A Trinitarian definition of ministry

The Relational Pastor, part 3

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 1415.

This post continues looking at Andrew Root's book, The Relational Pastor. Last time we ended with his call for redefining Christian ministry. We begin this time with his proposed definition: "Ministry is nothing more and nothing less than joining in God's continued action in a [particular] time and place" (p24).

This definition is quite different than many that have arisen in the body of Christ during the modern era. But a new "missional era" of ministry seems to be emerging, in part because modern practices are being found ineffective in our increasingly post-modern, post-Christendom world. Ministry-as-usual simply will not do. What will replace it is unclear.

What is clear is that Christians are searching for more faithful and effective ways to define and practice ministry. The Spirit seems to be calling us to prayer, soul-searching and experimentation--helping us shed unhelpful accommodations to modernity's weaknesses and to reconnect with our Christian theological-missiological roots. This mean, above all, a reconnecting with who Jesus actually is, and what he actually is doing in our world.

To help us understand how cultural forces shape ministry (for better or for worse), Root examines several of the most significant cultural shifts in the history of the Western world. He shows how these shifts greatly impacted society's perspective on spirituality and religion, including the ministry of priests, pastors and other spiritual leaders. Sadly, through the course of the shifts during the last 2,000 years, Christianity has often been torn from its theological moorings. The result is a ministry quite unlike Root's definition quoted above.

In particular, Root explores the first, second and the ongoing third industrial revolutions. The first was a shift from agriculture to steam- and coal-driven industry. The second was a shift from steam/coal- to oil and electricity-driven industry. Each shift ushered in new cultural systems. I recommend that you read Root's book for the details.

The First Industrial Revolution
As a result of these shifts, religion tended to become the servant of new systems of commerce, governance and other culture-creating/preserving structures. An example is the rise of the nation-state, made possible by the new technologies. As this occurred, Christian ministry tended to become about "pushing individual citizens to be moral and upstanding" for the benefit of the nation-state (p34). Within that setting and toward that end, pastors were expected to be "moral exemplars." This arrangement, which included the idea of a "Christian nation," at times lent a helpful stability to the state. But it also led to terrible abuses, such as the Nazis co-opting the German Lutheran church to advance its nation-building purposes prior to and during World War II. It was this corruption that Dietrich Bonhoeffer railed against, leading to his martyrdom at the hand of the Nazis.

As we go deeper into the third industrial revolution--the transition into the information/digital age, our culture and the church right along with it are becoming increasingly individualistic (think of personal communication devices!) and consumeristic (a new device annually!). This has led the culture and the church along with it into...
...a pseudo-therapeutic (self-help) consciousness. As full-blown individuals we became obsessively concerned with ourselves as independent feeling subjects. Now that technology was meeting so many of our basic needs...we could move our attention from survival to fulfillment.... Ministry in this period turned to programs of intervention... [which] made the church attractive.... "Programming" became the strategy of the church's ministry [with a focus on helping us]... become the self we wanted to be (pp35-37).
With this as the focus for ministry, the pastor, who before was called upon to be the "moral exemplar" (see above), was now called to be the "entrepreneurial manager" who is adept at managing self-help programs (p39), a "creative, energy-bursting visionary"...
...with a strong self-help bent, preaching sermons that would make people drive miles to hear them, preaching sermons with (three) basic pseudo-therapeutic points that were directly applicable to the individual life, helping us become a more successful parent, friend and therefore follower of Jesus (p40).
Reprinted with permission from cartoonist David Hayward, http://nakedpastor.tumblr.com/
In this context, the job of church members was to tell others about the great benefits of their congregation. Evangelism became a way to increase church attendance. The mantra was "relationship evangelism" or "friendship evangelism." Note that relationships is this scheme are essential, but not as an end in themselves. Rather, relationships became a means to another end--a means to gain influence--in this case to influence a "friend" to attend the church of our choice. Root comments:
People in churches were encouraged to reach out to neighbors and coworkers, not for the sake of the other person but for the purpose of getting the other person to come to Jesus or come to [their] church (p41).
Thankfully, the culture and the church is changing. As Root declares, "we are on the verge of something new" (p41). Root, along with other futurists, sees the emergence of a third industrial revolution--this time shifting out of an oil/electricity-driven consumeristic, individualistic culture into one with a greater sense of relatedness. That's the good news. The less than good news is that it may at the same time become an era with "a more fractured sense of self, and increased narcissism" (p42).

Of course, only time will tell. But change clearly is in the wind and, no doubt, the Holy Spirit (the Wind who blows where he wills) is at actively at work--calling the church to a new vision of ministry that returns to its ancient theological roots while also positioning itself for an approach to ministry that will be much more well-suited to the emerging post-modern, post-Christendom cultural milieu.

What will that new approach to ministry look like? Of course, one can only guess in looking forward. But anticipating a more relational cultural context, we can appreciate the need to return to the early church's concept of ministry as empathetic life-on-life sharing--real, authentic relationship that is focused on Jesus as its center, and loves people, along with Jesus, unconditionally--with no other end than that love in mind.

Root concludes this section of his book with this statement:
[It] will be my task for the rest of this book, to offer a conception of ministry and the pastor that fits with the arriving new world, and yet rests on a richly theological vision... [I] will make a case for a consciousness of personhood, built on the second person of the Trinity. I will argue that to be a person is to be in relationship, not for the sake of influence but for the sake of place sharing for the sake of being with and being for [the other] (p44).
As Root notes, one might call this place sharing ministry "incarnational" or "empathetic." But whatever we call it, it's vital to "reconceptualize ministry as participation in the life of Christ through the personhood of the other through relationship...opened to us through the ministry of the Spirit" (p44).

We'll pick up this thread next time when we'll look more at ministry as place sharing.