Most church leaders struggle with the ongoing issue of the people in the pews being passive spectators rather than active participants. Everyone wants to have "Every member in ministry," but our lack of success is seen by our ongoing purchasing of books and continuous attending of seminars designed to cure that very plague.
Before we can consider how to help the patient we need a proper diagnosis, and a proper diagnosis begins with the question: How much of the problem is my/our fault - the very church leaders who are trying to solve it? Or, if not our fault, then the unintended side effect of our actions?
Consider, for instance, the architecture of most churches. People enter and sit in rows (like shelves at Wal-Mart) all facing the same direction (the stage) where performers alternately bless us, if things are going well, or entertain us, if they are not. By default, our gathering areas tend to passivity rather than activity. As a result, what members are asked to do when they leave the gathering is the opposite of what they were asked to do an hour ago when we were together. When we leave it's "Go and change the world," but when we are gathered it's more of "Hey, sit still and listen. Welcome to Coma Land. We'll wake you when it's over."
We need to engage all of the church in the activity God has for them. Our goal should be to move them from sitting in parallel rows to living in interconnected circles so that they might be engaged in the work of God wherever they go. It seems there are at least four ways that we can more effectively engage all of God's people in all of God's mission. These will be proposed and explored in this and three following posts.
First, we need a better hierarchy. I realize that many people may actually have a violently negative physical reaction to my use of the world hierarchy, but the fact remains that organisms require organization in order to remain healthy as they grow. A body without a skeleton may brag about its flexibility, but others will quickly point out its uselessness. There will always be a need for organization. Even if it is an organization of house churches, those single cells need structure. Our challenge is the right kind of structure.
Hierarchy sounds very "high church" coming from a "low church" evangelical like myself. But simply put, it is merely the system that a church utilizes to link the church together in its ministry and lead people to engage in God's missionary endeavor.
But, in church life we typically divide Christians into three tiers, beginning with "the lay people." These are generally viewed, and often complained about, as passive spectators. They show up on Sunday, have positions and help the ministry to function, but they are not the "professional ministers." They have other jobs like plumber, politician, homemaker and candy striper. You know - real jobs.
Next on the perceived ladder of church life (or calling) are those who have been "called to the ministry." These are the people paid to do the work of the ministry, i.e., Senior Pastors, Associate Pastors, Worship Leaders, and the rest of the "leadership team." They have answered the "call to the ministry," been trained, and now are the ones who do the ministry. Why not? They are the called and the trained.
On the top rung are those who are "called to international missions." These are those blessed souls who have left friends and family to go into the Congolese bush and engage government rebels with the gospel of Jesus. These are the "heroes of the faith" worthy of all our respect and honor - the cream of the ministry crop, so to speak. In the minds of many, they are in another ministry world altogether.
Unfortunately, for its common acceptance, this is not a biblical structure.
The Apostle Peter understood the calling on the life of every believer, which is why he wrote in his first epistle, "Based on the gift they received, everyone should use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God" (4:10, HCSB). People are called to ministry at conversion, not at some subsequent event. It is the ordinary who are called to ministry, not the extraordinary. All God's people are called to the ministry, all God's people are sent on mission. The only question is "Where?" and "Among whom?" As Charles Spurgeon, speaking of such a call, said, "Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter."
Lay people tend to think of themselves as being there to support ministers in ministry, and ministers tend to think of themselves as being there to support missionaries in the field. The biblical picture is that all believers are ministers with different roles and assignments. Because of the false dichotomies, we have "lay people" who miss great opportunities to serve God in greater ways than they might otherwise imagine. Every believer should be alert to the call of God and ever vigilant to respond as Isaiah did, "Here I am, send me."
In other words, God wants us to put our "yes" on the table and let Him place it on the map. Ours is not to first determine where, ours is first to lean into obedience and let God work out the ministry and logistical details. Where we serve is secondary to how we serve.
This week, I had the opportunity to talk with Greg and Ruth Haslam while on the Upstream Collective Jetset Tour of London. Greg is the pastor of Westminster Chapel and we spoke about helping people live in community so they can live on mission and in ministry. Ruth said something very interesting during our conversation about the newly formed small groups at Westminster. She stated that they were "God's embassies" in the M25 (the interstate loop around London). Essentially, they are guiding people to be on mission for the King no matter where they find themselves in London.
You can watch the video here.
Our members should be living sent, not living staid. Until we remove the unbiblical hierarchy that imposes and reinforces a false view of ministry, we will continue to struggle to involve all of God's people in all of God's mission.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.