What is “Ministry”?

A professor once asked a group of ministry students to give key words describing pastoral ministry. What were the top words in their list? (Now, before you read on, what word comes to mind for you?)

The words were preaching, fellowship, service, worship and diversity.

What are you favorite words for ministry?

Graham Buxton, who is the professor who asked the question of his students and who teaches at Tabor Adelaide (where I just taught a course), says these are all good terms but that none of them get to the very core of what ministry is when it comes to theology. His view is sketched in his very fine book on pastoral theology called Dancing in the Dark. I am not aware this book has been issued in the USA, but it needs to be — the sooner the better.

Here’s how Graham defines the theological heart of ministry:

Christian ministry is fundamentally about participation in the ongoing ministry of Christ himself, who invites us into all that he is doing today by the power of the Spirit.

Ministry, then, is not the pragmatics or the activity we do but instead participation in what God is doing to reconcile the world to himself — through Christ in the Spirit.

Because God is the One already at work “ministry thus precedes theology” (4). If God’s “ministry” is is reconciling the world to himself, then our ministry is participating in that divine ministry. Graham uses the word “dance” to describe God’s mission in this world and we get to enter into the perichoretic dance of the Trinity as the Trinity is at work in the missio Dei.

We need to explore this: God’s mission must be defined christologically or christocentrically. That is, God’s mission is defined by who Christ is and what Christ does. Thus, at the core of defining ministry is the Incarnation and seeing  in Jesus what God is doing.

What does this change? Hear Graham out:

Outmoded concepts of ministry, which ascribe responsibility for the various dimensions of church life to only a few people (the ‘ministers’ [-- and here I fear the spiritual gift movement tends to do just this]) are therefore replaced by an understanding of the ministry of the community of God’s people which reflects the communal life of the Trinity.

Incarnation, then, as the Father’s sending, the Son’s doing and the Spirit’s empowering, defines what God is doing — and what ministry is. Christ is not so much the model we imitate as the One whose ministry we enter into. Buxton is good on exploring how the Spirit empowered Christ (though I can’t see that he has read Gerry Hawthorne’s exceptional book, The Presence and the Power) — so much that Son and Spirit cannot be divorced. This means the “charismatic” is the person who has entered into the Spirit-shaped work of Christ in this world.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • James Petticrew

    Great book, if it’s not available in the States, Steve Seamands Ministry In The Image is similar and a must read for those in ministry in the church.

  • Peter

    This sounds like echoes of John Franke’s “Manifold Witness.”

  • RJS

    The book was published before Hawthorne’s at least according to the dates available on Amazon which could be wrong.

    This sounds interesting – I really like the paragraph you quote at the end of the post.

  • http://www.emergentkiwi.org.nz steve taylor

    Graham is a fine Australian scholar,

  • T

    Good stuff. I like this: “God’s mission must be defined christologically or christocentrically. That is, God’s mission is defined by who Christ is and what Christ does.” And I like this even more: “Incarnation, then, as the Father’s sending, the Son’s doing and the Spirit’s empowering, defines what God is doing — and what ministry is. Christ is not so much the model we imitate as the One whose ministry we enter into. Buxton is good on exploring how the Spirit empowered Christ . . . so much that Son and Spirit cannot be divorced.” Amen.

    To the extent the last quote holds true, then, IMO, we need much, much more exploration of how Christ and Spirit work together, both in the gospels and in the Church. Over the years, I’ve had several elders (not just congregants) of various churches call me to discuss what all the Spirit does and how. It reinforced both the need and danger of the discussion for many. One in particular admitted, as part of his request to get together, not mere unfamiliarity with the Spirit, but total ignorance beyond conviction of sin and drawing one to conversion. We might add to that the kind of “spiritual gift” theology that does little more than put theological language to why one person is good at one thing and someone else is good at another. When it comes to the Spirit, it seems to many (too many) like the choices are fear and ignorance or various kinds of extremes of theology and practice. An integrated theology and practice of Christology, pneumatology and ecclessiology continues to be in dire need for most churches.

    Totally agree that Christology should shape mission. But too few see, as this author has, how Christ worked with and through the Spirit, which then continued with the Church after him. We need an integrated theology–one that leads to and informs Christ-shaped and Spirit-powered ministry. I’m seeing better books on this these days (mainly through this blog!) but very little discussion and/or implementation. We just don’t know what to do with the Spirit.

  • http://profanefaith.com Jon Wymer

    Sounds similar to Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation, Westminster John Knox, 2004.

  • Andy

    Thanks for bringing this to the table, Scot. There is a lesser known gem of a book that addresses these same concepts from a different angle – The Art of Pastoring, by David Hansen. Hansen gets at the incarnational nature of Jesus in a different image – the minister as a parable of Jesus.

    pg 22-23 – “If it is true that in preaching Jesus we bring God to our people, perhaps in following Jesus in our daily lives we can bring God to people on the same principle. In other words, if Jesus is a parable of God and preaching the story of Jesus brings God to people, if we live our lives following Jesus, maybe our lives can bring Jesus to people. Maybe we can be parables of Jesus.”

    I write this as a person who was a pastoral ministry professional for eight years, but went back into the marketplace can see the chasm that is created when folks follow the “outmoded concepts that ascribe responsibility for the various dimensions of church life to only a few people.” When ministry is seen as a set of activities that are done, it realistically limits those who can “do” them to those who are assigned them, and can unintentionally negate the priesthood of all believers.

  • Graham Buxton

    Thanks Scot for this – not many copies of the book around now. I wrote Dancing in the Dark back in 2001, and have developed some of the ideas there in subsequent writing – see especially Celebrating Life (2007), which is a polemic against the sacred-secular divide. Over the last decade I have been encouraged by those who have told me that reading Dancing in the Dark has opened their eyes to a theology of participation, bringing genuine transformation in the way they engage in the practice of ministry. Many others, however, have not experienced such a liberating release, preferring still to rely upon their own efforts or techniques in their pastoral work. Steve Seamands book is a very good read here, though he focuses more on the life of the minister within a trinitarian framework than on the practice of ministry … though the two go very much together, of course.

    As I have reflected on this, I have come to see that pragmatism is actually the tip of a very large myopic iceberg! Not only is participation eschewed by many ministers in their attempt to achieve fulfilment in their calling as servants of the gospel – endless invention, endless experiment (to quote T S Eliot in ‘Choruses from “The Rock”’) – but a good number of them have also succumbed to a restricted, and restrictive, understanding of church, gospel, pastoral leadership, salvation … and God.

    So I’m working now on a new book exploring the thesis that a western way of thinking (read here ‘Greek’, ‘platonic’, ‘rational’, ‘cognitive’) tends to direct ministers of the gospel to a narrow ‘either-or’ interpretation of Christian life and ministry, rather than a more inclusive and generous ‘both-and’ paradigm. We need to embrace new ways of thinking that acknowledge the paradox, ambiguity and mystery implicit not just in Christian ministry, but in life itself.

    And, yes RJS, The Presence and the Power came out a couple of years later!

  • RJS

    Celebrating Life looks interesting.

    The sacred-secular divide drives me crazy. I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot with this approach.

  • RJS

    By the way Graham – nice center at Tabor Adelaide (GCRI) devoted to a topic near and dear to my heart.

  • Graham Buxton

    Yes, we’re doing some important stuff at the research institute, challenging some of the narrow paradigms that too often suffocate the church’s witness … which is what I try and expose in Celebrating Life …