I'm fascinated by the different ways in which pastors describe their churches and ministries. A simple request, "Tell me about your church and ministry," elicits a wide range of responses that differ not only in the details but in the very form of description. A pastor who loves to preach will tell me a lot about the sermons being preached, and the congregation's responsiveness to the sermons. If I question a pastor who's deeply concerned about foreign missions, I'll soon be hearing tales of recent church mission trips to faraway places.
Sometimes, the way pastors talk about their churches makes me uncomfortable. I think, in particular, of conversations I've had with pastors who talk endlessly about themselves. I hear about their preaching, their challenges, their successes and their disappointments. This isn't necessarily wrong, though at times I get the feeling that a pastor sees Christian ministry primarily as an exercise of personal talent and the church primarily as a reflection of a pastor's leadership. One pastor boasted: "I raised $5,000,000 in our recent building campaign." You raised that money? Not the church, not the Lord, but you?
My concern is not merely that language like this can imply an unhealthy self-reliance on the part of a pastor. My deeper concern is that speaking of your church in certain ways can help to createunhealthy churches in which members see their church as mainly an expression, even the property, of their pastors. The church is no longer the body of Christ, with each person actively caring for each other while reaching out to the world. Rather, the church becomes a pastor-centered institution that depends more on the pastor than on the Spirit. The church, it seems, exists to support and extend the ministry of the pastor, rather than the other way around.
We can learn from the Apostle Paul how to talk about church and ministry in a theologically sound and pastorally productive manner. In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul and his pastoral colleagues, Silvanus and Timothy, describe what happened when they ministered among the Thessalonians. I'm using "what happened" somewhat technically here, because the description is structured with four uses of the verb ginomai, which means "to become, to be, or to happen." Here's the passage, with the verse numbers and ginomai verbs identified:
1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came [egenethe] to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be [egenethemen] among you for your sake. 6 And you became [egenethete] imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became [egenethete] an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
How do Paul and his colleagues summarize what happened in Thessalonica? First, the gospel happened. Second, Paul & Co. happened. Third, the Thessalonian Christians happened.
The first thing that happens in a church is the gospel. The gospel precedes the church, and the preaching of the gospel calls the church into being. It gives the church its identity and mission. The gospel not only brings people into relationship with God, but also breaks down the walls between people, so they might experience unity in Christ. The preaching of the gospel, though done by human beings, is essentially a work of God. It is the way in which God reaches out to those whom he has chosen (1:4). As the gospel is preached, God's own power is unleashed (1:5).
The second thing that happens in a church is the expression of the gospel in the lives of church leaders. The gospel is good news about what God has done in Christ. It's God's story, preached in God's power. But human beings figure prominently in the communication of the gospel, both in what they say and in how they comport themselves. Thus, Paul and his colleagues can write to the Thessalonians: "Just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be [egenethemen] among you for your sake" (1:5). The character of the preacher must reflect the truth of the gospel.