The Word Christian Means More Than We Think

Good church leaders long for the participation of their congregation.

Yesterday on the Intersect blog at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a good friend of mine posted an article that gets right to the heart of this dilemma. Greg Mathias is the associate director of the Center for Great Commission Studies at Southeastern, and he writes on the importance of devoted lay ministry through the example of Aquila and Priscilla. Greg hits the nail on the head by challenging churches to call for more Aqiulas and Priscillas. Go read his post here.

Healthy churches want every member involved in disciple making ministry. But this is not as easy at it seems. Ask your average pastor, and you find that many struggle with communicating the essential nature of this to their members. It is far too easy for church members to see paid staff and volunteer ministers as the ones who do “church work” while they are supposed to come and “be fed.” This leaves pastors with the real dilemma of communicating that disciple making, the Great Commission, is an every member ministry.

Trying to communicate this task often runs off the rails in one of two directions. First, church leaders reinforce the clergy/laity divide insinuating the only way someone is really serving God is by going into some kind of vocational ministry. In this scenario, people in the congregation are constantly goaded to do real ministry by giving up secular careers. This kind of communication draws unhelpful lines between lay members, who have some kind of career, are moms and dads and little league coaches, and those who love God enough to become pastors. Obviously, this is an unhelpful message and does not line up with Scripture’s understanding of the church as a diverse body with diverse roles and functions.

The other unhelpful approach, and the one I feel may be more common today, is attempting to involve everyone in the mission by expanding our definition of mission to include whatever good thing people are already doing. In our culture, people often seem allergic to being told there is a specific disciple making mission. We talk about being “on mission” and tell everyone they are a missionary. While some of this language may be helpful, it often conflates the actual role of missionary (being sent by a church for the task of making disciples and planting churches) with simply being a good Christian. In Greg’s article, he writes,

Missionaries and businessmen are not the same, but they need each other. Similar to Paul and Aquila and Priscilla, they need the humility and ability to listen to one another, learn from one another and then, as opportunity presents itself, to work together. The symmetry between missions and business is rarely a perfect match, but when these two spheres work together, the kingdom picture is compelling.

Left unchecked, vague language about being “on mission”  allows the mission to drift from sharing the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection to simply doing good things. But being good at your job, or even doing a job that helps people, is not exactly the Christian mission. Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a Christian ethic that applies to all of life, from how we do our jobs to whether or not we run a stop sign. We are called to live exemplary lives, care for the marginalized, and fight injustice as a testimony to the good news of a cross and empty tomb. But how can those good things be a testimony to a message we fail to proclaim with our mouths? Can we rightly call something the Christian mission if an atheist could do it?

Somewhere along the way, we watered down the term Christian enough that it no longer includes the idea of participating in the Great Commission whether you are a missionary or not. We have allowed for a category of Christian that does not participate in the mission of the church. Fact is, Christians fulfill the Great Commission. Some Christians do so by going overseas or to another place as a missionary. Some Christians give their life and vocation to the service of the church by becoming pastors. Other Christians make disciples while being members of a local church in whatever profession they have chosen. All of these roles are necessary, and we need more people doing all of them. Regardless, the word Christian itself should contain the idea of sharing the gospel and making disciples.

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