With recent research revealing that some 40 million Americans have left church over the last 25 years, questions are being asked about what ministers should be doing. Years ago an article appeared identifying expectations that people have: a minister should be a first-class preacher, pastor, evangelist, administrator, leader, fund-raiser, and diplomat!
Contrast what the Apostle Paul says about his ministry in his Letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verse 25: he was called by God to make the word of God fully known. God’s plan to reveal himself was not through miracles or social justice, but through words – spoken and written. Paul saw that it was his task to communicate that message, faithfully and fully.
It’s important we consider this, for it sharpens our understanding of the true focus of ministry. God uses the ministry of his Word to sow the seed of eternal life in our hearts and to facilitate its growth. The key to effective ministry that grows vital churches is through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word that touches hearts and minds.
Good preaching draws people into the presence of the Lord and enables them to sense that God, not the preacher, is speaking to them. How important it also is that when God’s people read the Bible at home they can see how and from where preachers drew their ideas and their application. Bible texts are not to be used as ‘coat-hangers’ for themes a preacher wants to develop. Rather, the Bible text must be opened up and applied in its context, letting God speak to us through his Word.
Interestingly, it is estimated that some fifty percent of ‘evangelicals’ who have stopped attending church, would return if they could find a ‘good church’ – one that brought the Scriptures to life in their lives.
Paul also addresses the content of ministry in verses 25-26. For millennia God had kept the essentials of his plans wrapped in confidentiality. But now, Paul tells us, God has chosen to declare himself. His message is for God’s ancient people, the Jews, as well as the non-Jews.
And the central theme of the message is, Christ in you, the hope of glory. There is an extraordinary simplicity to it. It’s the kind of line advertisers dream about putting together. The heart of Christianity can be summarised in just two phrases: Christ in you, and the hope of glory. On the one hand it is about a present experience, Christ in you; on the other hand, it speaks about a future reality: the hope of glory.
For many people Christianity is little more than a moral code they must struggle to observe, or a creed they must mindlessly recite week by week. For people like this Christianity seems legalistic and dull.
Paul disagrees. He wants us to understand that at the center of Christianity is a relationship with the One who is at the heart of the universe. Christianity is about Christ in you.
Many feel cut off from God, sometimes by feelings of failure or unworthiness, or ignorance or of unbelief. The simple message of Christianity is that people who are looking for God don’t have to despair. Something has happened which has made it possible for us all to be brought to a personal experience of the supernatural in our lives: Christ in you.
None of us have to wallow in moral despair that we aren’t good enough for God. We don’t have to languish in ignorance or unbelief because the idea of God seems so utterly remote.
Christianity is about the reality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The tragedy is that many expect too little from Christianity. If we don’t know anything about a vital, personal relationship with Jesus, we are Christian in name only. To know Christ in our lives is a heart experience. We should not be satisfied with anything less.
Furthermore, coupled with this present experience of the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, there is something else: the hope of glory.
We have a future – far more glorious than we ever dreamed. Glory is waiting for us, Paul says. The good things we taste of Christ living in us now are a glimpse of what it will be when we live openly in the presence of God. The best is yet to be.
How important it is that we, and especially ministers, think this through. There will be times when we’ll feel disappointed with the way life treats us. Indeed, there are times when we can be disillusioned with our faith in Christ because of life’s challenges. We may have thought that becoming a Christian would solve all our problems – be it passing exams, getting a job, finding the right marriage partner or enjoying a successful career.
But becoming a Christian doesn’t mean this. Our bodies are still subject to sickness, marriages are still subject to conflict, and jobs are still subject to redundancy. What the Word of God offers us in terms of life here and now, is not transformed outward circumstances, but transformed inner spiritual resources: Christ in you.
But we also need to understand that there is a future world that we perceive by faith, not by sight: the hope of glory. This isn’t some vague, wistful, ‘maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t’, kind of hope. It is a sure, confident, certain hope because God’s very nature means that he always keeps a promise.
It is only through the faithful ministry of God’s Word that these wonderful, all-glorious truths are opened up for us. How essential it is that ministers make God’s Word fully known.
A prayer. Eternal Father, who declared Jesus our Lord to be your beloved Son at his baptism, grant that we and all who have become his people through faith in his name, signified in baptism, may rejoice to be your children and the servants of all people. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
© John G. Mason