care and attention to their needs that you give to your own (Mark 12:31). So if you attend church week after week but never engage in serving your brothers or sisters in the local church, there’s at the very least good evidence of immaturity. At worst, it may be evidence that there’s no spiritual life on the inside.

The reality is that service not only marks maturity, but it also leads to it. Serving others forces us to humble ourselves. That was Jesus’ point when he washed the disciples feet. It was Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12. And it was also his point in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s easy enough to serve other people, but if you want it to count. If you want it to matter. If you want it to have not only an effect on others but an effect on you, then it has to be done in love, and that’s sometimes the hardest part of service.

Do you realize how hard it is to serve people without grumbling or complaining? Or to speak what God would have you say and not human words and human wisdom? Or serve others out of God’s supply of strength as opposed to muscling it out via your own human will? Serving is an extremely sanctifying activity. You don’t just give when you serve. You receive as well. It’s not a shiny trophy or an earthly reward. It’s humility. It’s a closer and deeper walk in the Spirit as you fight the flesh and resolve to serve in love.

God doesn’t need your service. He could summon a legion of angels to attend to anything he wanted them to do. But he has determined to use us—poor, wretched, selfish human beings—to accomplish his purposes. Don’t miss out on one of the most powerful, sanctifying tools God has to take you out of yourself, and to not only make you mature, but to make the church mature as it ministers to itself in love.

The next time you hear your pastor say, “The church has a need,” consider whether God might just be speaking directly to you.