The gospel call to ministry
Why ministering the gospel is for everyone, including some who do it paid and full-time
Last week we mentioned that Phillip had been recently speaking at the Campus Bible Study LIFT conference (LIFT stands for ‘Looking Into Full-Time’). It’s a conference to help students and graduates think through whether they should pursue full-time, paid ministry.
We thought it was a topic worth returning to, because evangelicals often struggle to get the balance right on this subject.
Sometimes we’re accused of making such a big deal of full-time Christian work that it sends an implicit (or even explicit) signal that people who don’t go into full-time ministry are second class. In fact, there’s recently been some criticism of a phrase that Phillip and others in our circles have used over the years—‘blokes worth watching’—as embodying a kind of elitist culture of ministry recruitment.
Mind you, at other times, we panic about the ‘minister drought’ and bemoan the fact that no-one is being challenged to go into full-time ministry any more.
Is it possible to avoid these problems? What’s the right way to challenge people to consider full-time Christian work without devaluing those who don’t pursue that path?
I began our conversation on this subject by asking Phillip what he tries to do when he speaks at a conference like LIFT. What’s the basic message or challenge that he wants to bring to his hearers?
PJ: Well, I’m challenging people to ministry—that is, when Jesus calls upon people to be his disciples, he calls upon us to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, to follow him, to lose our life for his sake and the gospel’s. And so I’m calling upon people to minister the gospel.
But it’s not a call to paid ministry, it’s a call to ministry; it’s a call to live your life in the service of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because you can’t live for Jesus and not live for the cause of Jesus as well.
So what is the difference between ‘ministry’ and ‘paid ministry’? Well one difference is you get paid for it; the other is time—the time you have available to devote to it. But apart from these fairly crude differences, it’s the same activity. The person who teaches Sunday school or runs a youth fellowship or runs a home Bible study group is engaged in the ministry of the gospel. They support themselves in doing this ministry by working during the week (as engineers or school teachers or nurses or whatever). They are like ‘tentmakers’ to use the biblical phrase. They pay for their own life by their work, and in the disposable time they have left, they minister the gospel.
But some people stop tentmaking—like Paul did in Corinth, as soon as that money came from Philippi. He was freed by the money he received to be able to minister the gospel full-time. So there’s a difference in money and time, but it’s the same activity in all of it—to teach the Word of God to people.
TP: It’s the job of every Christian, isn’t it? It’s interesting how Luther put it—that all Christians are called to the priestly ministry of Christ, in laying down their lives for others and speaking the gospel to others and praying for others. And those who end up doing that full time or in a paid capacity or in a recognized capacity, are doing so as a subset of the whole royal priesthood of ministers—of which we are all part.
PJ: Absolutely. It’s important to recognize that the person who teaches the three-year-olds in Sunday school and the person who preaches the sermon are doing the same activity. And sometimes teaching the three-year-olds is more difficult! It’s not as if there’s a first class or second class activity when it comes to teaching the word of God to people, because are no first class or second class people. And it’s the word of God that you are teaching either way. Some jobs, require people to be freed up from other concerns to be able to do it. And some people’s gifts are such that the Christian community wants to free them up to be able to do more of it.
TP: So the ‘call is to ministry’ to serve Jesus with everything we have, one aspect of which might be that you do that in a paid, full-time way. How do you call people to ministry, then?
PJ: Fundamentally, the approach is to preach the gospel. This sounds simplistic, and like a cliche—but I’m afraid we don’t preach the gospel these days as we should. The challenge that Jesus brings is so radical and so demanding on our time and our efforts, on our prayers, on our money, on our lives. Once you’ve actually embraced that gospel message, you will minister the gospel freely, happily, at any opportunity, in any way that you can.
But when people soft pedal the teachings of Jesus, when people say, “Well, you can be a Christian and as well as that do all these other things”, then the other things take over and the preaching of the gospel falls into the background. For some people, Sunday morning is their church hobby. On a Saturday morning they play golf, Sunday morning they go to church.
TP: Some of us do play golf.
PJ: And there’s nothing wrong with playing golf … But does it have the same priority in your life as serving the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus would have none of that. Jesus called upon people to be totally committed, to lay down our lives for his sake and the gospel. It’s not just a Sunday morning thing—our whole life needs to be given over to the cause of the gospel; our money, our time, the way we raise our children, the priorities we have. Everything in life must come under the gospel.
When we don’t preach this gospel vigorously—making clear that the Lordship of Jesus is a reality, and that we are the slaves of this risen Lord Jesus—then it’s hardly surprising that we don’t see people giving up their small ambitions to come into Christian ministry, either part-time or full-time.
TP: I believe you preached on 2 Corinthians 5 at the LIFT weekend. I remember you preaching on that many years ago, and that passage being a determinative point in God’s challenge to me to lay down my life for his sake—because my life was already over. “One died for all, and therefore all have died. And he died for all that they might not live for themselves, but for him who for their sake, died and was raised.”
If Christ has died for me, then I have died. And a whole new existence now comes into being in which I live not for myself, but for him. And the call to live for him in that passage unfolds into being his ambassadors to the world.
PJ: Preaching that gospel—the real gospel—can’t be an add on to the church’s program. It’s got to be integral. It’s the basis of everything. To be a disciple, to be a Christian, is to be committed to the world mission of Christ. So this must be part and parcel of everything we do as a Christian fellowship, week by week.
Now, these conferences you’ve mentioned that concentrate on this particular topic—they don’t work, unless the weekly church teaching, and the weekly fellowship gatherings that sponsor these conferences, are equally committed to world mission and to preaching the gospel regularly and consistently.
TP: How else does the gospel call to ministry play out in church life?
PJ: Well, it involves training everyone.
I remember once preaching a series on prayer, and a dear saint came up to me at the end of it to tell me that it was the best sermon series on prayer she’d ever heard. And I’d hardly finished congratulating myself in my pride, when she went on to say, “But you know, no-one is going to pray any more than they did before you started. Unless you teach us how to pray—unless you come and actually train us in prayer—we’re not going to do anything different than we did beforehand.”
That lovely saint not only pricked my bubble, she was absolutely right. And it’s the same with evangelism, and everything else. We can exhort people to be committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel, but unless we also teach and train them in the basics of ministry, how can we expect them to make progress? That is, we need to train people how to pray, how to read the Bible with somebody, how to share the gospel with people—just the basic activities of gospel ministry that are required for all.
Haven’t you just written a new Two ways to live book on this?
TP: Two of them in fact: there’s Learn the Gospel (to teach every Christian to know what the radical gospel of Jesus is) and Share the Gospel (which is to help every Christian talk about that gospel in their conversations with others). The first one is out; the second is a few months away from being released.
But whether you use those resources or others, I certainly agree we need to find space in our programs for this kind of basic every-Christian training. I’ve visited and spoken with a lot of churches and pastors over the past 15 years, and the vast majority don’t make it a priority to teach and train their members in these basics of Christian gospel understanding and ministry.
PJ: That’s why it’s so fundamental that the gospel and its ministry has to be central to what our church program is all about. If the gospel is central, then training all our people as gospel partners is the obvious next step. And it’s in that context of people working together in the ministry of the gospel that you start to see certain people who are should be doing it full time; the people that we should set aside from their everyday work life so that they can spend more time being trained fully and working in the ministry of the gospel.
We used to call these sorts of people ‘blokes worth watching’—people who got not just the conviction and character (which you want in every Christian) but a certain competency in doing ministry well. There are just some people who’ve got a gift of teaching, and a gift of relating to people, and so on. And so you look out for them, and spend time with them.
TP: That phrase ‘blokes worth watching’ has come in for a bit of criticism recently—particularly in the UK. It can sound like you’re looking for a very male dominated almost elitist class of people.
PJ: People have got terrible sensitivities about words these days. It’s the concept that matters. I understand that people worry about it, because it comes from a particular English practice and culture—well, that’s an English problem. It’s not mine. I’m an Australian.
It’s not elitist, as if we are looking for the really high quality people. It’s got to do with competency. Where high quality really matters is in conviction and character. The ones whom Jesus regards as great in the kingdom of heaven are those who keep the Word of God. They’re the great ones—not those who some proclaiming their achievements, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and do mighty miracles in your name’.
So we don’t think about greatness and quality like the world does. To quote 2 Corinthians 5 again, we no longer think of people in the same way. We see people as new creatures in Christ; there’s a new creation, a whole new way of thinking.
And so if you hear me say a phrase like ‘blokes worth watching’ and think that I’m looking for a kind of first-class citizen, it just shows you haven’t understood how I think; or indeed how the apostle thinks about people. If there are people to whom God has given special gifts, we want to encourage them. If they’ve got a gift of evangelism or Bible teaching which is above and beyond the normal, then that is exactly the person we should spend more time challenging about giving up their small ambitions in life, to spend more time in gospel ministry.
And that challenge is going to lead them to great suffering, because the more you preach the gospel, and lay down your life for Jesus and the gospel, the more your life will be taken from you. People will persecute you and reject you, and say all manner of evil about, because ministering the gospel is a cross-bearing activity.
TP: And it’s not limited to men. The word ‘blokes’ was just a colloquial term we used at one time. In The Trellis and the Vine I think we said ‘persons worth watching’. (Ed: it was actually ‘people worth watching’.)
PJ: I used to make fun of it by saying ‘blokes and blokesses’. But yes, you can call it ‘persons worth watching’, or ‘Christians worth watching’, or whatever phrase you like. The idea is that we are looking for those who have the particular competencies in the ministry of the gospel, and challenging them to take on the work in a much more full-time way.
TP: Let’s talk about the obstacles or the barriers to calling people to full-time or paid ministry. What stands in the way?
PJ: Some of the competencies are really important—such as relational suitability, or the capacity to understand and articulate. It’s very hard to be a Bible teacher if you have difficulty understanding and articulating what the Bible is saying. And it’s very difficult if you’ve got no rapport with people. Some of our friends who are on a particular ‘spectrum’ have an enormous capacity to understand, but their ability to articulate in a relational fashion is limited—what we sometimes now call their ‘emotional intelligence’.
TP: In a sense, that’s a limitation in their ‘aptness, to teach’, in the terms of 1 Timothy 3.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. Another big obstacle is the church or the denomination. If they’re not committed to world mission, they will not challenge people to it. If they’re not committed to gospelling, or they’re not challenging people to it, then you won’t find people being raised up and leaving those churches to go into ministry elsewhere.
And that also conflicts with some of our church growth philosophies and theologies. That is, the most able, capable people are the ones we want to send into the world to preach the gospel. But those able, capable people are the ones who will be most beneficial to building our own church. And so you’ve got to have that gospel generosity in the heart of the pastor or the elders of a church that will send their most able capable people out for the cause of the gospel, rather than keep them for maintaining your struggling church or building your empire.
But I think the main one in Australia is affluence. It’s just materialism.
TP: A bit like: “I cannot come, I have bought a cow. I must go and look at the field that I’ve purchased.”
PJ: Yes, you can put it in those Jesus terms. Because so much of Jesus’ teaching is about money, isn’t it? About our treasures on this earth rather than heaven. But materialism is so much part of the Australian lifestyle that we find it hard to even see when we’re being materialistic. We rationalize our careerism in terms of a kind of spiritual importance, when in fact it’s just good old fashioned materialism. (It’s funny how we’ve got a kind of upper-class Holy Spirit, who only calls people into the most impressive, high-status jobs.)
And it’s also a failure to understand the nature and importance of work. Work is a means of loving my neighbour. And this is a very valuable thing. But we’ve turned it into my meaning of existence, my purpose, my fulfillment, my satisfaction, my importance, my status—all the kinds of things that you’re supposed to find in the gospel, rather than in your work.
TP: The way I once put it was that Christians should all have the same career. Because what’s a career? A career is something that you devote yourself to, that has direction and growth; something that will be the course and project of your whole life, in which you are there will be training and development. Christians have a ‘career’ like that—it’s just not in the workplace. It’s to serve the Lord Jesus and be part of his great project, and to grow and develop and become more able and skilled and knowledgeable and convinced that this great career, the career of being a disciple-maker of Jesus, is what we’re all called to.
PJ: That’s a good way of saying it, I think, because you then place your job as part of your Christian career to minister the gospel, not as the alternative to your Christian ministry career. Because part of ministering the gospel is to be loving my neighbour, and part of loving my neighbour is the job I do as I serve them in the coffee shop, or as I serve them by working on the farm.
TP: I’d like to round this off, Phillip, by asking you not so much about those who are church leaders, but for those who are thinking about what all this means for my life—for living my life as a minister of the gospel, whether in a full-time capacity or not. What would you say to them?
PJ: I’d say: don’t be like the non-Christians around you. Most people look for the best job they can get, which pays the most money, so that they can get the biggest house possible. And don’t be like the ‘Christianized’ person, who also looks for the best job, to get the most money, so as to live in the best house, and then looks around for a church near that house, to be a member of.
What you’ve got to be is a partner in the gospel. So the first question you should ask is: What is the ministry I’m seeking to do? The second question is: What housing do I need in order to be able to able to do that? The third question then becomes: What job should I seek in order to be able to pay the rent, to be able to do that ministry?
You got to turn the world and its values upside down. Because that’s what the gospel does to us.
Some good resources to chase these ideas further:
Ray Galea has a new book coming out on the topic we’ve been discussing in this edition. It’s about stepping up in gospel ministry, and in particular considering whether that could be a full-time thing for you. It’s called Eager to Serve, and is available now for pre-order
I wrote a little book a few years ago for the everyday Christian about how all of us are called to be gospel ministers (or disciple-makers). It’s called The Thing Is.
TWM Supporters Events coming up …
We held the first of the Two Ways Ministries supporters’ events last week, and a very encouraging evening it was. There are more opportunities coming up later in November—come along if you’d like to meet Phillip and me, and hear about the wider work of Two Ways Ministries (including this newsletter/podcast) and how you can support us:
Monday 21st November 7:30pm in West Ryde (at my place);
Friday 25 November 7:30pm in Kogarah;
Saturday 26 November lunchtime in Wollongong.
Plus a zoom meeting in late November for those who can’t come in person.
If you’d like to come to any of these, send me an email and I’ll reply with further details.
And of course, if you’d like to jump straight in and join the Supporters Club for this newsletter, you can do that any time!