Swimming on Dry Ground
We ought to see how each of us may arouse one another to love and acts of kindness, not staying away from church meetings, as some do, but rather encouraging one another, and all the more so as you see the day of Christ’s return drawing closer and closer (Heb. 10:24-25, my paraphrase).
One of the saddest things in the Christian world is to learn that most church members are content to let others do the work of the ministry for them. They are told that they are ministers but have not learned to act the part. A lot of teaching nowadays about spiritual gifts is like swimming lessons on dry ground. We can read all the books on the subject and memorize the instructions, but we will swim only in the water.
I have come to see the church as a functioning fellowship and Christian leadership as a fellowship of leadership. “Fellowship” is the key word. It cannot be pointed out too strongly that the church is its citizens, most of whom are ordinary people engaged in normal, ordinary pursuits. The fact that the church has leaders does not in the least absolve its members of the responsibility of personal involvement.
Much of the present tragedy in the church lies in the fact that many who want to be part of Christ’s family are looking for genuine relationships but are finding a complacent church culture concerned to an absurd degree with its own internal politics or so unimaginative as to suggest that saints can be sanctified by a pew and an offering plate. If we are to make progress we must rid our minds of accepted ideas of what a true church is or ought to be. To begin with, we must eschew the notion that the church is a hierarchy of professional religious men. There must be a radical reappraisal of the nature of the church and a rediscovery of the amazing vitality of early Christianity. We need not go back to the original pattern with superstitious obedience, but we would be wise, when we see some central feature of apostolic Christianity, to ask whether this can be incorporated into our present practice.
For example, it is perfectly clear that the earliest Christians considered that Christ was their Senior Pastor, that they were all equal members of the sheepfold, and that to be a Christian was to be engaged in Christ’s service personally and not vicariously through professionals. A clear and obvious illustration of this is found in Col. 3:16, where we read “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” The key words here are “one another.” When the early Christians met, they expected participation of all; and this participation was so universal that Paul had to provide rules to avoid confusion (1 Cor. 14:16-33). And yet I dare ask, Where in our churches today would there be any meaning to Paul’s words, “you can all prophecy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Cor. 14:31)?
There is no suggestion that the early followers of Christ had any other Leader than Christ Himself, who led His people through His under-shepherds who humbly served the saints (Phil 1:1). The early Christians did not elevate any man above their Lord and Savior. Instead, each accepted the responsibility of being representatives of Jesus Christ in daily life. The church of Jesus Christ is not people flocking to a shrine or people making up an audience for a speaker but workers engaged in the task of serving God. The person who says, “I don’t need to work; I just support the workforce,” is insufferably self-righteous. What Christian among us is without the Holy Spirit? As I frequently remind Christian young people, you do not have to graduate from high school to get your spiritual gift!
In short, then, a genuine Christian is an active Christian. Church ministry is not the job of a few gifted or trained men but the inescapable responsibility of every person who belongs to Jesus Christ. The only way to erase the distinction between clergy and laity is by the inclusion of all in ministry. If Paul had been able to foresee the current state of affairs in which the pastor is expected to perform the entire ministry, he might well have added “neither layman nor cleric” to his dictum that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female. The problem of how to begin an every-member model of ministry is so great that it will require our best efforts to overcome. At the very least we can put a stop to special days that give our services over to “Laymen” and ‘Laywomen.” Instead, we must enlarge our training until it includes our total membership. Why should a pastor monopolize public praying? Why shouldn’t the common man read the Scriptures aloud? Why shouldn’t other gifted members do some of the teaching? After all, Paul encouraged those who had the gift of teaching to employ it (Rom. 12:7).
I shall have more to say about this in my book Unleashing the Church. All I want to point out for the present is the need for each individual to exercise his or her gift for the edification of all. We make an important step forward when we, as churchmen and churchwomen, learn the difference between the task of supporting ministers and of being ministers. The glorious fact is that there can be a recovery of every-member ministry if we are bold and courageous enough to insist upon it.
Just as swimming lessons are to be tried out in the water, so the Word of God is to be practiced in daily living. So I ask: Are you swimming on dry ground?
March 2, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.