Developing a Biblical Theology of Ministry – part 1

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So, you’re a church leader? Maybe you’re a pastor, pastoral staff, elder, deacon, or another church leader. Welcome to the club. I have a question for you. Do you know what God wants your church to do; what the church’s ministry ought to be? Have you developed your theology of ministry?

I’m here to tell you that you have already developed your theology of ministry, but is it the distinctly biblical theology of church ministry you ought to have? If you run the gamut of evangelical churches, what can be found is a plethora of mission and vision statements which do not accurately reflect the biblical mandate for the Church. Don’t get me wrong, many churches seem to be “doing church” very well and seem to be very healthy as they sponsor wide and varied ministries. However, in light of the biblical material concerning the purpose of the local Church, many are not doing church from a truly biblical foundation.

The past couple of decades have borne witness to various new ways of doing church. Many self-proclaimed church growth gurus and market analysts have given church leaders many hooks upon which to hang our hats, but have also popularized approaches to church and church growth which do not always reflect a purely biblical theology of ministry. The 21st century demands the reclamation of accurate and vibrant church ministry which is rooted firmly in a biblical theology of ministry. When I was in seminary, my systematic theology professor repeatedly said, “Doctrine determines behavior.” He was right. What we truly believe will determine how we behave. Speaking in church terms, what a pastor or key church leaders believes regarding the purpose of the church will determine that local church’s ministry practice; how they “do church.” Aubrey Malphurs correctly states, “A ministry based on clearly articulated core values drives a fixed stake into the ground that says to all, ‘This is what we stand for; this is what we are all about; this is who we are; this is what we can do for you.’ Thus, values are defining.” Knute Larsen voiced the dire need for the Church to have a clearly biblical and well-articulated theology of ministry when he wrote, “It is dangerous to the health of the church for ministry to be practiced without good foundations in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.” Thus, it is incumbent upon the 21st century church leader to examine their ministry theology if they are going to accurately and clearly lead God’s people to live on mission and practice ministry that is distinctly biblical.

It would be naïve to presume every church does ministry the same way, or that the specific expressions of ministry should be identical. That would destroy the autonomy of the local church and its ability to meet the needs of its specific community. However, every local church should have a clearly identified and distinctly biblical theology of ministry. If our theology of church ministry is solidly based in Scripture, will not local churches mirror one another in purpose and complement one another in ministry expression much more tightly than we see today? I think so.

I have found there to be two basic extremes for determining the mission of the local church: modality and sodality. Often churches fall into the trap of being driven into doing ministry according to one or the other of these extremes. Both can be equally destructive to a church.

THE EXTREME OF MODALITY

Modality is a congregationally structured theology of ministry that is people oriented. That sounds good on the surface. However, it tends to focus on the social or familial concerns of the objects of ministry. In other words, the force driving the way ministry is done and why it is done stems from the desires and preferences of certain key individuals or groups within the church. Churches that advocate this theology of ministry often believe themselves to be most biblical in that they are purely congregational in their authority structure and govern themselves by like-mindedness consensus. The truth, more often than not, is less a like-minded and unified whole, but more governing by consensus as influenced by those with the strongest heritage ties to the church. Heritage ties can be anything that gives individuals or groups a sense of organic unity with the church (e.g. the amount of money given, the length of time in the church, family ties within the church, etc.). While loyalty to the Lord and His church is a good thing, sometimes heritage ties give certain individuals or groups the false sense that their opinions matter more than that of others. Churches advocating this type of theology of ministry normally place a high premium on biological growth and tend to be more maintenance minded and less evangelistically oriented. There is generally a low level of commitment and virtually non-existent discipline. Lyle Schaller states the basic problems with modality, “The larger the proportion of members who feel a sense of commitment because of heritage ties and the smaller the proportion who are tied-in through contemporary goals, the more difficult it is to attract new members and the more likely it is that new members will soon lapse into inactivity.” The sad part about modality driven churches is that they often do not even realize that’s how they are.

THE EXTREME OF SODALITY

Sodality is a mission structured theology of ministry that is very task-oriented. The unifying factor among those within this type of church is the task to be accomplished. The emphasis in churches advocating this theology of ministry is the work to be done. In some churches, this theology devolves into a fragmented, individualistic set of agendas – each of the various ministries of the church take on a life and importance of their own, according to the priorities or agendas of their leaders, without regard to the overall vision or mission of the church, if one exists. In other settings, a very cohesive, unified vision and mission of ministry exists, but is often task oriented. Sodality does produce like-minded churches in that they are generally governed by their common vision and focused on a common mission. However, a sodality minded theology of ministry tends to overlook the needs of the congregation and family. The benefits of sodality seem to be that churches of this mindset tend to be evangelistically oriented in growth and have a higher level of commitment and discipline. Sodality does tend to produce a positive self-perception among such congregations resulting in a higher allegiance and involvement factor. Congregations equipped for growth have a positive self-image. That is, the members have good feelings about their congregation. Congregations equipped for growth also have a positive identity. That is, members believe their congregation is special and they have something unique to offer.

Modality and sodality express the basic foundational elements underlying various theologies of ministry. They are the basic framework upon which some specific theologies of ministry express themselves. A better understanding of some specific theologies of ministry should help us better evaluate why we do ministry in the church the way we do it and determine whether we are doing ministry in the most God-glorifying way and for the best and most biblically oriented reasons.

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