Church Ministry and Discipleship


Church, Ministry, Discipleship

What might the future shape and arrangement of the Church be? Here, I use a specific picture drawn from schoolboy biology to pay particular attention to the two separate but connected issues of ministry and discipleship.

Some science

Within each of the cells of our bodies there are enzymes – molecules which enable essential chemical reactions to occur. Enzymes don’t take part in the reaction but are catalysts, often holding specific proteins in what are termed ‘active sites’ on the enzyme surface so that these proteins can combine or be broken up. The shape of each site is often specific to the protein to be catalysed.

Two things can get in the way of this. Other proteins can ‘lock’ the active site by taking another protein’s seat – this is called competitive inhibition. Or a protein may latch on to another part of the enzyme surface and change the shape of the active site in question. Both events stop the enzyme doing its job.

This simple explanation of the way enzymes work might offer a way in to think about the way the Church works. Before we get there, though, we need to have a think about ministry and discipleship.

Ministry and discipleship

These words have fairly specific meanings in this article, mainly to keep things clear and focused. One important task will be to work out what other things these terms might mean, especially in different places. Here, though, is a ‘starter for ten’.

Discipleship is growing engagement with the Spirit-strengthened life of God found in loving Christ. Discipleship is a faith thing: it is about commitment principally to the person of Christ and therefore to his teaching and example. It is much more than head-knowledge and extends across beliefs to attitudes and actions, to behaviour and belonging, commitment and confession of Jesus as Lord. It can be summarised in many different ways but the label is less important than the location of Jesus in the thoughts, feelings and motivations of individual people of faith-commitment and in their being brought together through this shared commitment. Discipleship is the product of taking Jesus seriously when (quoting Deuteronomy 6:5) he says, ‘love the Lord your God [more and more] with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.’ It’s aspirational more than it is some test of initial membership. Discipleship is increasingly loving and living for God in Christ, enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Ministry is discerning God’s activity in the world – and joining in! It is about God-led, Spirit-enabled service in the name of Jesus motivated mainly by a loving response to knowing God’s love in Christ and putting into practice Christ’s commandment to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ All God’s people are called to discern what God is doing in the world and join in. Most Christians do this as part of their ordinary lives at home, or in study, or at work. Some Christians are excused the work part and get a living – a stipend and a Manse – to focus more on ministry; but being paid not to work doesn’t make them any different, though we confusingly call them (alone) ‘Ministers’ Some Christians develop specialist skills and use these in their specifically Christian work such as youth workers or chaplains. They are, on the whole, generally fewer in number and this article doesn’t address them in detail.

Ministry is exercised for its own sake following Christ’s command. It is not done only to create more disciples (though that sometimes happens). It is done by those who are to some extent disciples – for that provides the motivation that makes it ‘ministry’ rather than ‘caring service’ in a more general and less faith-based way. Ministry often deepens discipleship or acts as an encouragement to deepen it. So there is a permanent, close connection between discipleship and ministry. The Church Without Walls Report in 2001 started with this view, that as people with Jesus at the centre we travel wherever Jesus takes us. That personal call is for us where we are, inviting us to love God and our neighbour and showing this in communities of worship and mission. This is a big ask: it is risky, radical and global. It speaks to us right here, right now – and doesn’t stop until we reach heaven.

There is only one discipleship, for there is only one Lord Jesus. But there are many ministries, for human need is diverse. These ministries which may or may not lead to discipleship but are carried out by disciples, have all sorts of shapes and forms.

If church, then, is a gathering of people used by God through which people are touched by the gospel of Christ there is an (admittedly weak) sense in which the church could be described as an enzyme. It makes possible, simply because it is a collection of people in particular ways expressing particular ideas, aiming at fostering engagement with the life of God in the world. It is by no means the only way God can, or does, engage with people; but it is one of those ways and we have been called to belong within it. Since ministries in the church are so diverse, one way of thinking about this is as a large number of ‘active sites’ – places where faith-inspired service is offered which touches those who are served and changes those disciples who participate.

Active sites

Here are some of the places where ministry is exercised today. We intend that meaningful worship for all God’s people be offered all across our land – but that is becoming more challenging as younger generations do not join, congregations therefore age and become smaller. Our tradition has historically embraced the development of the Christian mind – a highly educated Parish Ministry is a good example – but people may be looking for more than that today. We aspire to be truly inclusive – but the challenges of the past decade have shown how difficult that is to achieve in practice. We believe that our faith is relevant right now – but many either do not agree or are not sufficiently motivated to discover for themselves whether it is or not. We want to be engaged with the whole world – but we do this in ways which would be familiar to our forebears in a modern communication age amongst millennials who are more comfortable with Instagram than institutions. We do speak to the realities of life – but modern living has moved quickly beyond ‘traditional’ understandings which once held almost universal sway, and we find our voice is only one among many. Finally, we want to be well run – but governance demands place increasing burdens on us. We still meet these, but the cost of doing so uses up more and more of our scarce resources.

Wrong-shaped sites

As well as this there are sites which have the wrong shape. We might be people of the Word, but how does reading from a book to those physically present fit in a world wide web world where youngsters out for a night stare at their screen rather than talk face to face, and where tablets and smartphones are more familiar than a banana to anyone under fifteen? Are our services truly inclusive – and let’s not allow debates over sexuality to cloud the truth that many so-called ‘traditional’families do not find easy welcome in many Sunday services. How can they, when fewer than half of churches in Scotland have any Sunday School? We meet on Sundays but that doesn’t fit many people’s diaries and lifestyles, yet we have been slow to engage with a world in which all sorts of services are provided twenty-four hours a day. When was the last time you waited until six o’clock to watch the latest news; we still wait until ten or eleven on a Sunday to meet in worship.

In addition to the parts which don’t fit well, we face competition which inhibits engagement with God’ people and purposes. People look to the Sky (corporation) and are encouraged to ‘believe in better’– then pay over £40 a month for High Definition sport pumped down cables so that it feels as though the Liverpool game is in your living room. In a Web 2.0 world where user-generated content (that is, where everyone has their say) is simply normal, the idea of listening to one person’s uninterrupted speech for even ten minutes, let alone twenty or thirty, seems mediaeval. And particularly in Scotland with its lack of regulation on Sunday trading, it is all too easy for the lure of the love of the things which money can buy to take people from worship.

We have hardly begun to address, less take seriously, the competition all around.

Administration over ministry

It gets worse even than this, for some things attaching to church reduce the active sites of ministry and take much of the effort of faithful disciples. Some of these include: governance demands, property issues, complicated law, procedures meant for a different age, frail congregations staffed by too few people who are, as a result, too busy and too tired to do much more than keep what we have going as we have it.

There are too many cogs, too few engineers, and too little oil – and there is the real risk that it will all seize up all too soon.

What hope is there?

I want to remain in the world of science and look to an unlikely source to give some grounds for optimism. Charles Darwin spotted, quite rightly, that all sorts of living things change and adapt. I think that is true not only of individual creatures but of social collectives: all sorts of organisations also evolve. And the ones which survive are not the strongest, nor the largest, and not the fittest. The answer will not come from our strength, our size or our health. The organisms which survive and flourish are the ones which are, not fittest, but most fit: most fitting in their environment. To be that, these are the ones which are most responsive to change.

So what?

Therefore, our calling is to be faithfully responsive. To be responsive to God and God’s call to us in Christ. To be responsive to the rapidly-changing social environment. Our calling is to be flexible to the core, fleet of foot and not simply willing to make some accommodation, probably radically permissive and so comfortable with risk-taking that not to take risks will seem the new ‘strange’.

I think we are called to much greater discipleship, not less; our view of the ministries we all exercise needs to develop and our understanding of the role of those paid a stipend has to alter radically. I think we are being called to the privileged position which few before us have enjoyed, of breathing deeply, trusting fully and stepping bravely in ways the people of God in Scotland have not stepped before.

I do not think, however, that such a call is more radical than the call to leave Egypt. I do not think it is greater than the call to enter and possess a land of promise filled with giants and grapes the size of grapefruit. It is not greater than the call to a man from Asia to come across to Europe to help the fledgling Church. And it is not greater than the call to four fisherman on the shore who heard a travelling teacher say, ‘Come, follow me.’

They all went; following different routes, facing different challenges, all trusting in the enduring faithfulness of God who made the ancient hills and whose mercies are new every morning.

The question is quite simple: how will we follow faithfully? We may, in the past have been too concerned for control and order: growing bulbs in pots, if you like. In these times we feel buffeted by the wind, blown by forces beyond us. Perhaps that is where we ought to be. After all, from the apparent randomness of seed strewn everywhere some grew and produced a harvest. We still trust a God not of the famine but of plenty.

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