Thursday, July 01, 2010

On Christian Ministry

Recently, Christianity has entered the limelight for all the wrong reasons. What is most damaging is the increased violence that Christians to do one another. I write this article in the hope that it will remind myself and perhaps others, what Christian Ministry actually means. It will be a reflection of the early Church manner of working together to meet needs, followed by a reflection of what true ministry requires of us.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:1-4)

In my June 23rd article on my weekly blog, Sabbath Walk, I lament the current church situation that contributes to some of the disappointments when people do church. Written in a somewhat somber mood, I ended with an unfortunate weaker outlook toward hope. Too weak I am afraid. Following this, I decide to look at Scripture to learn from the early Church. In a way, since we are all made in the same shell, created by the One God, fell into the same sin through that one Adam, and are saved through faith in the one Person of Jesus Christ. Similarities outweigh any differences. This article is written to reflect a more positive mood that is necessary for those of us serving in various forms of Christian ministry.

A) Daunting Dismay and Complaints
The disciples during the time of the early Church are doing a lot of work. They are living under persecution. The first apostles continue Jesus' same message and manner of engagement with the stubborn Jewish establishment. There is a lot at stake. For the Jews and the Pharisees, it was the threat of losing their political and religious stranglehold to a bunch of rag-tag believers of the Way. For the apostles, they have to choose between their own safety or the preaching of the good news of salvation to all. It is the salvation of not only the Jews but all who is willing to follow Jesus. With the brave proclamation of faith by Peter and the Disciples, they have garnered a good following.

However, problems soon occur over very basic things. As the number of conversions grow, the needs also grow. Peter and his team feel overwhelmed. Everyone, Greek Jews and Hebrew Jews are getting disgruntled over the uneven distribution of food. It seems like Peter and the rest are not paying enough attention to the Grecian Jews.

Learning Point: Even as the disciples decide to press on in the preaching of the gospel, they find themselves bogged down by physical needs which are by no means trivial. Christian Ministry is not only talking about the Bible or about Jesus, one needs to be aware of real pressing needs. Those of us who are concerned about being too involved in physical distribution of logistics, administration and seemingly mundane needs, remember that such problems are not new. 

B) Discussion of Needs
The power of being in a community is that one does not depend on self. There is a group of people who understands the context and is able to share the burden together. So the leaders of the group gather the disciples together to discuss the needs. This is the power of community coming together. Luke leaves out details of what was discussed during the meeting. There is no mention of various perspectives. All he reveals is a frank statement of what is wrong (Acts 6:2). They agree that the present operation is not workable. They also agree that they need to re-channel their resources according to their gifts.

Learning Point: We can do things faster if we do it alone or with one or two others. We will go FURTHER if we do it as a team. Peter demonstrates leadership by openly stating the problem itself. Sometimes even in Church ministry, people try to skirt the issues itself, choosing to play along niceness. This may mean temporary solution, but it could make the problem even more difficult in the future. We need to make a distinction between doing the 'nice' thing versus doing the 'right' thing. Christian Ministry has a lot more to do with the latter.

C) Delegation of Roles
Upon agreeing that the problem needs to be resolved, the disciples agree that the way forward is to choose people who are gifted to minister in the various needs. Recognizing their own calling to preach the Word of God, they open up the way for others to serve. I am sure that the people are more than willing to serve. Sometimes the problem becomes more complicated when leaders face the temptation of more 'glamorous' deeds within the Church. It could be an administrative duty that requires the minister to meet top political leaders. It could also be a temptation toward fame and fortune like being publicized by the press. If those are outside of the calling of the servant of God, it should be avoided.

Learning Point: Leaders are not supposed to be doing all the work. They are also not supposed to choose only plum roles in Christian ministry. They are expected to lead by example to serve according to their gifting, regardless of how popular or not. Doing something that is not one's calling will be like a fish trying to swim outside water.

4) Dare to Put Into Action
Courage is necessary in Christian Ministry. Planning is but one step. Meeting is only another. Implementing it, and putting it into action requires nothing short but courage. In those days, the disciples demonstrate leadership by putting themselves on the line to do the most dangerous work: Preaching the gospel in the light of extreme opposition and persecution. It is like entering the firing zone knowingly.

Learning Point: Leaders put themselves at risk by braving the dangers before them. It is not right to push one's subordinates toward the greatest dangers, especially when leaders themselves are not willing to. Imagine an army commander who have never fought a war, asking his soldiers to go to the battlefront, without himself the desire to lead them. It not only damages the morale among the soldiers, it paints the commander as a hypocrite.

5) Final Comments
Doing Christian Ministry is not a matter of doing the work per se. It has more to do with leadership than anything else. The proof of a Christian Minister lies in the willingness to go the distance, just like Christ.
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)
I believe this is the crux of what Christian Ministry actually means. It is not the wearing of collar that reflects one's ordination to ministry. Neither is it the serving of the sacraments, or the participation in the rituals of marriage, funerals or initiation rites to every significant event. It is definitely not the enticement of fame through preaching or teaching or the writing of many books. The gist of a Christian Minister is not in the acts of service but in the courage to die, and to face threats of death and punishment in the pursuit of imitating Christ. Sometimes, I feel that Christians have become so paranoid about being right about their own views, that not only are they unwilling to die for their brethren, they become crusaders to tear others down instead of building others up. In thinking about this, I find Henri Nouwen's classic book, Creative Ministry to be spot on.

"For me these words summarize the meaning of all Christian ministry. If teaching, preaching, individual pastoral care, organizing, and celebrating are acts of service that go beyond the level of professional expertise, it is precisely because in these acts ministers are asked to lay down their own lives for their friends. There are many people who, through long training, have reached a high level of competence in terms of the understanding of human behaviour, but there are few who are willing to lay down their lives for others and make their weakness a source of creativity. For many individuals, professional training means power. But ministers, who take off their clothes to wash the feet of their friends, are powerless, and their training and formation are meant to enable them to face their own weakness without fear and make it available to others. It is exactly this creative weakness that gives the ministry its momentum."
(Henri Nouwen, Creative Ministry, Doubleday, 2003, p115-116)
Many of us who claim to have sacrificed a lot in order to be doing Christian Ministry, the true test is not the giving up of one's time or possessions. It is the willingness to lay down our lives for the ones we love. May we learn to do the same, to make a difference between wanting to be a minister (servant at the feet) versus wanting to be a hypocritical monster (slayer of all, including fellow believers).

I still have a lot to learn of what it means to be a minister for Christ. I pray that God will humble me to show me that there is nothing glorious in being called by my title. All I desire is to be able to hear direct from God:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."


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