Redefining what wasn't really ours to define in the first place

Over the years I've had the privilege of leading hundreds of middle school and high school-age students in the arena of youth ministry. Of those whose lives I have been a part of, there have been several who have sensed a unique call from God on their lives, one that has led them to church work, seminary, or missions. It's been awesome keeping up with them over the years as they experience the joys and frustrations of leading in church ministry. Yet out of all of those students who I've walked alongside of, hardly any have expressed the need to pursue ministry beyond the walls of the church or para church contexts.

Is there such a thing as ministry beyond what has been organized by religious and faith-based institutions? In other words, can you really pursue ministry if it doesn't look like ministry?

When I was younger, I knew that God was calling me into the ministry. You know, full-time vocational Christian ministry. I knew that I was called to serve and the options before me looked pretty much like a one-item buffet -- church work. Don't misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with that. I was blessed to grow up in a very healthy church environment with a host of pastors who poured themselves into my life. Beyond that option there was the possibility of serving with a para church group like Intervarsity or Young Life, but to be honest those organizations were kind of frowned upon because of the perception that they did very little to plug the students they served into the local church (translation = it was a territorial issue).

So I did what every motivated and passionate young minister-to-be would do and that is attend seminary and attempt to find church work. From my 20's into my 30's I served in various churches as either a volunteer, intern, part-timer, or full-time staff member, all of which centered on student ministry. I experienced many highs and lows during those years, but I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.

However, during all of that time, I knew that there was much more to ministry that existed beyond just church ministry. Whenever I would share this with my fellow ministry peers, they would immediately ask if I felt called to missions. That's pretty much the standard backup for those who consider what other options are available for them if they aren't convinced it's church work. Be a foreign missionary! But I didn't want to be a foreign missionary. True, missions is more than just living in hut and eating grub worms in Africa, yet that is often the image that is seared into our brains. This was not what God had called me to do.

After 2 decades of serving in some sort of church context, I was able to step away for a couple of years and use that time to ask myself some pretty gut wrenching questions about my call. Did God still want to use me? If so, how? I knew and still know that God has called me to serve Him. That has never been in doubt and the local church is where I serve. But what God began to show me was that there is a big difference between the actual fact of being called and how that call is to be lived out.

From way back in the beginning of my spiritual formation, I pretty much understood that "the call" to ministry was reserved for a select few, those who would be pastors. Anyone else who was serving experienced a different kind of call to the ministry that was put on a lower level than those who served vocationally in churches. "We are all ministers," the church sign says, "But our pastor is THE minister." Do you see how flawed that viewpoint is?

What do we do with the 23-year-old medical student who is passionate about Jesus and is convinced he's called to ministry, yet has no desire to pursue church work or missions? How about the young professional whose heart has caught fire with the gospel and can't contain her excitement to be on mission, yet is convinced that her 8-to-5 job is where God has called her to be? Can these actually be called to ministry without actually entering what we've defined for years as ministry?

The answering is resounding yes. And the truth is, what we've defined as "ministry" really isn't close to what Jesus would define as ministry. We have no evidence that Zacchaeus abandoned his business to don a preacher's robe. When Jesus changed his life, Zacchaeus repented and changed his ways, but that doesn't mean he changed his career. The same is true of so many that we read about in the New Testament. Their call to abandon all and follow Christ meant that they were to abandon their own selfish desires and habits to follow Jesus, but didn't always mean that they abandoned their chosen professions.

Why is that? Because Jesus still desires that His truth and gospel saturate all aspects of culture. In order to do that, He needs lawyers and nurses and teachers and construction workers and CPA's and retail clerks to serve as ministers in their workplaces. He needs students to be ministers in their schools. He needs moms and dads to be ministers in their communities. 

In setting parameters around what is and isn't considered to be ministry, we've defined what isn't ours to define. We joke about the pastor being the "professional Christians" but there are still many who expect him to do the bulk of the spiritual work because it's his "job." That, my friends, is a bunch of rubbish (or crap for the younger crowd).

I'm seeing, and maybe you are too, many in this younger generation who have a passion to serve with all of the zeal of snake-handling pentecostal seminary student but without the desire to do so in a church or faith-based context. And that's awesome! Honestly, more people are walking into restaurants and attorney's offices and retail stores than will ever step foot inside of our churches. Since that is true, we need to equip more and more men and women to be ministers in their chosen field of work. We don't need to focus in training them so that they can serve in our churches. No, we need to pour ourselves and our resources into them so that they can serve where they live and work everyday. And as we are doing this, we need to affirm the calling that God has put on their lives to serve as ministers in the work place. It's time to strike a blow to the caste system that is Christian ministry.

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