Sermon: Our Job Description

08.10.2014     Preaching Text: “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” (Matthew 14:29b)

In the Study Group, as we continue to read Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture, we’ve been challenged by the author to move the church from a “Board Culture” (that’s ‘board,’ not ‘bored!’) to a “Ministry Culture.”

The idea is fairly simple. In the civic faith era most of us grew up in every American was thought to be a Christian. This meant, among other things, that all mission work (helping people) was designed for others, not us. It was as if we had decided that we had our act sufficiently together and that we needed to focus only on helping those outside the church, often in other countries.

The church sought to accomplish this through its various boards and committees. With the financial support of its members, church leaders identified and administered ministry to those in need.

Despite its good intentions and numerous benefits, this approach had notable drawbacks. “Many of our social and action efforts,” writes Robinson, “were no different in grounding or language from countless other similar efforts and programs that had no faith basis or church connection.

“The social service of the church became secularized. Its work in this area often became a matter of supporting a host of community organizations or being another community organized with historic ties to the church and Christian faith.”

“Institutions that began in the church and had roots in the Christian faith lost their capacity to speak their native tongue.” He even goes so far as to say, echoing my point from last week’s sermon, that in some instances speaking our native tongue was perceived to be a liability!

The other day Howard Streifford offered an interesting fact. He said that recent studies in remote areas of the Philippines concluded that if a language is not used it often becomes a dead language – and in as little as one or two generations!

Thus, the future of the church, in my opinion, requires that we reclaim or “re-present” the gospel’s native language, rather than simply rewrite it or reinvent it.

Over time I’ve come to the conclusion that the Christian gospel is a well-hidden secret or, if you will, “a well-known stranger.” People talk about it, to be sure, but rarely understood it. It’s become more like a foreign language that virtually no one is able to comprehend.

The other day in Bible study we read a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There were a number of technical terms bunched together, words such as “apostle,” “call,” “sanctify,” “saints,” and “grace.”

Each has a specific meaning biblically. But nobody, though most have attended church all their lives, could define that exact meaning. There were many guesses that nibbled around the edges, but nobody was able to hit the nail precisely on the head.

Now, as I said last week, I lay a lot of the blame for this on the clergy. But there’s another reason, perhaps the most important reason. And that has to do with Robinson’s claim that the “native tongue” of the gospel, in the civic faith era, was considered irrelevant if not detrimental to progress. What mattered was the doing, not the underlying theological or spiritual reason for the doing (which was largely assumed).

Today we participated in Shirley Mashoke’s ordination as Deacon of this church. When initially approached a few weeks back, she expressed interest but said she needed some time to pray about it.

In effect she was praying for discernment to determine whether God was indeed “calling” her to this sacred office. Discerning our calling is another way of describing the process of figuring out, spiritually, what job or vocation God intends for us.

Right after college my father, sensing my distinct lack of direction, gave me a book entitled, What Color Is Your Parachute? Its purpose was to help people identify their career path. (I’d taken a vocational aptitude test earlier in high school which revealed I was best suited to be a printer of all things!)

The larger point is that God has given each of us a vocation or calling to serve the church in its quest to attend to God’s purposes. In using the gifts our Creator has granted us, each one unique to us, we seek to do God’s will.

In the past, as Robinson notes, the idea was that only the ordained clergy and church leaders were called to ministry, rendering those in the pews to a supporting role. Certain people were thus called to “run the church,” which created, as he puts it, “first- and second-class Christians and church members.”

During the Lenten season here in 2007, I initiated a mid-week service. But rather than my preaching a message I asked various church members to share something of their experiences of God. The results were simply amazing.

It’s one thing for the pastor to get up and say something “religious.” That one expects. But when somebody who normally sits in front of you on Sunday morning gets up and speaks of those moments when they felt God’s presence, it’s a whole different matter.

I remember how moved I was personally. And, sitting in front here in the chancel, I could see the same thing on the faces of all those present. When you come right down to it, each of us has a story to tell about how God has touched our lives, even though we rarely share this sort of thing with others. When we do, however, the Holy Spirit moves powerfully.

Then again, most of the time, we tend to think we have little to offer. Or we assume others have far more. Alas, such thinking is, not to put too fine a point on it, pure nonsense.

Robinson’s distinction between the old “Board Culture” and a renewing “Ministry Culture” depends on our willingness to identify and use the gifts God has given us – while recognizing that each of us has an important role to play in the church, however little we may normally assume we have to offer. And that includes, as I said earlier, a spiritual role.

Board culture, Robinson concludes, assumes a “passive role as consumers of ministry.”

He writes: “What’s lost in such a consumer-oriented approach to the church is the whole conviction and experience of the priesthood of all believers. Ministry is not a product or service generated by some for others in the congregation to consume; it is a way of life and living in which all are invited to share.” Amen.