Every Member a Minister? (II)

Every Member a Minister? From Theology to Church Reality

The typical church member does not identify himself as a minister or know how to fulfill ministry in his daily life.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Div., is a member of the department of religion, Columbia Union College, Takoma Park," Md.

Scene 1: Church members on a week end retreat have been asked to introduce themselves by sketching a "coat of arms." Each sketch is to deal with the question: "Where do you fit in the body of Christ?" One of the group shares his drawing a page filled with a big "2." When asked for an explanation he replies, "Why, I'm a layman, of course."

Scene 2: A young man has come to my office to talk about changing his prospective career from electrician to "pas tor, missionary, or something." "It's time I begin to serve the Lord seriously," he announces, revealing the frustration of a person who cannot connect his current vocational life with ministry.

Scene 3: A middle-aged dentist calls me to expound on his favorite thesis: "Sabbath school has nothing to do with being a dentist." The class members are interested in his occupation, but they fail to provide any support for his efforts to minister through the business of medical care.

These three Christians, and many others like them, continue to demonstrate that the much-heralded "lay renaissance" of the 1950's presents the church of two decades later with a sharp challenge. We're still having trouble moving from concept to practice. There is no doubt that during the past twenty years some Biblical concepts have been restored to the church's thinking. Books like Hendrik Kraemer's The Theology of the Laity, Francis Ayres' The Ministry of the Laity, and Gottfried Oosterwal's Mission: Possible have left their mark. It would be difficult today to begin an argument over the following concepts:

1. The Biblical use of the word laos has nothing to do with amateur or part-time status but instead describes the entire people of God (including pastors).

2. All baptized Christians are ministers.

3. The direction of ministry is toward the world, and in this ministry the so-called "laity" are the key personnel.

The problem is that although so widely accepted, many of these concepts about lay ministry have little impact on the typical church member. He does not identify himself as a minister or know how to fulfill ministry within the context of his daily life. Somehow the practice of the church appears to be working against these lay ministry concepts. Put more positively, attempts to apply the concepts have helped us to identify some deeper problems.


Perhaps the greatest problem for that member of the church who tries to understand ministry is how the concepts can actually be applied in his or her life. The pastor preaches that church members are ministers in the neighborhood, at work, among friends, in the voting booth, and other places. But how? Does he mean talking about Christ at every opportunity? Does he mean always being honest and ethical? The role of the pas tor can be easily defined. He preaches, calls on the sick, teaches, baptizes, con ducts the Lord's Supper, and is involved in many similar activities. But what are the outlines of other ministries?

Another part of the problem in actually moving from the concept of lay ministry to its practice is the dispersed nature of any ministry outside the congregation. We do not go to work for a company as a team of Christians, or buy houses as a Sabbath school class. Eberhard Mueller has said that sending a person into the structures of society as an individual Christian is like sending a single soldier to meet the enemy alone. Sabbath school teachers sense the importance of working together and have regular Sabbath school teachers' meetings. But how much attention is given to support systems for church members who are dispersed through the week?

A third problem lies in the organizational dynamics of congregational life. Congregational leaders easily get trapped into being controllers of ministry rather than supporters of ministry. Thus the concept of every member being a minister means a frantic effort by the leader to find something for everyone to do, resulting in a profusion of questionnaires, new jobs, and frustrations. The common lament of church council members—"If only we could get more members involved"—betrays the assumption that ministry is done only within the confines of the congregational program or at least in some way determined by the congregational leaders.

The problem is not easily solved. The very nature of congregational life tends toward consolidation—members need each other, they enjoy working together, and common endeavors require their closeness to each other. The very term congregation indicates those who have congregated. However, defending congregational life does not eliminate the need to look for ways to strengthen centrifugal forces.


In the face of such formidable difficulties, how can the ministry of the laity happen? If recent attempts to apply the concept have deepened some of the problems, they have also helped to identify some creative starting points.

At the top of the list, especially for those who are not pastors, is the discovery that one already is a minister! The impression often given in sermons and church literature is that one could be a minister, or that one should be a minister, and the result is that members spend a great deal of time struggling to achieve ministry. They think if they per form a certain action or take a particular stand, they will then be ministers. The usual result of such legalism is a great deal of guilt and a continual dissatisfaction.

In contrast, the Biblical teaching is that Christians are ministers. Francis Ayres points out that the New Testament uses the word must only 203 times, and ought only 50. 1 On the other hand, Scripture has much to say about what Christians are, often in spite of some rather interesting situations. The members of the Corinthian church, torn by factions and including many who were immoral, proud, hypocritical, dishonest, and self-centered, were not told, "You could be a letter from Christ." Paul writes, "You are a letter" (2 Cor. 3:3, R.S.V.).

Christians begin to get excited when they realize that the question is not, "How can we be ministers?" but "How did our ministry go last week?" They begin looking at the lives they are leading and begin to see possibilities for satisfaction, areas in which they would like help, and times when they failed. They are no longer trying to achieve status but are simply dealing with matters of application.

When Christians discover that they are ministers, another recent emphasis becomes important—ministry begins with the person, not the job. Since you are a minister, find ways to "use for the good of others the special gift ... received from God" (1 Peter 4:10, T.E.V.).* Ministry has often been constricted because needs were stressed and gifts were forgotten. A member becomes a Sabbath School teacher, for example, because the Sabbath School Council has laid out the glaring need and no one else will do it. Actually, a balanced formula of need and resource spells ministry. If I were to see you drowning 100 yards from shore, I would not jump in to save you, because I cannot swim. I would do better running for help, or yelling. Many efforts at ministry are simply futile at tempts to do something one is not equipped to do rather than identifying personal gifts and abilities so that they may be put into action.

When Peter says, "Use for the good of others the special gift . . . received from God," there can be two levels of meaning for the word "gift." On the one hand, that gift is the Holy Spirit, which we have received. On the other hand, the effect of the Holy Spirit in us causes the full unfolding of the person whom God created. And that unfolding has specific application in each life.

Each of us represents a unique part of God's creation. When I die, I will not be replaced. I am a gift and my primary challenge is to identify what I have to offer. In fact, one result of sin is that this original gift gets confined and distorted. To be redeemed is to be liberated for the unfolding of that person that God originally intended.

So one way to identify and fulfill one's ministry is to identify one's own uniqueness—what one likes to do, what one sees in the world, what one can offer. Then begin looking for situations in which to make that offer. Gordon Cosby says, "I think all of us had best find out what we really want to do and start doing it and whatever it involves. If you have to give up your responsibility, give it up; if the church goes to pieces, so be it. But we've got to find what we want to do, really, because nothing else is going to help anybody." 2


Congregations can be the arena in which Christians identify their gifts and offer them to others. We'd like to suggest two ways congregations can be especially helpful.

First, the calling forth of gifts is not necessarily best done alone. In the community of believers the individual Christian can explore what he really wants to do. The surrounding group provides support, feedback, clarification, and in sight. A congregation could be a place where small groups of people meet to identify their gifts and find ways of offering them "for the good of others."

In so doing the groups would have to steadfastly resist two temptations. The first temptation is to look within the congregational structure only for possibilities of utilizing the gift. If our mission is the world then we need to be especially imaginative in finding ways to send each other, with our gifts, into situations outside the church. A second temptation is to control the offering. When the congregation determines the value or significance of a service, this reduces the infinite variety possible through the Spirit.

A second challenge for congregations is to create support systems for ministers. Ministry is not a problem to be solved in a Bible class but a lifetime of discipleship to be constantly shared. Congregations need to stop asking, "How can we get more people involved?" and instead find out what kinds of support its members need for their weekly activities. Many persons simply need to talk with others about what is happening. For others, the needs probably cannot be met in the congregation at all. Let me explain. Mark Gibbs has pointed out that the entire people of God (the laity) include three general categories of ministers. About 1 percent are what we normally call professional clergy. About 10 percent might be called "churchly" laity, those persons whose gifts are indeed well offered primarily within the institutional church. They are indispensable to the life of the church and need to be encouraged to fulfill their ministry with joy. But more than 80 per cent are left (Gibbs calls them "secular laity") who are not basically involved in the structure of the institutional church. Some are rather nominal church members, but a sizeable number "do wish to serve God faithfully in one way or an other; they will not do this primarily, in church organizations, but in the other secular structures of their lives." 3 The best support for such ministers will probably involve setting up consultations and other forms of dialogue within those structures. Professional competence, emphasis on dialogue rather than pronouncements, agendas set by members of the profession rather than by the church, would all be a part of this kind of resourcing. Can such members be encouraged by the congregation to move out and do such ministering in concert with other Christians in the same community or occupation?

It has been said that the more effective the leader of a group is the less the group will look to him. Perhaps it could be said that the stronger the ministry of God's people becomes the less that ministry will be controlled by church leadership and the more varied and unrecognizable it will often be. For when the concept moves to practice it will no longer be neat, uniform, or manageable. Each unique child of God will be fulfilling his or her ministry.


1 Francis O. Ayres, The Ministry of the Laity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), p. 27.

2 Gordon Cosby, "The Calling Forth of the Charisma" (mimeographed sermon, Church of the Saviour, 2025 Massachusetts Avenue NW., Washington, D.C. 20036, 1963).

3 Mark Gibbs, "The Structures of the Church and the Different Kinds of Laity," Audenshaw Papers #26 (Audenshaw Foundation, 1 Lord Street, Denton, Manchester, M34-2PF, England, 1974).____


* From the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1976; New Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976.

Dr. Edwards has recently written a book on this subject—A New Frontier—Every Member a Minister. For a review of this work, see page 32.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Rex D. Edwards, D.Div., is a member of the department of religion, Columbia Union College, Takoma Park," Md.

February 1980

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