Let’s open our Bibles to Romans 12. The Apostle Paul has just written eleven chapters of heavy theology. Paul never left his teaching at the theoretical level. In the passage we’re about to read, he starts to get practical. How should what we believe affect the way we live (our praxis)? What we’re about to talk about today is so important that it takes Paul only a couple of sentences to get to this topic. It’s an absolutely essential part of how we’re called to live.
Romans 12:3-8 says:
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Everyone is tempted in one of two ways. Some of us are tempted to think too highly of ourselves, as if we’re indispensable. There’s nothing wrong with being tempted to think this way, but we need to be aware that it’s our tendency, and we need to be purposeful about countering it.
Some of us have the opposite tendency. We think that we have nothing to contribute. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with being tempted to undervalue our role, but we also need to be aware of this and take steps to counter this tendency. The goal is to think of ourselves with “sober judgment” – to neither exaggerate nor depreciate our own importance.
The best way to do this, according to Paul, is to stop seeing ourselves as isolated individuals. When we come together, we realize that we all bring something different, and everyone is needed. Paul uses the example of a human body, in which each part is necessary and useful.
Paul also mentions a word that is stunning. In verse 6, he says, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” The word gifts is related to the word grace. Paul’s talking about how the Spirit has graciously given every follower of Christ a grace-gift to be used to serve.
Let’s think about how this works. It’s a little harder in our context, but it would have been pretty easy to visualize back then. People didn’t meet and sit in an audience in those days. They came together in a living room. You’ve seen this at work when you’ve met with others in that type of setting. All the things that Paul mentioned start to happen. You may notice that someone seems a bit down. You notice it, and make a note to pray for them. But someone else quietly takes them aside and asks how they’re doing. Someone mentions that they are a bit tight this month. You make a note to pray for their finances, but someone else pulls out a checkbook and asks how much they need. As you talk about life, somebody just seems to have the right words to say that bring insight and clarity into the situation. Others take complicated Bible teachings and make them clear. Everyone brings something different, and everyone is needed.
You know what’s amazing? When this happens, it’s not because they’ve taken spiritual gift tests. They may have, but that’s not why they’re doing what they do. They just naturally gravitate to do what they do. What’s more, they love it. They feel fulfilled and excited when they use what Paul calls grace-gifts. They’d do it for free. They’d even pay to do it sometimes. That’s the picture of how we’re supposed to function when we get together.
Today, I’d like to fast-forward to our setting and try to paint a picture of how this could look. I need to be honest and say that some of what I’m going to talk about is new for me. I want to paint three mental images of how this has looked in churches that are set up the way that we’re set up. I obviously think that the third image that I’ll paint is the one we should aim for. Let’s paint these images and see.
Image One: Support the Pastor
A lot of us have been in churches in which our primary contribution is to show up and watch the show. Until a few years ago, this was what church was for most of us. The people are responsible to show up, to be attentive, and to listen to the pastor. Some stuff needs to happen through volunteers, but only primarily the stuff that the pastor doesn’t want to do. A lot of times, the pastor doesn’t want to be changing diapers in the nursery or stacking tables or counting money, so volunteers get to do that. Most of the significant stuff is supposed to happen through the pastor’s ministry.
Ever been in a church like that? It shouldn’t be surprising that there are a lot of churches that function this way. I think things have changed now, but for a while, this was the model that was taught in seminaries. Have you ever been in a church in which the pastor let you know if you were getting too involved? It was okay to do certain things, but there was a large area that was the pastor’s turf, and you had better not cross that line.
I can’t tell you how wrong this model of ministry is. It’s not even close to the way we’re supposed to function. It’s a very truncated view of ministry that’s overly pastor-focused. It’s definitely an image that we want to avoid.
Image Two: Every Member Ministry
The second image should be a little more familiar to us. There have been a lot of books and studies in the past few decades on spiritual gifts: on every-member ministry, on discovering your spiritual gifts, on finding your passion, and on using your gifts within the body. This has been good. It’s probably where we’ve been for the past few years. We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve been trying to beat this drum for some time now.
This image is a lot better than the first. It states that every follower of Christ has been given a gift by the Spirit to be used to serve others. It states that every gift is necessary within the body. It gives ministry to others besides the pastor. It teaches the priesthood of all believers – that we’re a kingdom of priests rather than just an audience that comes to hear the pastor. It’s a huge improvement over the first image.
One of the problems of this model is that some people just don’t fit. I’ve been learning recently that some people never sign up to be a part of a formal ministry, or if they do, they don’t last. It’s not that they’re avoiding ministry. They are having people over to their houses. They’re encouraging others sharing their faith. They just don’t fit into the org chart. But you can adjust this model and make room for those who fit, as well as those who don’t have a formal role.
I guess you may be wondering why we need a third image. What’s wrong with this one? While this second image has got a lot right, it doesn’t go far enough. More is needed. I’m going to talk about how we can take a quantum leap beyond this second image and try to live something even better, even more beautiful.
Image Three: Beyond the Institution
The way we do church today is different than in the very early days of the church. The church today is an institution, and institutions can be very demanding creatures. Did I say they can be? They are.
If we’re not careful, we can turn every-member ministry into a focus on getting all of you to do the work that needs to get done around here. Now, we do need work done around here. We’ve got a bunch of kids who aren’t being taught today, but they’re being looked after, and their diapers are being changed. We still have stuff that needs to be done, but it’s not just about looking after our needs and keeping the institution going. Yet so often, that’s where our energy lies.
In a different setting – in a non-institutional setting – there were no buildings, no committees, no budgets, no programs as such, but every gift was still needed. If we’re not careful, the buildings, committees, budgets and programs will so overwhelm us that it becomes all of our ministry. The stuff that needs to happen beyond all of these things – budgets, committees, programs – just won’t happen.
It could look so different. Some stuff obviously needs to happen to facilitate doing what we do. But what if we radically changed the amount of energy we put into institutional maintenance and advancement, and instead redirected it in other areas? Here’s what it might look like.
Who’s our ultimate model for service? Jesus. Where did Christ serve? Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor-sick people do. I have come to call sinners to turn from their sins, not to spend my time with those who think they are already good enough” (Luke 5:31-32). Although there was no church, as such, when Jesus was around, he could have chosen to spend most of his time in the synagogue or with religious leaders. He didn’t. He spent most of his time in the world, talking to people like a Samaritan woman at a well, with people who were poor, with those that needed healing. He spent time with his followers, but it was always in the context of serving others. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. We’re his body now, and we’re called to serve just as Jesus did while on earth.
In the book of Acts, we see the Gospel spreading. People like Paul went around and shared the news about Jesus wherever they went. But they didn’t go with the purpose of planting churches. That was a byproduct. Churches were formed only as people came into the Kingdom. In other words, the goal wasn’t to plant a church. That was the byproduct. The goal was that people entered the Kingdom.
I’d love for us to live this third image, in which our goal is not the maintenance of a church. I’d love for our focus to be living lives that are so abundant and missional that we have something to offer each other, and those who aren’t yet part of the Kingdom. We now have the opportunity to live within a culture that doesn’t even know the Gospel, to learn the language and the customs, and to live our lives in such a way that we make a compelling case for the Gospel. One person I know tells church leaders to ask this question: “What is it about your walk with God that the world can’t live without?” Anyone who can’t answer this question immediately, he says, should be fired on the spot, or (to take the gentle approach) rotated out of leadership at the end of the term. What is it about our life with God that is more focused on living and advancing the Kingdom rather than living and advancing an institution?
Ron Martoia puts it this way: that we see the primary purpose of our gathering as being prepared to be sent out, and that we see ministry as more about what happens out there than what happens in here.
This does mean a couple of things. It means that our focus changes to serving each other, and about loving beyond these walls. It also means planned abandonment – that we may have to give up some of what we’re already doing. All of us have only 1440 minutes a day. We can’t add another thing to our schedule. We’re already way too busy. We may have to give up some of what we already do to live differently, to live to serve.
You don’t need a spiritual gift discovery or formal ministry position to start living this way. You already know what you love to do. You read over the list in Romans 12, and some of you say, “Not me, not me, nope – I can’t even stand people who have that gift. Yes, that’s me.” You are energized when you live this way. Some of us need to make a tough decision and get out of ministry areas in which we’re not energized or drawn to serve. I’m not saying to quite today. At least come up with a plan of how to transition out of the ministry area within the next few months.
I’d like to suggest two changes today. First, that we change our scorecard. Instead of measuring success the old way – by things like ministry positions filled, people who attend events, money raised – why not measure things like conversations that have taken place on the streets and the coffee shops? The number of hours spent with those who aren’t yet followers of Christ? The number of sacrificial acts that have taken place among us? How many ways that we as a church have chosen to love our community as God loves it? Maybe we measure the number of times we’ve had to clean the carpet because we’ve thrown the doors open to serve our community. Or the number of times ministry doesn’t take place within the building, because we’re out there living as salt and light.
I’d also like to suggest that we change our heroes. It’s not about the pastor or about certain people who are prominent. It’s about anyone who is living his calling, her giftedness. I read this the other day:
The greatest saint since Christ is unknown to humankind. If there is an omniscient God, then we will find out just who that saint is when we die. She may be that bag lady or he may be a Latino “illegal alien” father who works three jobs to feed his family.
I’d like to close by talking about the call. For a long time, pastors have talked about being called to the ministry. You almost get the sense that out of everyone who follows Christ, some are handpicked and called to ministry.
It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that there’s only one call. It’s one we’ve all received. We’ve all been called to serve Christ with all of our lives. A pastor is no more called than a school teacher, a vice-principle, a doctor, a construction worker. It may or may not make sense to do any of these things at any given time, but it’s not your calling. Your calling is to serve Christ with all of your lives. You’ve been given a grace-gift from God that will enable you to serve him, and to love doing it.
Let’s pray that we will live this third image, and follow him and answer the call.
Invite people to respond to the call; pray for those who need to do some “planned abandonment”; pray that we would live and serve beyond institutional maintenance and advancement; prayer for protection for all those who have been called