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Doing” Ministry? Is that Serving?

I wrote recently about “worship services,” noting the odd conjunction of terms produced by tradition. How strange that “service” has come to mean a meeting and program! The word “ministry” has suffered a similar twisting of meaning so that the root idea of serving others has been subjugated to a broader idea. As is often the case with such circumlocutions, God’s intended meaning is lost and even contradicted.

Consider this progression. A person comes to recognize a need for rescue from personal sin, guilt, and unworthiness before a just and righteous God. Turning away from his or her life of sin and disobedience, that person trusts the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the perfect God-man who bore the judgment for sin on a cross, a punishment he did not deserve; that believing person receives salvation as a gift, comes under the grace of God, is once and for all time forgiven of all sin, of the very condition of sin, becomes an adopted child of God, and gains entry into eternal life, a life abundant that begins here and now and lasts forever. What is next? What, if anything, does God desire of such a person and of such people?  Trust me here, that the answer is not “going to church!”

A long history of an enormous amount of nonsense has attempted to answer this question, but Jesus had already answered this question plainly, long ago. We might ask, “What duty is the most important?” “What is our highest priority as God’s chosen ones?” “What does God want me to do with my life?” “How can I please God or even express my gratitude to him?” What does God expect from me?” “What does an all-knowing, all-powerful God need with a bunch of former rebels who are merely human?” or any of a number of other questions that ultimately have the same answer: Love one another. Love God and love your neighbor.

Serving is Love in Action

The question put to Jesus was “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” However, it is, at the heart, the same question. Sadly, the word “love” has been as badly abused as any word ever! Our use ranges from “I love bacon” to “Let’s make love,” while totally missing the real meaning. Most of us have heard that love is a great mystery, a profound feeling, a matter of chemistry, and a boatload of other drivel. To sort through all that, I ask a simple question that I have asked groups in person, along the way. How do you treat a person you love—your mother, your best friend, your child, your boy or girl friend, your grandparent, or your spouse?

I asked this question of a young woman who had become terribly abusive to her husband of only a few months. She had begun, almost with “I do,” to order him around and treat him horribly if he didn’t do as she wanted. I asked her how he had acted toward her when he was just a boyfriend (Since I knew the boy, I already knew the answer). Anything she asked him to do, he was quick to do. She didn’t have to order him; he wanted to do anything and everything in his power to please her and to make her happy. When we truly love someone, we are eager to serve them. Our love leads naturally to service. Love isn’t about how another person makes me feel; it’s about wanting to put my needs and wants in second place to the needs and wants of the person loved. The vehicle for expressing this desire is service. Love is the genesis of true ministry.

The Great Commandment does not demand feelings. Jesus was telling us that what God wants, more than anything else, is for us to love him with our whole being—mind, body, heart, and soul—and each other as we would like to be loved. We measure love by actions; we express love actively, although those “actions” may be touching physically, speaking affirming words, giving gifts, sharing quality time, or doing acts of service (according to The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman). The essence of all that is serving God and others.

To make this forever clear, Jesus used a living example; He washed the feet of his disciples. He showed them his love in this humble act of service. Washing feet was a bit of courteous hospitality, in its way, like offering a cold drink of water to a thirsty person. Walking dusty roads in sandals left feet dirty and tired; washing them was a refreshing welcome into a home for a guest. Usually, though, it was a duty carried out by servants. Jesus took that custom out of its usual context to make a brilliant illustration, one he intended us to follow. No, I don’t believe he meant for us to turn “foot washing” into a church rite (although it still carries a powerful message). While it is a humbling act, I don’t think his primary intent was humility. Instead, Jesus was showing us the importance of loving service.

Ministry without Love is Not Ministry

Biblically, little difference separates the word “service” from the word “ministry.” Furthermore, while “love” is a different word, I know that ministry or service without love is nothing. Paul makes that abundantly, unequivocally, and undeniably clear in I Corinthians 13: 1-3. What amazes and appalls me is how much “ministry” gets done lovelessly! A group that protests at the funerals of soldiers with signs that say, “God hates fags,” is a stark and extreme example, but a pastor who rules over a congregation like a petty dictator is just as wrong. Those who justify separating from other believers over doctrinal disagreements, even to nearly hating other groups, turn their doctrinal treasures into nothingness. Any who dare look down upon other believers for differences of skin color, national origin, or culture are just as guilty as those who hate for more “acceptable” reasons. I know from experience many pastors almost insulate themselves from people, as if the shepherd somehow stands above and apart from the sheep. Plainly, this is something Jesus never taught, nothing that Jesus ever did!

Again, ministry without love is not ministry. However important the preaching, teaching, leading, administrating, evangelizing, or “running of a church” may be, love is more important. I would not even say that ministry must be done in love; I would say that love must motivate ministry in each of the areas just listed. The common tendency is to regard ministry as a list of necessary functions, things that someone must do, activities that define the “minister. Ministry may occur through such means, but in the end ministry is simply loving service, service motivated, indeed inspired, by love.

I would especially warn against one kind of thinking. Ultimately, this way of seeing easily morphs into manipulation. It is the temptation to get people to do things that a leader thinks they should do. I suspect that this is a common temptation, one arising from the need to achieve some goal. We live in a culture that admires success. Pastors want to be successful, even those with the highest kinds of hopes. In our connected culture, we become painfully aware of those who build big facilities, preach to large crowds, lead thousands to Christ (I wonder about that one), and receive the praise of so many others. In their success, some write books to tell others how to copy their achievements, and some follow their prescriptions and even emulate their successes. I choose not to criticize any of this directly, but I offer this critical warning: If prescriptions motivated by a desire for success turn into manipulation or into other unloving actions, then this is NOT what God wants from us. So-called success by such methods, absent love, will be worthless!  (Doubt me?  Read I Corinthians 13:1-3 again!)

In addition to the Great Commandment, I doubt there are many believers who are unaware of John 13:31-32, where Jesus says, “By this will the world know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is to be the most characteristic virtue of Jesus’ followers, period! So, besides a powerful declaration of identity as authentic Christians, what would our ministry be like, if we did this? I have often suggested that any church or Christian group where believers truly love each other will never lack for new people, never have trouble filling empty seats, never need to do many of the things that congregations do to get people involved. In our fragmented, alienated, isolated world people hunger to be loved. Where the real thing exists and is freely, openly, lavishly practiced without condition or demand, people will respond. The Bible merely emphasizes what God knows his human creatures need. Given the clarity of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, regarding the pivotal importance of love, why do we spend so much time, energy, and money trying to find other ways to do God’s business?

A Personal Perspective

I have lived a life of ministry. I preached a youth sermon on I Corinthians 13 while still in high school; I expected to be in some kind of ministry, regardless of my yet future career. After earning a degree in physics, God led me to seminary, and I’ve never stopped serving God or his people since. Through a 10 year pastorate, 15 years in Christian radio, a parallel time in Biblical peacemaking, a decade or so teaching in Christian schools and now already a dozen years as a tutor to refugees and international students, it has all been ministry, regardless of how I paid the bills (like driving a passenger van, most recently). Years ago, because of the account of Solomon choosing wisdom over riches, I asked God for the same gift, and I have seen many indications that He honored my prayer. I believe my ministry has been greater from his gift of wisdom, but I know that it has been love that really made the difference.

I never asked for love in the same way, but love has always topped the list of virtues I’ve sought. When the subject of hatred or violence comes up, I often express an inability to understand either from a personal perspective. Even under the most extreme circumstances, I don’t believe I’ve ever hated anyone, and I try very hard to avoid simply not caring, being apathetic, or disinterested. I have never wanted to hurt another person, and I grieve over those few that I fear I did hurt unintentionally or carelessly. I see neither hatred nor apathy as the opposite of love; rather I see selfishness as anti-love. Much that is called love is truly selfish, love’s antithesis, opposed to love; nothing is more “devilish” than to make a good thing bad. I try hard not to be self-serving or self-centered. Self-serving ministry is a true oxymoron, one I most desperately seek to avoid. I’m not saying that love is not rewarding, just that loving only for its benefits isn’t love.

In a life-time of ministry, of service to God and his people, I have tried to become a Christ-follower who loves church folk, elderly folk, town folk, young folk especially teens and twenties, radio listeners (though it’s tough to love those whom you never meet), students, school families, staff and co-workers, trouble-makers, and enemies that might be rivals, people who abandoned me, or people who hurt me. I rarely use the word. My love is ultimately expressed in serving, helping, caring for, understanding, being patient, forgiving, being generous, going the extra mile, and encouraging. One particular series of verses helps; I call them the “one anothers”—love one another, serve one another, encourage one another, build up one another, pray for one another, be kind to one another, forgive one another, submit to one another…

Have I been “successful?” As the world measures success, few would measure my life by that word. Am I disappointed? Oh, I cannot deny a certain human wish for acclaim and recognition, but I am content with how I’ve served and with how I’m serving today. I enjoy talking about my work as a tutor for refugees and international students. When I do, people sometimes commend me, saying in so many words that I’m a good person for doing it; I almost always tell them I never really think about. It’s just who I am. I think that’s how it should be.

What about Family

You may ask why, in my list above, I did not mention family or friends. In one sense, obviously, they would be the first; in another, they are the last and most challenging. They are easily an all-consuming preoccupation, providing almost an excuse not to love others. Sometimes family may be the hardest to love, for they are those who have a claim beyond our liking or preferences; in them we have a history that we cannot escape, even if it is unpleasant or worse. Great family and friends provide a comfort we may prefer not to leave for the less comfortable task of loving those who are different, less familiar, strange to us, or perhaps even repellent (I admit it’s hard for me to deal with extremely filthy children, despite my generally enthusiastic love for kids; yet, I have managed to work with adults who, often from cultural differences, were offensively foul-smelling). Friends and kinfolk who have hurt us may make it hard to love others, to risk the possibility of new hurts, to risk rejection or abandonment. I suspect these are the sorts of reasons that may have led to Jesus saying we must leave loved ones behind to become his disciples, not to suggest we stop loving them, but that we not use them as an excuse not to love others.

Notice that I have said little about “doing ministry.” Serving arises out of loving, and loving is the stuff of relationships. God has called us to become loving communities in which we serve each other. In a culture of hierarchies, it is challenging to imagine a community without them, but that is the nature of Biblical ministry, where leaders are discouraged from “lording it over” followers, where shepherds are ultimately only sheep, and where the “last shall be first and the first last.” In a time and place where success seems paramount, Biblical ministry is best where success is forgotten, if possible, and the Great Commandment is held in highest regard.

Ministry without Conformity

Perhaps this final point belongs somewhere above, but I want to make it stand out. It bears emphasis and repeating because it is so often over-looked and ignored. I believe it is the nature of all that is opposed to God to seek to conform, to remove individuality, to stifle personal expression, and to foster sameness. Some call it equality or equal justice, while failing to see the damage it does to the person. It is impossible to make everyone equal without forcing everyone to be the same. Sadly, people who think this way and do this are not loving. Love requires respect for and acceptance of the individual; it preserves the individual’s right to free expression of his or her uniqueness.

Too much of “ministry” tends toward conforming. As a pastor, for example, it is not my job to make people more like me. I do not have the responsibility to create a one-size-fits-all kind of spirituality. I believe Christ-likeness is about virtues such as holiness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy, not about shaping personalities or getting people to do things in the same way. Is there a Christian look? At times I’ve felt that Christian meant never being in style, always lagging behind, and letting others set the pace. Of course, “style” isn’t a Christian virtue, but leading in creating a godly culture is! I believe that a godly culture is one of striking individuality, where each is free to discover and express his God-given gifts, and where ministry, first of all expressing love and service, is a remarkably varied and multi-directional process. This is not something organized or directed by ministry leadership; instead, leaders provide liberating encouragement.

I’m sure some think this sounds like chaos. We have been led to believe that somebody has to be “in charge” of things or nothing will get done. Yet, through Paul, God describes the church organically with himself as the head, the spirit the guiding force, and love as the lubricant (Well, he didn’t say that exactly, but it fits!). Loving ministry doesn’t say, “We need a foot over here; you, come be a foot.” Rather, service set free to love (Gal. 4) says, “Do the job God designed you to do, and don’t let anyone talk you into something else!” God will make sure we have all the right parts in the right places.

The ministry of Jesus and his followers turned the world upside down. The early Church led; it set the tone. Not only individuals but the entire Western world was transformed, leading to the dignity of the individual, a new regard for the preciousness of life, the equality of women, the end of slavery, the beginning of real medical care, and much more. It didn’t happen instantly, but track back, and you will discover that Christ-followers were in the forefront of these changes. American liberty traces its roots to the Biblical concept of freedom, showing the this nation, too, was profoundly influenced by God’s people. Yet, sadly, today the Church has largely relinquished its cultural leadership; believers struggle not to accept the world’s alternatives and its leadership into darkness.

I believe that the kind of ministry I’ve described here can change that. I believe we can challenge the world, not with truth but with loving service. Truth, honesty, integrity, and doctrinal faithfulness should characterize God people, but we are not here to win arguments. Frankly, I fear our tendency to argue and to prove ourselves right is often unloving, however we may insist otherwise. While Jesus said that his disciples are to abide in the truth, thereby becoming free (John 8:31,32), he clearly stated that love was the basis of our credibility. Loving people practicing truth, patiently and thoughtfully expounding truth in love, and living with a strong, transparent kind of honest virtue will influence others far more than arguments, especially those that become heated and alienating. I think influence is far more to be treasured than winning arguments, which have more to do with self-centered egos needing to be right than in lovingly persuading others to consider a strongly held point of view. Indeed, somewhere in the mix of loving service and speaking the truth in love is another basic virtue expressed in “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Since my goal is not to write a book, I need to wrap up. Ministry is about serving; Christ set us free to love and to serve. Ministry is not a bunch of activities; instead it is love motivating actions. Ministry is not one-dimensional, determined by leaders; it is as varied as the individual members in the Body of Christ. Ministry is not forcing truth down the throats of those who see differently; it is proving the presence of the love of God through loving influence. Biblical ministry is wrapped up in the nature of the Church of Jesus Christ, but that is another topic, coming soon.

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