Christian ministry and normal Christians

I count it one of the privileges of my life to have grown up in a time and a place when so many people have accepted the challenge to go into full-time Christian ministry. Historically, it has been quite extraordinary: since the mid-1980s, here in Sydney several thousand gifted young men and women have abandoned jobs, careers and lucrative futures in order to give their lives to gospel work—as student workers, pastors, evangelists, youth workers, missionaries, and more besides. MTS-style apprenticeship training is now a standard feature in many churches. Moore College and SMBC are bursting at the seams.

It has been an amazing move of God—certainly without equal in the history of Christianity here in Australia, and (I would suspect) in any western city in the last 200 years. Who knows what impact all this will have for the gospel in the next generation?

However, I’ve been thinking recently about one of the negative by-products of this incredible history. Because the challenge to give our lives to ministry was so powerful, and because so many heard and accepted that challenge, what of those who, for good reason or bad, chose not to accept the challenge? What of those who stayed in their jobs, got involved in their local churches, and were just ‘normal’ Christians? Did they end up feeling a bit second-class? Did they wonder whether they had compromised or copped out because (often for good reason) they had decided not to pursue theological training and full-time ministry?

I’ve been thinking about this especially in light of Katoomba Christian Convention’s Engage conference, which seems aimed at this group—that is, at the young 20- and 30-something professionals who didn’t end up in full-time ministry. The implicit message of Engage seems to be, “It’s perfectly all right to stay in your career and be a faithful Christian. It’s okay. You’re not second-class, and if the full-time ministry thing is not for you, don’t beat yourself up about it.”

This is a perfectly correct and reasonable thing to say, and, no doubt, it needs to be said. Whether or not someone ends up in full-time paid Christian ministry should, in no respect, be some sort of litmus test of their faithfulness or godliness as a Christian. All the same, I can’t help thinking that this way of addressing the question perpetuates an unhelpful dichotomy.

When I was first challenged about full-time ministry (back in the mists of time—1983, I think it was), the revolutionary message was not that all Christians should become full-time paid gospel workers, except for those losers who didn’t make the grade; the truly radical idea was that every Christian should be utterly committed to God’s work in the world, as he fulfils his cosmic purposes in Christ Jesus. That’s where the action is; that’s what’s happening in the world. And—almost unbelievably—God is calling me (and you and every Christian) to be a fellow worker in this incredible cause.

Now I can support myself by working a job as I get involved in God’s work in the world, or others might support me financially so that I can do more of it. This is a matter of gift, opportunity, circumstance and the wisdom of those around me. But either way, there is only one thing really worth doing in this world: being part of God’s plan to sum all things up in Christ Jesus (Eph 1).

The difference between being a self-supporting servant of this gospel and being a financially-supported servant of this gospel is really very small. The Apostle Paul, after all, did a bit of both. But there is all the difference in the world between giving up our lives for Christ’s cause as a fellow worker in the gospel and choosing to live a comfortable life in a nice suburb with a nice career, a nice family and a bit of Christianity on the side.

Here’s the test: someone who has denied themselves, who has taken up their cross and who wants to serve the gospel of Jesus makes their decisions in this order:

  1. What’s the best gospel work for me to be involved in?
  2. Where do I need to live in order to share in that ministry?
  3. What sort of job do I need to fund living in that place in order to do that ministry?

Let me be provocative and say that if you’re making your decisions in the reverse order (i.e. 1. Which job? 2. Which house? 3. Which ministry?), then you haven’t grasped the radical nature of the normal Christian life.

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