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Rethinking Ministry for Today

August 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Recently I was involved in the induction of Malcolm Gordon as National Music, Worship and Arts Coordinator with the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, a role he has been doing for some time. This is a new ministry position in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and one which is proving very significant, with wide demands for his time not just in New Zealand but also Australia and Scotland. In discussing with him how he came to this position, and what future ministry might be like for him, it illustrated for me once again what has become a common theme of discussion and conversations recently, particularly among our younger leaders; that our current understanding and model of ministry in the Presbyterian tradition is creaking at the joints and not serving us very well. We are increasingly trying to squeeze the increasingly wide variety of ministries we need into a very narrow box, and for many the fit is increasingly uncomfortable. This was Malcolm’s experience as he tried to fit the calling and gifts he had for ministry into the only real place we have, as minister of word and sacrament in a parish setting. I would like to suggest that we need to undergo a significant re thinking of the theology that underlies our practice of ministry in order to better meet the needs of our context.

Our inherited understanding and form was primarily developed by John Calvin during the Reformation in the context of Christendom, when everyone belonged to the church and was Christian. There ministry took place in the church, and was aimed at ensuring everyone was truly Christian. This was to be done by ensuring the gospel was purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, hence ministers of word and sacrament. On top of that a third element was added, discipline or pastoral care. In looking at the ministry gifts set out in the important text in Ephesians 4, Calvin saw only pastors and teachers as continuing gifts; apostles, prophets and evangelists were temporary gifts needed for the establishment of the church where it did not exist and had since ceased. This understanding served us well during the period of Christendom which in one form or another still existed in western societies till the middle of last century.

However to many of us it seems clear that is now an inadequate understanding for the post-Christendom context we are in today. If the church is to continue playing a vital role in societies like New Zealand where the church is no longer central then its ministry ca not be focussed solely, or even primarily, inside the church. In a world where the church is now marginal, or in some cases absent, we need to find ways of equipping and ordaining those who have apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministries (and may be others also), to enable the ministry of Christ to reach into places and communities where the church is not. We still need those who are gifted as pastors and teachers to serve as ministers of word and sacrament in the church, but these other ministries need to be trained and ordained to serve alongside equally as ministers of the gospel, as the church endeavours to reach into new fields of those who are not yet part of Christ’s church.

Over the past two years I have heard a repeated cry from those who are finding our current model is not serving us well in many of our rural communities, in planting new churches, in many of our ethnic contexts, with young adults and in community or workplace ministries. It is important that we do not just respond pragmatically to make this possible, but do what the Reformers did centuries ago and re examine the scriptures and the tradition of the church in which we stand in the light of the new context we find ourselves in and allow the Spirit to open our eyes to new ways that God might be able to work in our midst and our communities today.

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