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“My ministry is to teach refugee families to read.” “I lead children’s Sunday school.” “I’m on the missions committee.” “I serve at the clothes closet once a week.” “I really don’t know what my ministry is.” These responses are typical of the answers you may hear when you ask God’s people about how they’re involved in ministry.
Then dig a little deeper to find out what prompted them to serve: “I read a verse about caring for people in need.” “I like to teach.” “My spiritual gift is mercy, so I got involved in a mercy ministry.” “I don’t feel comfortable in sharing my faith, so I must not have the gift of evangelism.” “I got recruited for it.”
Such responses reflect a typically fragmented American approach. Ministry is reduced to one distinct part of a frenetic life, something to be done for a couple of hours on Thursdays. If we can’t cram a ministry role into our already busy schedules, we may not feel like we’re serving at all.
A better place to start is to look at why we serve. The eighty-sixth question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks since we have been saved by grace alone, “why then must we still do good?” The first answer it offers is “because Christ is also renewing us to be like Himself.”
That’s not the response most of us would have given. Being obedient to the commands of Scripture or meeting the needs of a hurting world would be more likely answers. And those are good answers. But the authors of the catechism are pointing us to something more fundamental. They are pointing us to who we are, to our identity in Christ.
What does it mean to be like Christ? The answer may be a bit surprising: it means to be fully human. Jesus demonstrated in His humanity what Adam did not, a life wholly lived out before the face of God. To be more like Christ is to be more like who we were intended to be, to live more in accordance with God’s design. Fortunately, that pattern is not a mystery. It was all clearly laid out in the beginning.
In Genesis, we learn that Eden, prior to the Fall, was a place for man and woman to experience three things. First, it was a place to meet God. They could commune with God intimately. Second, the garden was a place for man and woman to build community safely and abundantly. Families and whole societies could thrive in a place of provision and security. Third, it was a place to work with meaning and dignity. Man and woman would “commune with creation,” managing the resources of the earth with God-given creativity and initiative.
God created us with all three aspects in mind. But of course, our rebellion changed everything. Well, not really everything. Paradise may have been lost, but God’s design wasn’t. The life and death of Jesus Christ begins a long process of restoration in which “everything sad is going to come untrue,” as Sam says in The Lord of the Rings. The Christian life, then, can be understood as an epic quest to recover all three aspects of God’s original design.
Seeing ministry in this way leads to two significant conclusions. First, all of God’s people are called to ministry. The Greek word for laity is laos, which means the people of God — both clergy and non-clergy. The biblical perspective is that all Christians are now God’s people, set apart to be a priesthood to a needy world (1 Peter 2:9). Church members cannot sub-contract ministry to paid professionals, nor can clergy withhold ministry opportunities to lay people. The biblical relationship of clergy and non-clergy is clearly laid out in the fourth chapter of Ephesians: God has called “some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” This kind of equipping, though, is not simply delegating unwanted tasks to church members or recruiting them to fulfill the personal agenda of the pastor. Instead, clergy are called to help their flock know and develop their unique callings. The ministry of church members is every bit as valuable in God’s eyes as the professional clergy. In fact, the non-clerical laity are in a far better position to minister to the world’s needs than the professionals.
The second conclusion is that we cannot separate one dimension of ministry from the other two. God has designed each of us to know God, to live safely in community, and to glorify God in our vocations. Each dimension should have natural expressions. Helping others live in a deeper relationship with the Creator restores our design to know Him personally. Extending mercy to others and helping rebuild broken lives is a recovery of our design to experience relationships in safety and security. Applying biblical principles in the marketplace restores God’s design for our vocations and helps to transform our culture.
Where we so often fall short, though, is selectively choosing one of these areas for our ministry, as though it were more important than the others. Some Christians have a passion to provide for the physical needs of others but never share the Gospel. Or someone is an active witness but is unconcerned about the transformation of culture. But the Bible does not give us permission to live such a fractured existence. We are no more able to choose between word and deed than we can prefer our heart to our lungs. Ministry is simply becoming all of who we are.
What does that mean? Let’s begin with the first design of communion with God. A fragmented view of the Christian life sees the commands in Scripture to witness to others as a role or obligation imposed on us from the outside. In that case, we may look at our inabilities or fears and wonder whether the assignment was really meant for someone else. If we’re honest, evangelism can feel like a burden, fitting us like a heavy, oversized coat. But that’s not the biblical picture. Instead, to be human means to commune with God. Anything less is a denial not only of God but of ourselves. In that sense, telling others in and outside the faith about God is simply expressing what we’re all made for. Thus, there’s no guessing who is supposed to share the hope within us — we all are. When Jesus tells His followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20), He is commissioning us to do the most human thing possible: to respond to God’s design to know and love Him. We are all called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, not simply to fulfill a duty but more fundamentally to give expression to who we are.
The same goes for the design to live in communion with others. God created the garden as a place to live securely and safely, but our rebellion has made this world a place of insecurity and brokenness. Expressions of mercy are ultimately a recovery of our design to live in community as God intended. The passages to guard against greed (Luke 12:15), to help the homeless (Psalm 107:1–9), to help immigrants (Deut. 10:17–19), to help the poor (1 John 3:17), not to judge merely on outward appearances (1 Sam. 16:7) and to fight against social injustices (Micah 3:1–4), are not outside impositions. They are exhortations to be more of who we really are. We will not all be called to the same expressions of mercy. But we are all called to be merciful.
Similarly, our vocations were intended by God to be more than just a way to pay the bills. When considering how to serve Christ in their vocations, though, Christians rarely think beyond sharing the Gospel. For example, “business ministry” often means nothing more than inviting co-workers to an evangelistic luncheon. This reductionism severely limits what Jesus intends by our being salt and light. Instead, measured by time and influence, the Christian businessman serves C
hrist mostly not by Word (e.g., proclaiming the Gospel) or deed (e.g., extending mercy to a co-worker) but by presence (e.g., exemplifying biblical submission to authority, practicing servant leadership, dealing ethically in business deals, etc.). Similarly, the ophthalmologist may explain how God’s handiwork is seen in the creation of the eye; the playwright may write about hope in the midst of brokenness; the homemaker may seek to find value in what others deem mundane, and so on. Cultural transformation will begin to be meaningful when all of God’s people wrestle with how to recover the dignity of their vocations.
Nehemiah is a wonderful example of a layman who embraced all three dimensions. First, he was a man who knew God, possessing a prayer life that was both deep and dependable. His intimate relationship with God gave him courage to make a difference in the lives of others (Neh. 1). He boldly proclaimed God’s goodness to believer and nonbeliever (Neh. 2). Nehemiah helped lead a joyous celebration of the public reading and teaching of God’s Word (Neh. 8), and he encouraged others to be faithful to God’s commands (Neh. 13).
Second, he helped restore his community. He was merciful to those in need: During the famine, he personally helped feed the hungry and met physical needs of the poor. He was engaged in social justice: When the poor and powerless had no choice but to borrow money at exorbitant interest rates, he championed their cause before the nobles and secured relief (Neh. 5). And of course, he is best remembered for his ministry of community development: When the destruction of the city walls threatened the security and dignity of the people of Jerusalem, Nehemiah personally led the restoration project.
Third, he recovered the dignity of work. In his official capacities, he showed respect for those in authority over him. He treated people who worked for him with dignity and fairness. He demonstrated creativity, initiative, and excellence in his work, which he saw as service unto the Lord.
As a layperson, Nehemiah had a high calling indeed. But if the Heidelberg Catechism has it right, he renewed far more than the walls of Jerusalem. By recovering the fullness of God’s design for his life, he became more like Christ. There is no higher calling than to be a layperson, one of God’s people.