- Keith Harris
A Minister's Thoughts on Ministry
Ministry lies at the heart of Christianity. As Christ dwelt among us, His focus was others-centered. He was always looking forward to the ultimate ministry of sacrifice. Another way to say it might be that Christ was focused on service and serving others and the ultimate service was the giving of His life. As Christians seeking to pattern our lives after that of Christ, should our focus be any different? To take it one step farther, as a royal priesthood of God, should our ministry be any different?
But how do other people view ministry and ministers? I have often heard it said that the minister lives in a fish bowl. People are constantly examining your life and the activities in which you are involved to make sure that you are worthy to be their minister. But the problem is that different individuals have different standards by which they expect you to live and minister. Church members have certain expectations for the minister and his work. One of those expectations is that the minister should preach. I do not think that anyone would disagree with this expectation. Another expectation would be teaching. Again, there are no disagreements. Other expectations of members include visiting, counseling, performing weddings and presiding over memorial services. Christ did all of these, with maybe the exception of the latter two.
Nevertheless, there are still other expectations that members have for their minister. They expect him to be an administrator, a resident handyman, and a janitor. They expect him to be a bus driver, carpenter, and horticulturalist. The minister is the person who is called upon when anything and everything must be done. He is expected to be a “Jack-of-all-trades.” I believe that ministers should preach, teach, visit, counsel, perform weddings and preside over memorial services. As Christians, our ministry is to serve. There are many ways to serve, and the above mentioned are just a few. As one seeks to be a follower and minister of Christ, his spiritual life must grow. Thus, we are faced with the challenge of the spiritual disciplines. Disciplining the mind and body toward a greater understanding of who we are and what we are about in light of who God is and what He is about. This can prove to be quite the challenge.
The spiritual disciplines play a large role in this particular struggle in the life of a Christian and minister. I was introduced to spiritual disciplines as a young boy. I would gather my sister and grandmother into seats that were in a row much like that of a church pew, and I would preach to them and lead them in a hymn. We would have a prayer and partake of the Lord’s Supper, which was nothing more than Coca-Cola and saltine crackers (I realize my theology was a bit off as a youngster). My grandmother would keep my sister and me during the summertime, while my parents were at work. There were many opportunities for her to teach us about the importance of following Christ. Regardless of the fact that I did not know it at the time, she was teaching us about the importance of spiritual disciplines.
As the years have gone by, giving way to maturity, I understand better the importance of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are those acts which contribute to a person’s becoming more spiritually minded. Richard Foster says the “…classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.” When I was a young boy playing the role of the “minister” with my sister and grandmother as the congregation, I did not understand this concept. The spiritual disciplines are so much deeper than I could have imagined at that point in life. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, discusses his list of spiritual disciplines, which he breaks down into two categories: 1) Disciplines of Abstinence and 2) Disciplines of Engagement. The Disciplines of Abstinence include: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice. The Disciplines of Engagement include: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission. It would seem to be true that ministry in any setting should embody these elements. Each item in this list involves service; either service to God, to others, or to the refreshing of oneself.
Solitude is simply being alone. There are times when it is good to be secluded from all others. It allows for the collection of thought through reflection. Silence allows one to think and reflect on the blessings that come our way from the beneficent God we serve. We are able to examine our own lives and the condition we are in at the present. Much like solitude, we are able to collect our thoughts and process our relationship with God. This meditation should be a part of one’s spiritual life. Fasting involves refraining from eating combined with prayer and meditation, not simply going without food for a period of time. In times of real spiritual depression, or when one is faced with a difficult decision, fasting is a good discipline in which to engage. Fasting gives way to sacrifice. Sacrifice is the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else. In the case of spiritual disciplines, it is surrendering of ourselves for the sake of God. As in fasting, we go without food to show our devotion to and dependency upon God. We sacrifice our eating to devote ourselves to prayer and meditation. Sacrificing involves a lot more than just going without food during a period of fasting. We read in the Old Testament that the people offered sacrifices to God. While we do not offer those kinds of sacrifices today, we should understand that there is an underlying principle that governs our giving sacrifices to God. Our lives should be a sacrifice to Him. God wants us to give ourselves to Him completely.
As ministers, one of the main tasks we have in front of us is the continual study of God’s word. Our preaching and teaching will reflect our study of the word of God. Foster defines study as “…a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” Our study of God’s word will move us in the direction He would have us to go. It is important that the minister study so that the congregation of the Lord’s people can be encouraged, edified, and educated. Worship is our response to the work that God has done through His Son. Christian worship is unique in that all we do centers around Jesus Christ. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” It would seem from this passage that even the giving of thanks and praise is done through Jesus. Worship is a time in which we give and receive edification. There are two types of worship, corporate and private. Corporate worship is what is done in the larger assembly. Private worship is the praise and honor we give to God during our personal time. The minister is seen in the corporate worship because he has such a prominent part in the services. But, it is easy for the minister to struggle in the area of personal or private worship. John Piper says, “…I must balance the scales and reassert that true worship always combines heart and head, emotion and thought, affection and reflection, doxology and theology.” We as Christians and ministers, in order to truly worship God in the way He would have us, must give our all to God.
Celebration is a spiritual discipline, but the question may be asked, “The celebration of what?” It is the celebration of having a loving God who gave His one and only Son so that we might be reconciled to Him. The proper appreciation for this will no doubt drive a person to celebrate. It is hard to comprehend a God who would love sinners enough to let His Son leave His side and come to earth, take the form of a man, and die on a tree so that sins could be forgiven. This is an amazing reality. The actual celebration is the praise and glory we give to God. When we win a sporting event or some other contest we jump and shout for joy! We throw victory parties and invite all our friends. Why does it seem as though we are a little reluctant to do the same when it comes to celebrating Jesus’ victory over Satan? We as ministers must seek to revive the spirit of celebration in the hearts and minds of those to whom we minister.
Service is another spiritual discipline in which the minister must be engaged. As was said earlier, service is at the heart of ministry. A service is very simply a helpful act. During those summers as a young boy, my grandmother would always tell me, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She always made it clear that we were to help those in need. She played a major role in my understanding of this discipline. Richard Foster speaks about true service in this way,
“True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside…True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service…True service rests contented in hiddenness…True service is free of the need to calculate results…True service is indiscriminate in its ministry…True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need…True service is a lifestyle…True service can withhold the service as freely as perform it…True service builds community.”
Service is about someone else. The service of the minister involves all of the above disciplines. Jesus makes clear the importance of service to others in Matthew 20:26-28, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ministry is service. Service is ministry.
The minister should also engage himself in prayer. All Christians should work toward a positive prayer life. This will involve solitude, silence, and sacrifice. The minister should spend a great deal of time in prayer on behalf of the members of the congregation with which he labors. Prayer shows our reliance on and devotion to God. We must stand confident that God will answer our prayers. We should understand that it may not always be the answer for which we had hoped. John Piper discusses prayer in his book Desiring God. He says, “Uniquely preserved in the act of prayer is the unity of two goals—the pursuit of God’s glory and the pursuit of our joy.” Piper goes on to say, “The Bible plainly teaches that the goal of all that we do should be to glorify God. But it also teaches that in all we do we should pursue the fullness of our joy…Prayer pursues joy in fellowship with Jesus and in the power to share His life with others.” Prayer is one of the most important aspects of the Christian’s/minister’s life. It is the avenue by which we reach God. With the stress and burdens that are placed on the minister by the demands of the congregation, he needs this avenue to pour his heart out to the One who can relieve all burdens. Just the fact of knowing we have a Lord to whom we can pray is a relief in and of itself.
Okay. So here’s the reality. If you do not hear anything I have said thus far…hear this. It all boils down to one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines. Submission. James tells us in his letter that we should “submit to God” (James 4:7). In submitting to God we give our lives to Him. Submission is closely related to the concept of sacrifice. We are to submit ourselves by dying to self. As a result of our ultimate submission to God, the prior disciplines will naturally flow from our very being. However, we must work at each individual discipline in order to grow in the “grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” My submitting to God requires the emptying of self. This same reality is exemplified in the life of Jesus. Paul says in Philippians 2:7, Jesus “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The word used here for “emptied” implies that he removed the appearance of his divinity, he gave up this appearance freely. It essentially is the picture of Christ divesting himself of his position and prestige. He “emptied” himself. And he did so as an expression of his full and complete submission to the Father. The pointedness of Paul’s discourse here is realized in the opening comments of this passage. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” Then the passage continues regarding Jesus, “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (Philippians 2:3-7). Submission may be the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines. Submission may be the most difficult element of ministry. But the call of scripture is clear and undeniable. We are to submit ourselves, our desires, our lives, our will, to God. We must move beyond ourselves to an understanding that following Christ is not about me. Christianity is not about me. Ministry is not about me. It is all about God…Father, Son, and Spirit. If we embrace this truth as both individuals and congregations we will be able to effectively accomplish God’s will for our lives.