How do you define ministry?

In one of my first classes of my first course of seminary the professor stood up and said: “How would you define ministry?”

That’s easy, I thought. It’s… um…well… it’s….

It seemed like I should be able to answer this quickly and easily, but I couldn’t. I knew what ministry looked like when I saw it in action. I knew people involved in ministry. I knew what ministry wasn’t. I knew somewhat how to do ministry. But I couldn’t actually define it in my own words.

I was stumped.

Our professor let us get into groups with our classmates for several minutes and come up with our own definition, which we presented to the class. We all stumbled through our definitions with very little clarity or confidence. Then our professor stepped up to the board and wrote:

“Ministry is meeting people where they are at and taking them to where God wants them to be.”

Riiiiiight… that’s what I was thinking all along…

At first glance, the definition seems extremely simplistic. Nothing earth-shattering, right? However, since I first heard that definition a few years ago I’ve yet to find a better one. But it still needs some explaining, because what I have believed ministry was in the past is quite different from this definition. Unfortunately, for many of us we (me included) have to unlearn what we thought ministry meant.

“…meeting people where they are at…”

Meeting people. Ministry is always relational. Faithful ministry isn’t a project. Ministry is people. The administrative elements of ministry should only be tools that lead us to building relationships with others.

So many times I want people to meet me where I am at. Churches have had the Field of Dreams mentality – “If we build it they will come” – and a generation or two ago, that worked. But culture is changing. A theologically robust understanding of ministry is meeting people where they are at. On their terms. In their context, not ours. This premise is the basic tenet of the missional mindset. We can’t move people closer to Jesus if we aren’t first meeting, loving, listening, caring and connecting with them on their turf. Incarnational presence and proximity are huge. (Even as I write this the spell check program places a red squiggly line under the word incarnational… fitting, isn’t it?)

“…taking them…”

We go with people. (Notice the two arrows leading to God – ┬áthat’s me and you). Jesus always had his disciples with him wherever he went. In ministry we don’t slap people on the butt and send them on their way into the great unknown. We journey with them. Love journeys with.

“…to where God wants them to be.”

This seems to be the most difficult. North American culture would finish the sentence “to where they themselves want to be” but following Jesus is not about my wants, my preferences, my desires. North American leadership and management gurus would say, “take them to where you the leader want them to be.” This is not right either. Healthy ministry isn’t controlling people. Simply telling people, “God loves you and I have a wonderful plan for your life” is not Spirit-guided ministry. It’s self-guided ministry. There is guidance and direction and processing that occurs in a space free of control.

Which means as ministers we have to be yielding and listening. Yielding to the work of the Spirit and listening to God’s desires for the life of the person with whom we are journeying.

The process of moving people from their current place (“here”) to where God desires them to be (“there”) is the role of every minister. And this process is called discipleship. Ministers disciple people.