For the last ten years, I’ve spent a lot of discretionary time thinking, speaking, and writing about following Jesus in everyday life — in families, at work, in the community, and so on. In this series, I’m exploring some words and concepts in the Christian subculture that might inadvertently make it harder for us to follow Jesus: I’d like to discourage the use of these discouraging words.
A lot of obstacles impede our loving God, his people, and his world; I think “ministry” may be one of the thorniest.
How we use the word
We often use the word “ministry” as shorthand for “doing Christian things”. When we run a Bible study, get on the kids’ church roster, or put out the chairs on a Sunday, this is our “ministry”. Some people are paid by churches or other Christian organizations, and they’re said to be “ministers”, “in full-time ministry”, or simply “in ministry”. This use of “ministry” can also be adjectival: there are “ministry conferences” with sessions for “ministry wives”; Facebook posts are addressed to “ministry friends” or offer “ministry discounts”.
Why this is discouraging
I think this use of “ministry” makes it harder for us to follow Jesus, for several reasons. First, it reinforces a false division between sacred and secular. That is, the word “ministry” in the New Testament isn’t a special, Christian word; it’s a general word for “serving”. For example, Paul says that Christ gave word gifts to the church “to equip his people for works of service (i.e. ministry)”, to help us grow to maturity in Christ and build one another up in love (Ephesians 4:11–16). This love isn’t limited to Sundays; rather, it’s a more wholistic view of turning away from sensuality and greed (4:17–19), and turning towards the way of life that’s consistent with the truth about Jesus (4:20–24): not lying, but truth-telling; not holding grudges, but forgiving; not stealing, but working hard and sharing; not discouraging, but building others up; not being aggressive and bitter, but compassionate and kind (4:25–32).
Therefore the “ministry” or “service” that God’s word equips us for isn’t just Christian activities; it’s human activities. When we turn to Christ and put on our “new self”, we gain some new privileges and responsibilities, e.g., we pray and we proclaim that Jesus is Lord. But we don’t lose the old privileges and responsibilities of being human — quite the opposite. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we now serve Jesus in all of life — with our families and friends, with our work and our money, as football coaches, as political citizens, as caretakers of creation, and much more besides. It’s not more spiritual to pack up chairs at church on a Sunday than to pack up chairs in our break-room at work: both are loving acts of service, done for Jesus’ glory.
When we use the word “ministry” to denote “doing Christian things”, it limits the scope of what we think it means to love Jesus and the things that he loves. Small wonder, then, if we find Christians who servant-heartedly fill the Sunday rosters, but whose everyday lives — jobs, houses, leisure, acquisitiveness — look no different from their neighbours’.
Second, when we use the word “ministry” to talk about working for Christian organizations, it reinforces a false division between “clergy” and “laity”. This is discouraging for everyone. For us “laity”, it subtly but persistently tells us that if we’re not working for a Christian organization, we’re not really living for Jesus: we’re not Jesus’ “ministers” or servants. This makes it easier for us to outsource the burden of all Christian work to those “in ministry”. And for “clergy”, it makes it hard to describe the detail of their work (and how well suited they may or may not be for a particular role): the gifts you need to be a good pastor of a church of 100 people are very different from the gifts you need to be a good Sunday school teacher or theological lecturer or cross-cultural student worker; labelling all these things as “ministry” obscures the differences. It may also be tempting for some “ministers” to start to forget that they’re sheep before they’re shepherds — to think that their peers are others “in ministry”, rather than the Spirit-filled brothers and sisters in their church. This can be a lonely and hazardous path.
Some more encouraging alternatives
Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to avoid the discouraging “ministry” by using more specific terms instead. Rather than “ministers”, we might talk about (paid or unpaid) church pastors or elders or leaders. And instead of “ministry” or “ministries”, we can talk about serving or loving others; we can thank God for opportunities to bless our neighbours.
Lord willing, this might make it easier for us in every part of our lives to serve Jesus, his people, and his world.
 I know some have made the argument that it is a special word — that diakonia and cognates are specifically associated with the commission to deliver a message; see Collins, Deacons and the Church: Making Connections between Old and New (Leicester: Gracewing, 2002). Even if you think the words have a specialized meaning, however, I don’t think this affects my main argument that our commonplace uses of the word “ministry” are misleading and discouraging. (And because of these common uses, you will probably still need a word other than “ministry” to convey a more technical understanding.)
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