What is “Ministry”?

What is “Ministry”? June 4, 2012

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.

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