My latest column at Christian Week:
Summer is a great time to take a break from the normal grind and be refreshed. It’s also a great time for ministry leaders to reflect on the past ministry year and to prepare for the next one.
This summer I’ll be asking some questions based on John Frame’s Theology of Lordship series. Frame is known for arguing for a tri-perspectival approach: that it’s best to look at everything from three perspectives. Frame’s three perspectives are normative (God’s Word), situational (our world), and existential (ourselves). “The knowledge of God’s law, the world, and the self,” Frame writes, “are interdependent and ultimately identical.” These three perspectives give us a fuller picture and better balance.
I’ve found Frame’s three perspectives to be a useful grid for ministry evaluation and planning.
Normative: How is our commitment to God’s Word? I’m going to be looking at how we’ve used Scripture in our ministry. I’ll begin by looking at the preaching. I’ll be looking to see if I’ve been sitting over Scripture, inserting my own ideas, or sitting under Scripture in an attitude of submission. I’ll also be evaluating my balance to see what themes I’ve been missing, and what themes I’ve overemphasized.
I’ll also be examining how the rest of our ministry has used God’s Word. I’m sometimes surprised by how rarely we use Scripture apart from the preaching. Our entire ministry – our entire lives – should be shaped by Scripture. The normative perspective asks how much we’re shaped by Scripture and the gospel.
Situational: How is our understanding of our context? Some leaders think that it’s enough to exegete Scripture. But we also need to understand our context so that we can apply Scripture to our world.
Yonge Street Mission in Toronto recently presented research on how Toronto has changed. In 1970, most communities were middle-income. Today the city is largely polarized between high-income and low-income communities in 2005,. Many of Toronto’s churches were around in 1970. Unless these churches understand how their communities have changed, they will not minister effectively in their context.
I had lunch just the other day with someone who calls himself a youth culture specialist. I was overwhelmed as he described how drastically youth culture has changed since I was a teenager. Most pastors and parents, he said, don’t have a clue.
Every ministry needs to understand its context. This summer I’ll be looking at our local community and our cultural context and asking some tough questions. Are we attempting to serve a community that exists only in our minds? What do we need to know about our context that we may be missing now? What are the greatest needs of our local community and culture? How does the gospel apply to those needs? The situational perspective asks if we understand the world around us.
Existential: How well do we understand people? We need to understand Scripture and culture; we also need to understand people’s hearts. They used to call the Puritans “physicians of souls” because they had uncanny insight into how people think and why they are motivated to do what they do – the motivational structures of the heart. I need to understand what drives people to do bad things, or to do good things for all the wrong reasons. I need to know what good things have become ultimate things in my own life and the lives of those around me. And I need to understand how the gospel intersects with the spiritual disorders I find around me. The existential perspective asks how well we understand people.
This helps me not to panic too much when the situational perspective gets overwhelming. I need to understand culture, but I also need to remember that people are more alike than it appears.
Most leaders and churches have blind spots, and are weak in at least one of these areas. As a result, ministries struggle. But it’s beautiful to see ministry that’s been shaped by all three perspectives. Effective ministry takes place as we understand and apply God’s Word within a particular context to the needs of real people.