What Should a Congregation Following Jesus Look Like? By James Lee, with special thanks to my brother Gene Parunak (Scripture Citations from the KJV).
(This essay was written as an entry for the Energion Publications essay contest. It coincides with the release of Dave Alan Black’s new book ‘Christian Archy’ which is now set for release. Please feel free to comment, as I really desire your feedback on this entry. I sure could have put much more into it, but due to my procrastination I barely made the deadline.)
One of the greatest responsibilities a believer can have is their obligation of obedience to the master, our Lord Jesus Christ (Lk 9:23). Today service to the Lord is distinguished by many different labels. The modern understanding of ‘the ministry’ has become inseparable from professional vocation. Those who earnestly desire to serve within the capacity seen as the ministry may only do so through the charge of academic accomplishment and scholarly attribution.
The question of what ministry should look like in a congregation following Jesus Christ should be answered carefully. Any response to the previously made statement may draw a stark contrast to what is understood as ministry in our modern church mindset. One major point that most would agree upon is that the Lord is a perfect example of what ministry looks like. A safe assumption that most could agree upon is that ministry is a calling inseparable from the walk that Christ draws us into through salvation. This ministry of our Lord is rightly labeled servitude, and this example should be our primary foundation.
In the New Testament (majority text), I have found the word diakonia is consistently translated ministry, or a form thereof. A few examples illustrate that the translators have responded to the context of its usage by using the word serving (Lk 10:40), ministration (Acts 6:1, 2Co 3:7,8,9, 9:13), relief of service (Acts 11:29), office (Rom 11:13), service or serving (Rom 15:31, 2Co 11:8, Rev 2:19), and administrations (1Co 12:5, 2Co 9:12). These variations are not empirical evidence that ministry is a responsibility of any particular individual of special accomplishment, but that service or ministry is a task given individuals of varying capabilities amongst all those who are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is these followers that are given diverse gifts and abilities in which they may perform the acts of ministry in cooperation with God that works with all in all (1Co 12:6).
The concept of what ministry looks like is much simpler than we have made it in our modern context. One must only appeal to the example of ministry in the scripture. It is often a travesty that cultural contextualizing and argumentation dismiss the specific yet simple demonstrations given to us through the teachings of our Lord, the doctrine of the Apostles, and the clear power of the Holy Spirit moving through the ministry performed by true followers of the Way. The truth of ministry is not fundamentally about what we are or what we do. It is the power of the Gospel transforming hearts and minds and the renewal of true compassion for those who are lost and dying. The ministry of a congregation following Jesus Christ today is a restored definition in a depraved mind of who mankind really is before a Holy and Wrath filled Judge. With this new understanding, ministry therefore becomes a calling for all those who have seen what they have been spared from, and then compels them so powerfully in the soul that it drives us to serve others. And, of higher significance, the ministry to each other, the called out ones, becomes one of such importance that without the building up, edification, and equipping of the saints we will wither away and become useless salt that has lost its savour (Mt 5:13).
The answer that we must return to a replicated state of practice that mirrors the exact practices of the 1st century church is admirable and serves as a measuring line. But, the truth is that community now is different than community then and we must make provision for this. Regardless of the pragmatism employed today or tomorrow we should not lose sight of what ministry is. Edmund P. Clowney in "The Church (Contours of Christian Theology)" stated,
Critics of 'churchianity' hold that institutional structure freezes the flowing streams of the Spirit. The task of the church is indeed spiritual, as we have seen: to worship God, to nurture the people of God, and to bear witness to the world in mission. Yet no less spiritual are the means that Christ has provided by which we are to achieve these three goals. The Spirit of Christ brings order, as well as ardour. (p. 199)
The truth of the matter is simple is it not? Should it be as simple as continuing steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking bread, and in prayers (Acts 2:42)? Of course we should! But, we must not become too far removed, nor too religious with our practice of order through the power of man, but seek that which will glorify Christ through the instruction of the Spirit. It is my premise that ministry in a modern congregation following Jesus can be described as merely giving to others what they do not already have. Visiting the inspired words of scripture to seek an example that will draw out just that could show us how and what we need to exemplify as believers that may 'serve' and 'minister' to others and our brethren what they do not already have.
Ministry in today's context should be powerful and able to convict leaders and rulers of their wickedness. We as believers must be faithful to the conviction of the Spirit through the proclamation of truth from God's word.
But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, "Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you."
Ministry in today's context should be powerful and able to convict false prophets of their error and stir them to fear the truth of the Living God.
Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.
Ministry in today's context should be wrought through the example of its members and create an example that warrants attention for its vast departure from the ways of the world, and by doing so exhibits things that become sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee.
So, with reluctant conclusion to the points made here, service and ministry are very much one in the same. While they can be labeled with different characteristics, forms, and functions, they should achieve the same purpose. This purpose is often confused or much too often separated so far from each other that there is more 'service' than 'ministry' or vice versa. I admire Edmund P. Clowney's writings for the sheer fact that his words are sound and exhibit a true desire to retain a 'true ministry' that glorifies God. He says,
The three goals of the church are to be sought not only through the Word, but also in the obedience of love. When they are so sought, a ministry of order with result. The Lord rejects the worship of those who honor him with their lips, but who do not love and honour him in their hearts and lives (Is. 26:13). We nurture one another by deeds of love, not just by sharing Scripture texts. In the mission of the church, deeds and words combine in our witness (Phil. 2:15). Love that is real requires accountability, and accountability means order. The discipline of the church appears in the love that Christians show for one another, in encouraging, counselling, asking, 'How are you doing?' and looking for answer. (p. 200)(sic)
This aptly demonstrates the need for our ministry to each other and provides a point of commonality that will equip us to be true salt and light in the world while loving each other. We cannot accomplish the tasks of discipleship and proclamation of the Gospel through political agendas, legislated morality, bully pulpits, and sectarian distinctions that scream we are right and you are wrong. We can only accomplish true ministry in this century through the power of Christ, His Holy Spirit, and a love for one another that strengthens us to face the enemy head on, and storm the gates of hell with the victory that was wrought in the spotless Lamb's blood.