Last Friday I attended a local conference on ministering to military personnel and their families. I figured I could glean a few insights and also scope out the lay of the land in contemporary military ministry. Thankfully, I was able to accomplish both of those objectives.
However, two other observations struck themselves like darts into my mind while at the conference. The first was that the military co-opts the church for its own purposes. This underlying premise seemed to be shared by every speaker I heard, Christian or non-Christian, military or civilian. I heard nothing about sin, righteousness, and judgment. I did not hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. I did not hear that Jesus is Lord and that all men, including those in the U.S. military, must bow the knee to him. I certainly did not hear that allegiance to Christ was far more important eternally than allegiance to America. I did hear, repeatedly, how churches can help military personnel and their families in order to have a strong fighting force. It's not about seeking first the kingdom of God; it is about seeking the kingdom of America. This is civil religion with a vengeance. But I'll have to deal with that more at a later time. This post is prompted by the second observation.
The second observation was that "ministry" was treated as a noun and not as a verb. In other words, "ministry" was considered a thing that churches and Christians provide for military personnel. In this sense, it is a product. It can be packaged, programmed, and even marketed. "A" ministry is completely separable from any particular people, their wisdom, love, and Christian character. This view of ministry, of course, is not unique to this conference. It is precisely the view of ministry that prevails amongst Christians in this nation, so it is not surprising that the conference reflected it. This view of ministry also fits neatly with the first observation mentioned above. The military views churches as producers who provide a product that they are happy to have their soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines consume. They are happy to have them consume this product because they see that it yields more stable families, less destructive behavior, and an all-around happier life for their personnel.
Ministry, however, is first and foremost a verb. It is something that people do. It is inseparable from those who perform it, including their Christian maturity and character. It is not a product that can be marketed. The church is not a factory which produces a nice little product called 'spirituality' which people can consume in order to make their lives and families better. It is decidedly not a factory producing a product to keep the military humming along in top condition.
Pastor David Doran recently addressed this same problem with a post aimed at local church life. He writes:
Ministry is not a position; it’s an action. You don’t really “have” a ministry; you minister. A healthy congregation is not built by organizational charts and job descriptions. It develops as God’s people engage themselves is serving Him by using their God-given gifts for the benefit of the Body (Eph 4:11-16). That text highlights spiritual maturity and mutual ministry, not organizational efficiency. Sound doctrine and godly relationships are God’s priorities.
He also gives an example of the 'institutional' mindset of ministry.
That the institutional mindset has crept into the church is most clearly evident by the way people think about going to church (and I’m tempted to put those last three words in quotes because the phrase itself reflects the problem). Let me illustrate. A friend tells you he is going up north for the weekend and you ask about missing church. His reply: “Because someone else is covering my [insert normal ministry designation] this Sunday, I’m not doing anything, so there’s no problem with me skipping this weekend.” Do you see what has happened here? Serving Christ in the church has been reduced to fulfilling a task or role within a program.
This view of ministry is tempting because it does not require a commitment of covenant love. I don't have to give my life to real people in a real place. I just have to do my job, and I am free from all the baggage of love. As long as my program works well (and working well is usually defined statistically), I can have a sense of accomplishment. I have 'served the Lord' with my life by running the program. But biblical ministry, Christ-like ministry, is at its core a giving of my life for the sake of others so that they may know the Lord. It is love that leads me to lay down my 'freedom' to skip church so that I can serve my Lord by serving his people.
Ministry is love. Ministry is service. Ministry is a verb.