I’ve talked to enough worn out pastors and other church leaders to recognize the familiar refrain: “What we need is more of the laity to become more serious about engaging in more of the Christian ministry that needs to be done.” But does the Church at the same time actually do things that discourage lay members to see themselves as serious Christian ministers?
I think so—even if unintentionally. Let me share two things I’ve observed over the years.
First, I’ve been to commissioning services in churches where people are gathered up front, and the congregation comes and lays hands on them and prayers for them—commissioning them for the work they have to do. I’ve seen these types of commissioning services done lots of times for people becoming ordained as clergy and going full-time into the pastorate. I’ve seen these commissioning services done for those going off to the mission field. I’ve sometimes seen them done for vacation Bible school leaders or for some other Church-sponsored event.
All fine and good. But what about other kinds of work—not officially organized and run by the Church? Is there an assumption that, if your work isn’t taking place within the official structures of the licensed church, then it’s not really a ‘first tier’ Christian ministry, the kind we really need to recognize and honor by laying hands on you as a Christian body and praying for you? Isn’t that implicitly the assumption?
In one church, one time, I saw the teachers in the congregation (those who teach in the grade schools and high schools) invited forward at the beginning of the school year. And the congregation prayed for their work and for God’s help in blessing and influencing the children whom the teachers would be interacting with that school year. I thought it was great.
But it’s really just a beginning of how we should learn about, pray for, and honor the work that people do Monday – Friday as they seek to be Christ’s ambassadors in the world. What do we assume about people working in health care in some capacity: that they’ve got a “career in the field of medicine” or that they’re “taking up a call to the ministry of healing”? If someone working in health care is working where God wants them to be, shouldn’t Christians think of the latter description as the better one?
Yet, if I were working in the health care profession, I think it would be hard for me to think of my work in these terms if I saw other people in other professions being commissioned and prayed for by my church—while my own work was never recognized or linked with bona fide Christian ministry. The truth is, there are Christians in our churches who have spiritual gifts of helps, of administration, of hospitality, and so on. And they’re using their gifts Monday – Friday in the work they do.
I have a good friend who is a salesman. He helps businesses identify better ways of purchasing products, sometimes re-thinking business models. He spends a good deal of his time just listening to business owners share their struggles—and then he tries to chart a better way forward with them. My friend is a Christian, and he describes his own work as a “ministry of encouragement.” If you heard him talk about his work at any length, I guarantee you’d agree that this description is apt.
The Church has to find ways to encourage people to see their work as opportunities for genuine Christian ministry. But I fear that the Church’s practices of selective commissioning has actually discouraged people to think of their work in these terms.
Here’s a second (though again perhaps unintentional) way the Church may actually hinder lay ministry: We can privilege ordained ministry as the “obvious choice” when we see young, really serious Christians.
I’ve had so many conversations over the years with young, earnest Christians who are trying to discern God’s will for their lives. They’ll sometimes say to me, “Well, older Christians keep telling me I should think about ordained ministry.” Now, sometimes older Christians really are discerning gifts in a young Christian that would suit ordained ministry well. I don’t at all want to discount that.
But sometimes, I think, there can be a knee-jerk reaction that, “Hey, this is a young person who is really earnest about their faith! They should probably pastor a church.” But of course the assumption here is that the pastors are the “really earnest” Christians, the ones most serious about engaging in Christian ministry in the world. So, if you’re a really earnest Christian, then you’ll probably be a pastor.
In a previous post, I mentioned how it’s an easy slide of mindset from the thought that “the clergy are the professional Christian workers” to the thought that “the clergy are the real Christian ministers.” That latter thought is just plain nonsense. But I wonder if our assumptions—and occasional comments—about serious young Christians needing to consider ordained ministry has discouraged people from seeing their own work—whatever it is—in terms of an opportunity for bona fide Christian ministry.
If we are to follow Christ’s mandate to “go” into all the world and make disciples, it will require us to be rooted Monday – Friday in office cubicles, waiting rooms, assembly lines, classrooms, and so on. We need members of Christ’s body—the really serious ones—to be at work in these places if we are to fulfill Christ’s mandate. Let’s find ways to encourage—not discourage—this mindset.
Kevin Kinghorn writes faithfully for Faith and Work Collective.