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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 43–51 

Affirming the Laity for Ministry

Vern Heidebrecht

Remember the four-minute mile? People had tried to achieve it for centuries. It became a basic belief that it was physiologically impossible. Our lung power simply was not adequate for this strenuous feat. Man’s bone structures were all wrong and wind resistance was too great. Then one man, one single athlete proved all the pundits wrong. Roger Bannister, the fleet footed physician ran the first sub four minute mile at the British Commonwealth games in Vancouver. The remarkable aftermath of this feat was that thirty-seven other runners broke the four minute mile the following year, and the year after that three hundred additional runners broke the same four minute mile barrier. 1 What happened? Did man change physiologically? Were there great improvements in training? Hardly! The difference was in attitude. Now everyone knew it was possible. This new knowledge empowered athletes to run the race with new vision.

Dry bones will . . . become a formidable army . . .

We find a striking parallel in the contemporary church scene. There seems to be a barrier in the development of authentic lay ministries. There is a major performance gap between what the {44} church is doing and what the Scriptures declare as normative. Christianity Today describes this condition with some of the following information on the contemporary church:

  • More than 75 percent of the churches in America are no longer growing, or are experiencing a decline in membership.
  • Most people who do not attend church say worship services are boring and irrelevant.
  • Ordained clergy are leaving the ministry in unprecedented numbers and one out of every eight pastors is thinking of resigning. 2

There are, however, exceptions. God, by His grace, is raising up congregations that are breaking through these barriers and showing us the way, even as Bannister so ably did. One of the signals of this passion to develop significant ministry partnership in the Church is seen in part by the great number of church leaders who are gathering to learn in seminars taught by church leaders who are doing it.

It has been my observation that these model congregations have a clear mission statement which focuses on the goal of mobilizing laity for ministry. Wagner points out that of the seven vital signs of a healthy church, the second one is: “A well-mobilized laity, which has discovered, developed, and is using all the spiritual gifts for growth.” 3 Jerry Cook has written a helpful piece which describes their church’s ministry, under the heading “Love, acceptance and forgiveness.” In their dramatic church ministry, he declares,

We began to understand that the church was people—real people—changed by the power of Christ, filled with the Spirit of Christ, touching the hurting, dying and cynical modern man with the life of Jesus Himself. 4

These Christ-changed people are the ministers of Christ’s gracious and powerful gospel. Cook then goes on to describe how a congregation with lay ministries at its centre was able to develop a wide-ranging set of ministries that impacted an entire community for Christ. The lesson is simple, that where laity is affirmed, valued, and equipped for ministry, significant breakthroughs of the gospel are being made into our post-Christian cultural structures. {45}

WHAT IS YOUR MINISTRY?

Most seminary students go through a discernment process to enable them in entering ministries for which they are best suited. Usually this special discernment time includes calling several seminary professors, family members, fellow students, and a pastoral mentor for insights and counsel. This is a sensitive yet confrontational exercise which is essential for the seminarian to have discernment as to his or her ministry. After all, the entire seminary experience is designed to place individuals into effective ministry.

What is good for the seminarian is also good for the lay person. Our theology clearly teaches us that all Christians are called to ministry. Yet we really do struggle with knowing what this means in practical terms. If it is true that Jesus was addressing all believers when he announced, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that would last” (John 15:16), then we have an agenda to work on for all the church members.

Ask yourself: “How is the call of Christ affirmed for the laity? Where and how are we taking seriously the equipping ministry for them? And are we helping each person in a serious way to develop a significant ministry?” These are questions that need to come center stage onto our agenda as a church. To miss this critical issue is to overlook the nature of the church and its calling.

A CHURCH FULL OF MINISTRIES

The New Testament gives no indication that one can be a Christian without also being called to ministry. The nature of the gifting in the church, as described in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, powerfully argues that every member is significant and has a necessary and vital ministry to accomplish. The apostle Peter underscores this: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God would be praised through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10-11). The most common term used in the scriptures to describe a minister is diakonos, from which our familiar {46} word deacon is derived. We find it applied in the Scriptures to the ministry of feeding hungry people (Acts 6:1); the ministry of teaching hungry minds (Acts 6:4); the ministry of prayer (Acts 11:29); the ministry of evangelism (Acts 21:19); the ministry of humble assistants as and when required (Acts 19:22); and the ministry of living the whole life for Christ even in the face of suffering and difficulties (Acts 20:24). It is plain, no ministry is too humble or exacting if it is done in response to Christ’s grace and love. This service belongs to the whole church body.

Clergy and Laity

In the church today there seems to be a rather sharp distinction between clergy and laity. There is a general perception that the clergy are a type of “first class” citizen of the church and deserving of special attention. The laity, on the other hand, are relegated to the general “second class” seating area of this household of faith. This impacts how we function. Consider for a moment the derivation of these terms. The term “clergy” is derived from the word kleros, which means God’s lot or heritage. Laity, on the other hand, is derived from laos, the people of God. Michael Green makes the observation that in the New Testament these words are not contrasted. All Christians constitute God’s kleros (Acts 26:16-18; Col. 1:12; and 1 Peter 5:3). Equally, all Christians make up God’s laos (2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10). 5 All believers are both ministers and the people of God. This is a foundational insight into the nature of the church. The New Testament offers us a church full of God’s people who are all significant ministers. Frank Tillapaugh, an outstanding churchman, adds:

Unleashing our churches and our potential for personal ministry means moving away from the world’s fascination with titles and external credentials. The only title that really matters is the title of Christ-one. If you wear that title, you have authority as God’s ambassador. 6

What About the Ordained?

Those who are ordained are both kleros and laos. Their function, however, is to fulfill the Holy Spirit’s gifting and enabling . . . “to prepare (equip) God’s people for works of service until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge {47} of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). These people gifts who shepherd and lead the congregation through equipping them for ministry are key in the functioning of a vital congregation.

Exactly how important is this function? It is absolutely essential. In one sense, everything rises and falls on the quality and responsiveness of these shepherds and equippers in the local church. When they equip and exhort laity to ministry, then the Spirit is freed to bring a new season of fruitfulness to the congregation. This leadership, however, is neither called to be complacent nor authoritarian. They are first and foremost Christ’s servants and then the people they are called to serve. Their dedication is to bring people to maturity, anxious to ensure that every member of the Body is working properly, so that the presence of Christ can effectively energize the church to evangelize a needy and skeptical world.

Where such leadership is exercised in affirming, equipping and energizing laity for ministry, a dynamic church of ministers is fashioned. In such a context, the spirit of servanthood in the leaders draws out people to risk testing out their own giftings for ministry. The godly character of the leaders motivates people to follow and become leaders in their own right. The releasing of the various gifted people in the church family unleashes person after person into the calling God has uniquely placed upon them. In such a setting, ministry becomes a natural expression of lifestyle. One layman once observed that ministry boils down to “. . . finding a need and meeting it.” That covers a whole gamut of opportunities in the church and community.

WHERE DO WE BEGIN?

Jesus demonstrated three principles for equipping which bonded his disciples into a formidable force in the world. His focus was on a small cell of twelve and the ministry formation is clearly described by Mark: “He appointed twelve, designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14). We know that it was Christ’s intent to evangelize the whole world, but significantly, his strategy was to equip a rather small team of laymen who would then {48} multiply that ministry to all the world. It is rather obvious that there are three phases to this strategy as recorded in Mark.

First, He was with them. This becomes character formation. Having called his team, Jesus made a practice to be with them. For three and one-half years they were exposed to his character, his friendship, his teaching, and his discipline. Knowledge was gained by association before it was understood by explanation. To John and Andrew, he simply invited them to “come and see” (John 1:39). Philip and others received the gracious invitation to “follow me” (John 1:43). This model of Christ was not the Greek style of teaching which consisted of lecture and debate. Rather, it was the Hebrew model of learning in real life settings.

This same basic principle is strategic in affirming laity for ministry. A congregation needs to function as a multi-celled organism where individuals can be drawn into smaller circles of affirmation and ministry development. Contrary to what one might expect in the ministry of Jesus, as the second and third years came, he gave increasingly more time to the chosen disciples, not less. 7 His whole ministry evolved around them. Coleman makes the arresting observation that Christ actually spent more time with his disciples than with everyone else in the world put together. 8 When the ordained minister is characterized as the one everyone needs to be “with” to be equipped, counselled, and helped, then the limitations are obvious. Yet it is too often the expectation of congregations that the minister is to do all the ministry to the members, and for them. It is only as the pastors discern, affirm, and equip lay leaders to enlarge this process of ministry, that the church increasingly come alive to the joy and empowerment of ministry. The goal of the church needs to include, at its center, to recognize and equip circles of care and ministry so that every member can live out God’s calling upon their lives.

Second, He sent them. This is ministry formation. A careful reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus developed a strategic rotation between instruction and assignment. So the writer Mark observes that the disciples were designated that they “. . . might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). The Gospel record bears out that the twelve were sent out, and Jesus also gathered them repeatedly to review how things had gone with them in their assignments (Mark 6:30, Luke 9:10). In these review sessions the Master {49} listened to them, affirmed them, and also gave them corrective insights for their next assignments (Luke 10:17, 18). This was on-the-job training. It was not a hit and miss approach. Nothing less than world conquest was the Christ’s goal. He was not only building followers, but leaders.

The strategy in the church requires the development of front-line ministries in the community. Tillapaugh observes that “people in the midst of the battle develop the healthiest attitudes.” 9 So, not only is this strategy effective, but it maintains a high morale in ministry. Too often we ask lay people to go out as loners into their world to minister. Jesus sent them out in task forces, the smallest grouping was in twos. Every cell in the church—home Bible studies, Sunday School classes, fellowship groups and other ministry centres--need to discover how they can harness their gifts to minister in the community. To miss this is to be disobedient to the great commission and the great commandment. Ministry is developed in the normal traffic patterns of life. If a church has 200 people attending and each member interfaces with 20 people during a given week, then there is a ministry field of at least 4,000 people that are being reached by that congregation. Although the congregation gathers in a relatively small group of 200 to worship, it can leave equipped and empowered to impact thousands during the week. A laity that is equipped for ministry is the front-line for change and evangelism in this world.

Third, He gave them authority. This is leadership formation. The twelve were empowered to do battle in the spiritual arena, “. . . to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:15). The term authority always speaks about a delegated authority. Thus it was not an authority that originated within them, but it was conferred on them by Christ. The twelve were sent out not only with a task to be accomplished, but also anointed with authority to do it. This was a vital and exciting aspect of ministry preparation for the disciples.

A laity that is affirmed for ministry needs to be empowered for the task. Ask yourself the following: Do we empower our lay pastors and teachers to instruct with authority, to baptize, to anoint with oil, and to give godly leadership? Do we unleash lay people to live out the vision God has placed in their hearts as these issues are discerned within the church body? Do we take seriously the call to empower people for mission to the hurting areas of our world across the street and {50} across the sea? Do we empower them with our prayers, laying on of hands, and financial resources?

Even as Christ put himself under the Father’s authority, and thus was empowered to do the whole will of God, so we as a church full of ministers need to follow that model. The strong encouragement of Jesus is evident: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father and I will do whatever you ask in my name, so the son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:12-14).

MAKING THE DRY BONES ALIVE

We are living in the decade of the 90s where knowledge is doubled every 24 months. In the midst of this information explosion we find increasing fragmentation and fracturing in our families and society. The pain and frustration is everywhere. People are searching for and reaching out to people who bring hope. A powerless, fortress-minded church misses the mark. We need only to read the messages to the seven churches in the book of Revelation to understand the seriousness of such a condition. The entire body is called to holiness, health, and obedient service.

The good news is that Christ is the head of the church. The entire church is full of potential ministers. It is Christ’s desire to send renewal and revival in response to our seeking and faith-filled praying. Then the “dry bones” will be reconnected by the energy of the Spirit and become a formidable army in our community, yes in the whole world.

ENDNOTES

  1. Harvey MacKay, Swim With Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive (New York: Ivy, 1958), 68.
  2. “. . . It’s About Time!” (an advertisement for Reformed Theological Seminary), Christianity Today, 7 Feb. 1986, 14.
  3. Peter C. Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth (Ventura: Regal, 1984), 36.
  4. Jerry Cook, Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness (Westwood: Fleming G. Revell, 1963), 36.
  5. Michael Green, Freed to Serve (Toronto: Plodder and Stoughton, 1983), 30.
  6. Frank R. Tillapaugh, The Church Unleashed (Ventura: Regal, 1982), 81. {51}
  7. Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (Westwood: Fleming G. Revell, 1963), 41.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Tillapaugh, 123.
Vern Heidebrecht is pastor of the Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Vern and his wife Carol have pastored twenty-five years in the United States and two years at Abbotsford.

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