Rethinking the ministry of the people

Many factors determine a congregation’s health – from quality of leadership to clarity of mission to location to financial strength.

No factor, however, is more important than how the congregation handles the ministry of the laity.

And no factor is more in need of rethinking and revising.

What do I mean?

If you looked at typical church architecture and how people use it, you might conclude that the laity are:

  • an audience for what ministry providers are doing up front;
  • consumers of religious products;
  • entitled by some unseen process of payment to take what they want;
  • a class listening to teachers, but not taking notes or asking questions and not preparing for an exam.

To that end, we routinely survey church members and ask, in effect, if they are satisfied customers. Once a year, we ask them to commit to paying for whatever value they receive. When times are difficult, we ask what we could do to make the consumer experience more pleasing.

What if we did it the way Jesus did?

First, we would see the people as sinful, broken souls whom God is trying to transform. The measure of our work would be transformation in their lives, not consistency in occupying a pew. What did they do differently because they gathered in our faith community? Were they better parents, more honest workers, bolder citizens, more caring of their neighbors?

We would never ask if they enjoyed the sermons. We would ask what changed in them as a result of hearing the Word. If nothing changed, we wouldn’t blame the preacher. We would ask why they were resisting change.

Second, we would see the people as a household – a large household perhaps, but still a community of people who are bound to each other and, in that binding, emboldened to change the world.

We would never ask if they feel at home in our church or comfortable. We would ask what they are doing to change the world and how this household can help.

Third, we would help the people gird their loins for ministry in the world. We would nurture wisdom and endurance. We would listen to their reports from afar.

Fourth, we would help the people grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ, with all the potency and suffering that his life entailed. We would avoid treating the people as dependent children or prickly customers.

Fifth, we would teach them about Jesus, not about denomination. Brand loyalty would be the least of our concerns. The one who gives them strength is God, and the model of who they are to be and what they are to do is God’s Son.

This probably isn’t what the people want right now. Audience mode and consumer mode are satisfying. They are easy. So is being a dependent child, a teenager perhaps, who has benefits but few responsibilities.

But God wants more. Jesus tried to create circles of friends who would learn God’s love, go out into the world to act out that love, return for sustenance when the darkness fought back, and then go out again.

The measure is transformation: a transformed people going out to transform a sinful and broken world.