THE LAY MINISTRY DYNAMIC
What does this “every-member gospel ministry” look like in today’s world? Here are several examples:
• Jerry is asked by his work colleague Bill how his weekend went. Jerry relates that he went on a men’s retreat that provided spiritual resources for forgiving people who have wronged us over the years. When Bill raises his eyebrows and says, “That’s interesting,” Jerry takes a small plunge and mentions that the thing that helped him most was the idea that even though he has not given God his due, God offers him forgiveness through Jesus.
• Dan and Jill help their two sons, ages five and seven, with Scripture memorization and teach them a simple catechism. They field the boys’ questions and help them understand the meaning of the texts they are studying.
• Sally gets to know a young woman named Clara at church. Clara confides that she and her husband are having marriage problems and he isn’t willing to go to a counselor. Sally and her husband, Jeff, invite Clara and Sam over for a meal. Sam hits it off with Jeff. Afterward, Clara convinces Sam to meet with Jeff and Sally to talk about their marriage issues. They meet together once a month for four months, studying Ephesians 5 and several other biblical texts on marriage.
• John comes to church with his wife, but he isn’t sure what he believes or where he stands on faith. The pastor introduces him to an elder named Tom, who begins meeting with John on occasion to read and discuss a book about basic Christianity. After two meetings, John agrees to study the gospel of Mark with Tom every two or three weeks.
• Jenny begins coming to a small group in the church. She was raised in the church but has so many doubts and questions that her group leader, Beth, begins meeting with her one-on-one. They study Bible passages and read books that address each of her questions, one after the other.
• Ted is a young single lawyer. He knows several other lawyers who go to church with him, though they don’t work for his firm. He decides to have a Super Bowl party for several of his non-Christian colleagues and invites two Christian lawyers from church and a couple of other believers as well. The men and women from his workplace hit it off with the lawyers from church. About three months later, one of them shows up in church with one of Ted’s friends.
• Jessica meets Teresa, a new believer, at church and invites her to work through a series of six Bible studies for new Christians (on issues such as prayer, Bible reading, the role of the church, understanding the gospel better, etc.).
• Fred has been attending a small group for months. At one point he realizes that he assesses the value of the group strictly on what he gets out of it. He then decides to begin preparing well (studying the passage) and praying for the group. When he comes, he looks for every opportunity to help the Bible study leader by making good contributions and for ways to speak the truth in love so others are encouraged and helped to grow.
• Catherine prays for her friend Megan for months. Megan responds well to two short books on Christian subjects that Catherine has given her. She then invites Megan to an evangelistic event in which Christian truth is presented. On the way home, she fields Megan’s questions.
• Joe has a longtime friend from college days named Pete, who is a musician. Pete’s performance anxiety is harming his career. Joe has been a sympathetic listener for some time, but finally he bluntly asks Pete to explore the Christian faith with him. “I think maybe it’s the only thing that will help you overcome your problem.” Pete is taken aback, but after a while, he expresses interest, mainly out of desperation. Joe warns him, “If Christianity is going to be any help, it will only be if you come to the belief that it is not just helpful but true.” Pete doesn’t want to go to any Christian gatherings, so they start studying the Bible together and listening to sermons and lectures and discussing them.
• Kerrie and two other Christian friends are moms who have young kids. They decide to start a daytime moms’ group and invite non-Christian friends. For about a year, the group grows to include a similar number of Christians and nonbelievers. The conversations are general and freewheeling—covering spiritual, social, marriage, parenting, and personal issues. As time goes on, several of the nonbelievers begin to go to church with the believers and cross over into faith. After three years, the group is a Christian Bible study but still open and inclusive toward a few nonbelievers who come regularly.
• Jim and Cynthia are both artists who are involved in a citywide Christian artists’ fellowship based in their local church. The fellowship typically includes a discussion of the relationship of faith to art that assumes a Christian belief, but the artists have four events a year that will be either a gallery showing or a book event in which a credible working artist talks to a general audience about how their faith relates to their art. Jim and Cynthia are diligent in bringing non-Christian artists or art appreciators to these events.
• Greg comes to faith in Christ through a skeptics/seeker group hosted by a church. When the date for his baptism is set, he invites a number of non-Christian friends to the service and then takes them out for lunch and discusses the whole event. One friend is very moved by the experience, and Greg invites him to come back. Eventually, the friend begins coming to his small group with him.(10)
We can make several observations about these examples. First, it should be clear that we are not just talking about evangelism in the traditional sense here. Some of these examples show instances of encouraging and building up new believers; some point to ways of spurring Christians on to greater growth in Christ; others depict situations of helping believers address particular problems in their lives. And yet the basic form of this every-member gospel ministry is the same:
• Organic. It happens spontaneously, outside of the church’s organized programs (even though it occasionally makes use of formal programs).
• Relational. It is done in the context of informal personal relationships.
• Word deploying. It prayerfully brings the Bible and gospel into connection with people’s lives.
• Active, not passive. Each person assumes personal responsibility for being a producer rather than just a consumer of ministry; for example, even though Fred continues to come to the small group as he always has, his mind-set has changed.
Traditional evangelism is only one piece of this every-member gospel ministry, and it is often not the largest piece. Still, as lay ministry grows in a congregation, so, too, will the amount of evangelism.
Second, notice we are talking about lay ministry, not necessarily lay leadership. Often ministers talk about lay ministers and lay leaders as if they are the same thing. But this may betray too much attractional church thinking. By lay leaders, I mean volunteers who lead and run church programs. Being a lay leader can be time-consuming and may even make lay ministry more difficult for a season. Lay leadership usually requires some level of leadership and organizational ability, while lay ministry does not. Lay leaders are extremely important to lay ministry—overworking lay leaders can kill lay ministry in a church—but they are not the same thing. Lay ministers are people who actively bring their Christian example and faith into the lives of their neighbors, friends, colleagues, and community.
My experience has been that when at least 20 to 25 percent of a church’s people are engaged in this kind of organic, relational gospel ministry, it creates a powerful dynamism that infuses the whole church and greatly extends the church’s ability to edify and evangelize. Lay ministers counsel, encourage, instruct, disciple, and witness with both Christian and non-Christian individuals. They involve themselves in the lives of others so they might come to faith or grow in grace. Then a certain percentage of the people served by these lay ministers come into the lay ministry community as well, and the church grows in quality and quantity. Because they are being equipped and supported by the church’s leaders, those involved in lay ministry tend to feel a healthy sense of ownership of the church. They think of it as “our church,” not “their church” (referring to the ordained leaders and staff). They freely and generously give of their time, talent, and treasure.
This is the tide that lifts every boat in ministry. Without Christian education and counseling, without formal and informal diaconal work, without the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, without support for family life, without the management and stewardship of resources, without church government and discipline, laypeople will not be built up into lay ministers. But if lay ministry is happening all through and around the church, it grows each of these other functions in quality and quantity. Where do the human resources and even the financial resources come from to do all of the work of the church? They come from every-member gospel ministry.
MISSIONAL EVANGELISM THROUGH MINI-DECISIONS
Notice another assumption behind the examples of lay ministry given here: many people process from unbelief to faith through “mini-decisions.”
We hold to the classic teaching about the nature of the gospel: to be a Christian is to be united with Christ by faith so that the merits of his saving work become ours and his Spirit enters us and begins to change us into Christ’s likeness. You either are a Christian or you are not—you either are united to him by faith or you are not—because being a Christian is, first of all, a “standing” with God. However, we also acknowledge that coming to this point of uniting to Christ by faith often works as a process, not only as an event. It can occur through a series of small decisions or thoughts that bring a person closer and closer to the point of saving faith. In a post-Christendom setting, more often than not, this is the case. People simply do not have the necessary background knowledge to hear a gospel address and immediately understand who God is, what sin is, who Jesus is, and what repentance and faith are in a way that enables them to make an intelligent commitment. They often have far too many objections and beliefs for the gospel to be readily plausible to them.
Therefore, most people in the West need to be welcomed into community long enough for them to hear multiple expressions of the gospel—both formal and informal—from individuals and teachers. As this happens in community, nonbelievers come to understand the character of God, sin, and grace. Many of their objections are answered through this process. Because they are “on the inside” and involved in ongoing relationships with Christians, they can imagine themselves as Christians and see how the faith fleshes out in real life.