By Bud Reeves
Senior Pastor of First UMC Fort Smith
If I might be forgiven of the sin of pride, I’d like to brag a little bit. Recently the chair of the team that oversees our mission ministry reported to one of our Sunday School classes that our church sponsors eleven different mission projects throughout the year, some annually, but some as often as weekly, mostly local, but some international. In addition, we are involved in 23 mission partnerships with projects and non-profits in our community. If something good is happening in our town, there are probably some Methodists at work. Finally, we have two church-wide mission activities each year, both of which support our conference initiative, 200,000 Reasons, to end children’s hunger.
I can be proud of the involvement of the church because I have very little responsibility for it. Most of it was happening before I became their pastor. I do encourage a missional spirit, but then I just get out of the way and let the lay people work. It’s pretty amazing.
In this issue of the Arkansas United Methodist, you can see several examples of lay folk in ministry. Lay ministry is the key to vitality in the church now and our hope for the future. Historically, the ministry of the church was in the hands of the laity. In the 20th century, as the ministry became more “professional,” clergy began to dominate, and churches began hiring staff to do ministry. As the church began to decline 40 years ago, the paradigm began to shift back to our historic roots, and the empowerment of lay ministry became a critical component of church growth. Nowadays, vital churches have abandoned the “attractional” model of the past century and adopted a “missional” model that reaches outside the church, mostly through lay people, to transform lives, communities, and the world. (Does that phrase sound familiar?)
Lay ministry is a response to a CALL. We all have a call from God to be in ministry, and God has given each person gifts to perform ministry. (See Romans 12:3-8 and I Corinthians 12:4-27) Some are called to representative ministry as pastors or full-time Christian workers. Most of us are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday lives, in our workplace, school, and home. God does amazing work through ordinary folks who actually have more contact with the lost, broken, hurting people of the world than those of us who spend most of our time inside our ecclesiastical walls.
Lay ministry can be so much more FRUITFUL than professionalized ministry. Remember when Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) One professional scythe-slinger can only cut so much grain, but put 200 workers in the field, and they are through before lunch. One pastor in a church can work herself to exhaustion and still not get everything done. If 20 or 200 lay people serve the Lord only two or three hours a week, it exponentially multiplies the ministry. The Kingdom work bears more fruit.
Lay ministry can be more EFFECTIVE. I was called and gifted to be in ordained ministry; hopefully I have been effective at the tasks I do. But my church would not be effective if they had to rely only on the things I’m good at. I have seen people do amazing works of God in areas that are beyond my capability. I have seen people spend hours, days, even weeks caring for broken souls in times of sickness and grief. I’m not as good at children’s and youth work as I once was. I cannot lead a choir, play the piano, produce a spreadsheet, or build a wheelchair ramp as well as some of my lay people can.
I don’t need to, because they can! And so the church is more effective.
Lay ministry brings its own REWARD. Service to God does not escape our Master’s notice. Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42) This is not the reward of salvation; we are saved by faith, not by works. But it is the reward of satisfaction and joy at making a difference in the lives of others and in the Kingdom of God. Deep down, I think we all long to hear those words from Jesus at the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:23)
The vitality of the church now and forever belongs to the vast majority of disciples of Christ who are not ordained, professional Christians. For almost four decades I have been privileged to serve in ordained ministry. But it would have been a long, hard, lonely and unproductive road without the dedicated and effective lay ministers who have walked the path with me. Thanks be to God for that incredible gift! If you are a lay person and have persevered to the end of this column, I encourage you to be that gift to your pastor, your church, and your Lord.