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.

16 Replies to “How do you define ministry?”

  1. Thankyou so much for this definition,I am glad you needed more of an explanation your thoughts blessd me! I agree with all thats been said it is simple to understand but a challenge to do. Keeping the right perspective is important I see ministers and churches do things in the name of ministry but the work is far from it. I’m sure they have misunderstood their purpose or gotton lost along the journey!

    God Bless You, Minister T.D Reed

  2. Thank God for sharing this. It has been very helpful to me. I will be sharing this to our children’s ministry staff because this is what i have been looking for. Thank you so much!

  3. Thank you Todd for sharing! I am a google guru and this website of course was one of my hits when I googled ‘ministry.’ I am thinking of offering a service and making it a ministry. I like the definition of ministry–recap: meeting people where they are at and taking them to where God wants them to be. I want to journey with youth and meet them where they are, to have both them and myself end up being at the place where God wants us. Of course using my gifts and talents, I would address their educational and inspirational needs. Thank you again!

  4. Thank you for this! My husband and I teach a Sunday School class for young adults, and we have an upcoming lesson on work and how our jobs can be a ministry. This is the best definition of ministry that I have found. I hope you don’t mind us using this in our class.

  5. This is by far the best definition I’ve heard so far and really grout forth revelation and understanding.. Redefining the mis-taughts is so important in the body of Christ ! Thank god for truth!!

  6. You have done a wonderful job of defining something that isn’t so easy to define. Your time is so appreciated!

  7. I also Googled this and found it to be profound. I plan on sharing it with our Fellowship Team if that is OK.
    God Bless

  8. This is an outstanding and spiritual definition. I am blessed to have found it so quickly. Our evangelism committee is looking for a grounded and profound definition on what a welcoming ministry really is and I believe I have found it. Jr. Briggs thank you. I will write in my own words utilizing your profound knowledge to peace together a definition we can use for the church I attend.

  9. As a recovering alcoholic of twenty+ years, I have, in collaboration with a retired clergy, begun an AA chapter in my home church. I am amazed at how it has taken hold in just two months!
    Although the AA program is not affiliated with any particular church or denomination, I have found the principles to be basically the same: the realization of one’s full spiritual potential through developing a heartfelt God-consciousness through prayer and meditation, maintaining a vigorous and honest self-evaluation program, and reaching out to others who are traveling along the same rocky path to a better life. And the program would not have continued or seen such an overwhelming success for the past seventy-five years, were it not for the same “radical hospitality” that any successful church offers, and the miraculous transformation that takes place among each of its members. Especially among newcomers, we meet and accept them “where they’re at,” and show them the way to become happy, joyous, and free.
    Let’s be clear on this: the AA program should never be at odds with, or compete with organized religion, but must realize their common mission to serve and minister to those in need, and to realize that there is but one God who loves us and cares for us. Active ministry, for each member of the church and the AA program, is vital to the survival of each!
    Let us celebrate the New Year with a joyful sense of fellowship and gratitude for our countless blessings, and for our ability to help others!

  10. This is awesome. I was listening to a sermon and something told me look up the actual definition of a minister. Needless to say I saw Websters etc. and something stood out about this page so I decided to explore. This was definitely a rabbit trail I’m glad I explored.
    I am a recovering addict and new Christian and although I wouldn’t be so bold as to call myself an actual minister with a church, I would say we can all minister to a certain extent. We can use our mistakes and knowledge to help some other person flailing along life’s waters.
    I feel we shouldn’t just tell peple where to go for help and salvation, but if they are willing, walk along with them. Jesus walks along every step with us and I believe he does so in order for us to help others.
    Thank you so much for this definition if minister.

  11. As a blogger I fully appreciate when readers comment on my content, so I wanted to encourage you with a quick word. This is such a timely read for me. I’m sitting here reading 2 Tim 4 and Paul tells Timothy, “fulfill your ministry.” As I am in a very unstable environment, it seems my ministry has never been more stable than it is now. And yet, the tension between environment and service causes me to ask, “What IS ministry?” Hence, I turned to Google for answers…(I’m not sure that’s a good thing…Ha!) Your professor’s answer was what I needed to hear.

    Some time ago, I set out to define my ministry in a way that would allow me to quickly and clearly explain to others what I actually do for a living. My role at the church I serve is quite diverse. I can’t simply say that I am the Minister of __________. After a lot of writing, erasing, and most importantly, conversations with the Lord, I settled on this: I help people leverage their life for God’s Glory. This has been my mantra for a while now. It has guided me and motivated me through some challenging times. It is what I do.

    So, “Meeting people where they are and taking them to God” is very affirming. Thank you for sharing! You have helped me have a sense that I can accept Paul’s challenge to Timothy as my own and I can go “fulfill (my) ministry”!

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