Most people will file this under Really Bad Ideas (or possibly the old lead balloons), but hear me out. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s (and it’s worth pondering “Why then?”), the practice of pastors leading the church service has been largely abandoned—at least in evangelical circles. Instead, the 1960s and 1970s saw a rediscovery of Every Member Ministry, which translated into church services involving far more people than they once did. It is now common—even standard—for an evangelical church service to have almost every section conducted by non-pastors. Preaching is the one thing clergy have tended to retain.
That seems right, right? What could be more obvious from Scripture than the idea that church ought to be a place where every member plays their part (Eph 4; 1 Cor 12, etc.)? Well, sure. But here are two things we may have lost on the way:
In our ministry maths, we have judged that nearly anyone can read the Bible in church, plenty of people can lead prayer, and quite a few can lead a service. Preaching is the one thing left that is thought to require significant training.
Is that right? Actually, the public reading of Scripture is something Paul entrusted to Timothy—presumably because it took some skill and gifting (1 Tim 4:13). Leading public prayers well takes enormous theological and spiritual resources, and leading a church service well is a terrifically complex, demanding and exacting task.
Non-clergy can, of course, do all these things admirably (and, conversely, many pastors can make a hash of things) but all of them take significant time, energy, insight and resources. Churches that assume it can all be pulled together late on a Saturday night are deciding in advance to have a certain quality of service.
The second and more crucial thing that we may have lost is the intelligent missional deployment of people. It seems to me the story goes something like this (and see if you can spot the error):
The false premise is b)—that ministry is what is done in church. Church is a ministry, but it’s not the sum total of ministry—not by a long way. Therefore it’s a false conclusion to say that Every Member Ministry cashes out in maximum input into the church event. In fact, I think church is more like half-time at Saturday morning sport: the players come off the field, eat some oranges, maybe hear a talk from the coach and share some ideas with each other about the strategy for the second half. Half-time is important for the game, but it’s not the game. Similarly, we come together as a church to encourage each other in the ministry to which we are all sent out during the week.
People’s lives are very full. Every time we ask people to do something, we are, necessarily, asking them to not do something else. We need to think carefully about the ‘yeses’ we require of people and the hidden ‘nos’ inside every yes. You could decide to ask people to be at church meetings every night of the week, or to be sharing evangelistically fruitful meals with their friends and neighbours. You just can’t ask for both.
The older model of the clergy (or pastors or ministers or whatever you are accustomed to calling them) involved them giving a significant amount of their time and energy to making the Sunday gathering really excellent. Maybe that was bad. But I think it could mean a very faithful expression of body-of-Christ-style Every Member Ministry. It could mean a really good means of fulfilling the mandate of Ephesians 4:12, where the pastor-teachers are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. To see it, you just need to get beyond the idea that ministry equals whatever happens in church.
Maybe that’s what the better pastors were doing back in the day. Maybe they were taking up their role in the body of Christ by (among other things) pulling off cracking church services of rich prayers, excellent Bible readings, fine liturgy and good preaching—which were all aimed at encouraging the people of God to get about their ministry during the week—the ministry of serving their families, of bearing witness to Christ in their workplaces, of evangelizing their neighbourhood, of providing for the poor, and of living lives of shining integrity, joy and love.
Some of the liturgies reflects this. The Anglican service, for example, ends with the minister saying to the congregation, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. Quite literally, the clergy told the people at the end of church “Now, off you go and do ministry”. They didn’t just serve the Lord in church; they came to be equipped at church to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Their ministry begins almost from the moment they leave church. Something about that is right. You might even call it ‘missional’.