“There’s nothing for me to do in this church.” Have you ever heard it uttered from the sixteenth pew? “All the jobs are already taken; they don’t need me here.” Perhaps you have had such thoughts yourself, as you looked around at church and wondered why you were there.
This article tries to challenge that thinking, to see how we are all called to be involved in personal ministry to each other in our congregations. The temptation to feel like an appendix in the body of Christ comes from not realizing that the very fact that we gather together in church means that there is ministry to be done. You are there because others need you, and you need them.
You might be able to use this article to stimulate some fresh thinking and action in your Bible study group, or in small groups during your regular church meetings. The exercises are designed to help make this possible.
Personal ministry is one of those slightly hackneyed phrases that exists without much specific shared understanding of what it means. Is personal ministry chatting with people? Is it praying with them? Is it a kind of amateur therapy that Christians offer each other?
What is personal ministry all about? Here’s a working definition:
Personal ministry involves forming a loving relationship with another individual with the aim of mutual growth in Christian understanding, obedience and service of others.
We’ll unpack this sentence as the article continues, but first a few negatives to help us move in the right direction:
In other words, personal ministry is something that we can all do. No, it is something that we are all called upon to do. Each part should do its work, says Paul. Each member should speak the truth in love to each other, should encourage and build up each other, should pray for and seek the good of each other.
To whom do you minister in your congregation? Write a list of:
The motivation and basis of personal ministry is love; love is the key mark of the Christian behaviour. Faith, hope and love, Paul continually says, are the troika of the Christian life. And love, he tells us, is the greatest.
This would be a good point at which to read 1 John 3:11-24, which offers a profound explanation of the meaning of love. In summary, the Christian idea of love means seeking the good of the other person, even at the expense of my own good.
Three things are worthy noting in response to the passage:
It is not hard to see how this applies to personal ministry—because it is all about loving other people. It’s about putting yourself out and taking the time, trouble and hassle of getting involved in someone else’s life. It costs me time. It may bring pleasure and enjoyment, but it may also cost me heartache and hassle.
There is no doubt that it’s easier not to make the effort. I’ve got things to do. I’ve got my own agenda. The list of jobs is a mile long. But love is the opposite of focusing on me and mine. It’s taking action for the sake of you and yours.
And love is what life is all about. I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it this way, but when God created the world, and us, he created us with a purpose. A screwdriver is made for a purpose—to screw in screws. And, although it can be used for other things (like scratching your back) it is most effective when it is used for its proper purpose. Humans, too, are made for a purpose: to love other persons; that is, to love God (who is a person) and to love our neighbour.
That’s what we’re for. According to the Manual, that’s what we’re designed to do. When you love someone, you’re being fully, authentically human. (For more on this, see Michael Hill’s book, The How and Why of Love.)
This why Christ’s love is so important: it shows us the perfect man behaving as humans were designed to behave, loving other people and laying down his life for them. It’s the supreme example of love.
But it’s more than a supreme example. The love of Christ is the basis for my own love of other people in a more profound way. Through his loving death, he changes me and gives me a new start, and makes loving other people a whole new possibility. Through his death, we’re forgiven (slate wiped clean), and rescued from the old life we used to live: of selfishness, and non-love. We have a new start to live a life of love, as he did.
When we have been loved like this, and rescued like this, and given a new start, how can we not want to overflow with love for other people, even as he commands us to? In particular, Christ’s love frees us from the desire to protect ourselves, to hide from others, to adopt a persona that I’m comfortable with and that makes me feel all right when I’m with you. Because the Son of God has loved me and given himself for me (as Gal 2:20 goes), then I’m free from that. I don’t really need to care what other people think of me, because I know that I am supremely and totally accepted and loved by the God of the universe.
For Christians, the Son of God himself loved us enough to die for us. We can’t be more loved than that, more highly regarded and precious than that. We don’t have to pretend. We can be ourselves, open ourselves up to others, and speak and act entirely for their benefit, rather than our own.
In practical terms, this means being willing to speak about spiritual things. It means admitting our failures, being honest, listening to other people. It means not going on and on about ourselves. It means bearing one another’s burdens.
The more we grasp the love of Christ for us, the more we are free to focus on other people, to love them and do whatever is best for them, not protecting ourselves, or hiding ourselves from them, or worrying what people will think of us.
The second half of our definition of ministry talks about ministry with an aim—the aim of Christian growth. The language is important: personal ministry can have an aim without reducing those to whom we minister to a ‘case’ or a ‘project’. When we form a loving relationship with someone with the aim or goal in mind of mutual encouragement, we are being purposeful, but not coldly task-oriented.
Personal ministry means forming a relationship with someone; it’s not ‘taking someone on’, to be dropped unceremoniously when the case is closed or the project ‘finished’. You want what’s good for this person; you want to help them, to love them. This means forming an ongoing relationship with them, not just hitting them with some Bible and dropping out of their lives.
Even so, having a purpose or aim in mind in relating to and loving someone is perfectly right, especially if what you have in mind is their good—because that is to love them.
It has to be said that many of us never think this way. We never take the loving step of being purposeful in our friendships and relationships—of having an end in mind and actually doing something about it.
In one sense forming a relationship with someone is easy. You befriend them; share some small talk; ask them about their family. But the purposeful next step—of saying or doing something that promotes Christian growth—that’s a step many of us don’t get around to taking.
Notice that the growth we have in mind is mutual. Nobody has a monopoly on truth. God brings forth praise even out of the mouths of babes and infants (Matt 21:16). We can all help each other. And it is growth, because none of us have arrived. Like the apostle Paul, we strain forward forgetting what is behind, knowing that we have not made it. We have plenty of work still to do to become as God created us to be, that is, to become like Jesus.
And so wherever the person you are ministering to is up to, your aim is to help them progress further along the way. If they are not yet Christians, you want them to take that step; if they are new Christians, you want them to become established and stable in their faith; once established you want them to understand more; and so on into maturity.
This mutual growth comes in three broad areas:
All three areas are important. Knowledge without obedience is hypocrisy; obedience without knowledge is false religiosity. And without love of others, both knowledge and obedience are an empty clanging gong.
In other words, as we seek to encourage and help others, we can think about what would be help them most by asking three questions:
Personal ministry is a lifelong activity for those who are in Christ. It is part of being in Christ, since we are not alone as Christians but members of his body/family/household. We need each other, and we need to care for each other. And when we do it lovingly, with an eye to growth in knowledge, obedience and service, the question “what should I do at church?” seems to answer itself.
Use these in small groups to think through the issues you face in personal ministry.
This article was originally published in Briefing #289, October 2002.