Friday, May 20, 2016

Ministry is Not a Program

Often when we ask about what ministries a church has to offer, we are thinking about programs. The two terms are usually used interchangably. Our church culture is excellent at developing and implementing programs in which people can get involved. Programs are large and small and cover a variety of desired needs in a church environment. It is the programs that are often the criteria for measuring a church's health. The number of programs and the number of people involved are often what we use to determine if a church is active, effective and attractive. But we must be careful that we do not confuse programs with ministry they are meant to occomplish.

In my many years in pastoral leadership, I have been involved in overseeing the implementation and management of multiple programs in various size churches. Every night of the week several programs were available to reach and minister to people of various age and demographic groups. There were hundreds of volunteers involved in the programs as well. We had a "plug and play" approach that we called ministry. Dedicated staff had everything all set up for volunteers to walk in, give their hour or two to serving, then go home. We worked hard for ministry to be as simple for possible for the church to do. My main focus as a pastor became on ensuring that everything was clean, safe, and smooth for the volunteers to engage in weekly ministry activity.

After a while though, I began to feel that I was more of a director of recreational activities than a pastor. While I am not saying that there are not great moments when people began to follow Christ, it is that true ministry can be lost in the process of programing. Numbers seemed to be the focus; attendance, volunteers, activities, and even funding. When I began to go outside of my familure church culture and experience ministry in other locations and other countries, I noticed that there was something different from the clean, safe and predictable program focused ministry I was used to. Ministry I saw outside of my church was messy, risky, and unpredictable. 

I began to see that the biblical concept of ministry is much simpler than what we usually think. In 1 Peter 4:10-11 it says, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen."

First, it is important to know that the word "ministry" is the translations for the word meaning "to serve" in the biblical Greek. So, as sometimes translated, ministry and service are the same word. So when we read the passage above, it tells us what our ministry focus should be. Is it "using whatever gift we have been given to serve others." The idea is also echoed by the Apostle Paul when he says in Ephesians 4:12-13 that the role of church leadership is, "to equip his people for works of service (read ministry), so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." 

The two big take-ways I see here is that ministry is serving God by serving other people and its for the purpose of spiritual growth. When I see the ministry that the early church was involved in, it was much simpler and focused. It took the church and its people into risky and unpredictable situations to present the message and developed mature follows of Jesus Christ. Even when they needed to be better organized to meet the needs of different groups of people as when we see in the book of Acts, the focus was not on making a better program, but to meet the people needs more effectively.

I do think programs are necessary for the church as a means to an end. The end is to more effectively organize the church for serving people. When the focus becomes the program rather than the true ministry that the program is supposed to accomplish, we may sterilize the environment too much to where we forget to go where things get messy, risky, and unpredictable. It is precisely in those situations that we are forced to trust God more when we serve him by serving other people.


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