It’s always a challenge. Persons pigeonhole ministry as something that can only occur in the church…or when the church has “service projects” or events outside of the church. It’s limiting and keeps them from seeing the work they do on a daily basis as ministry. Even as clergy we can beat ourselves up for being out in the community, hanging out in coffee shops, coaching little league instead of being involved in what we consider “real” ministry.
For laypersons, I think, this is particularly damaging. Every day they may enter a “mission field” of an office or a school or a factory where they encounter many persons. It’s a place full of opportunity to share the story of God. But, if they think of ministry as something that only happens in the institutional church, then we have a problem.
Defining ministry as church work can cause a severe misunderstanding of the New Testament. For example, the Apostle Paul tells leaders to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Read through our cultural lenses, we assume this means all Christians are to be volunteering to keep the programs, facilities, policies, and initiatives of the institutional church humming along. There’s just one problem with this reading. When Paul wrote this command there were no institutional church facilities, programs, policies or initiatives.
Rather than defining ministry as church work, a better definition would be any act of service that blesses others and brings glory to God. This means church leaders are not called to merely equip us to do church work, but as Dallas Willard said, “Our role as Christian leaders is to equip the saints to do what saints are supposed to do.” Real ministry is serving others for their benefit and God’s glory whether inside our outside the confines of the institutional church.
So, how do we help folks redefine ministry?