I love the Church of Jesus, and I have no desire to criticize her or stir up strife between my brothers and sisters. In my first few years of church planting, I certainly lacked an awareness of how critical I had become of other churches and leaders. I’m thankful that God, in his kindness, has made me much more aware of that sin, and given me the grace to turn from it. This doesn’t mean, however, that within the priority of harmony and unity in the Body, there isn’t a place for iron to sharpen iron. Here we could distinguish between critique and criticism. Healthy critique will be most effective in the context of relationships and should always be carried out with humility and love––and after prayerful study of the Scriptures related to the points of disagreement.
That is my caveat before I ease into a critique of some common words and concepts used among many in the Church today. My goal in writing this isn’t to start a fight or to show that I’ve arrived at a higher level of spirituality, but hopefully to stimulate healthy dialogue and deeper biblical reflection concerning our understanding of certain words. Just as our theology matters and affects our practice, so the terms we use to talk about our life in the family of God and the definitions we give to those terms have consequences (James 3:1). I recognize that others have brought up these concerns in the past, but the wrong definitions continue to abound and are often dismissed as harmless habits. It is true that a mere change in how we use words is not the silver bullet, but it is an important step forward if we truly desire to work toward greater gospel health and missional effectiveness in the Church.
What is a Minister?
Ephesians 4 is explicit that every member of the family of God is called to serve (minister to) one another for the building up of the body of Christ. Study that passage prayerfully along with Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Peter 4:10-11. Is there anything in these passages that would suggest that not all believers are called to the ministry? So why would we keep giving lip-service to the traditional distinction that communicates a totally unbiblical paradigm? While it is true that many churches no longer use the term “minister,” the ubiquitous use of the phrase “full-time ministry” to refer exclusively to those in vocational roles in the Church, demonstrates that this remains an issue worth addressing.
What is the Church?
Scripture commands believers to gather together regularly to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:27). In Acts 2:42, we observe that the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” However, these gatherings are not simply what Church is, but are made up of the people who Church is (1 Corinthians 1:2). We are the Church. We are a blood-bought brotherhood, sons and daughters of the Father. We are the body of the Messiah King, his hands and feet to a broken world. We are a living, breathing temple, animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is true every day and visibly displayed as we gather, bear one another’s burdens, and live as a community sent into the world but not of the world.
When we refer to a physical building as the Church we are in danger of diminishing the awesome reality that the glory of Almighty God, the glory that dwelt in Solomon’s Temple, now dwells in us! When we primarily view an organization or the staff who lead it as the Church we run the risk of creating a false dichotomy in the minds of God’s family. When we convey that Church is simply a meeting on Sundays, we undermine the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus. All of life is meant to be lived for him, and all of life is meant to be lived with a commitment to his people as our own family, because according to Jesus, they really are (Luke 8:21). Do you believe that?
Who is a Missionary?
“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Jesus prayed that all of us would be missionaries and sent us his Spirit to enable us to be his witnesses. That should pretty much settle it. Right? To be clear, we as the Church should be passionately committed to sending workers to regions beyond, but when we only talk about missionaries as those who cross borders, oceans, or cultures we subvert the missionary identity which also belongs to those who stay back home.
Missions or Mission?
Why drop the “s”? Am I just trying to be hip and follow the latest trend? I hope not. The reason is theological. There is only one God, and that one God has one mission. Not two or three, but one glorious mission to reconcile all things to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20). It is this singular mission that sent Jesus to the cross, and it is this singular mission that we now participate in as his body empowered by his Spirit (John 20:21). It is on the basis of his death and resurrection, that we proclaim the gospel so that the full application of his missional purpose may be realized in the saving of people from every language, tribe, and nation.
Missions can become something we initiate. Mission is something that God initiated before time began. Missions can lose its focus. Mission is directed by God and will be accomplished by his Spirit in his Church (Matthew 16:18). This is probably the one on the list that I’m least concerned about, and undoubtedly, many who participate in “missions” are participating in the Mission of God, but I still think a shift in our language is worth considering.
What is Evangelism?
We shouldn’t be surprised if our distorted definitions of Church and mission contribute to a dysfunctional view of other beliefs and practices. One of those is evangelism. If Church is a weekly event and not so much an identity to be lived out daily, then that same segmented approach will likely be applied to our understanding of evangelism. Could this be one of the reasons that most Christians are not regularly sharing the gospel with those who are lost? If ministers are those super Christians, who take the stage on Sundays, then wouldn’t it make sense to simply invite unbelievers to come hear them, and make seeker-sensitivity the primary aim of our gatherings? If missionaries are just people who cross borders, then as long as I’m giving to “missions” I don’t have to live on mission in my neighborhood, work, school… you get the idea.
What are Worship Leaders?
Okay, so maybe I’m starting to beat a dead horse here, but don’t miss the point. We have come up with all sorts of ways to use and define words that lack a biblical foundation and threaten to cut off a large part of the Body from understanding and embracing their full identity in Christ. That is serious. God is worthy of the worship of every person on the planet, and to continue to use words in ways that blur and cloud out the whole Church’s role in bringing him worship is no small matter.
Embracing the more biblical context for these words really does make a difference. I have personally witnessed this and experienced it in my own family and local church. My encouragement is that we refrain from using language simply because it’s either easy and familiar, or trendy and hip, and that we allow the Scriptures to provide us with the proper context for our words. If we can’t find explicit teaching in the Word of God, at the very least, we should use terms and definitions that don’t compromise the full scope and beauty of divine revelation. Those of us who teach, especially in light of James 3:1, should ask ourselves, what exactly are we communicating by the context we give to these words, and be willing to adapt our language regardless of whether or not it’s convenient. Then someday when the average Christian overhears a friend declaring, “We’re painting the Church this weekend.” it will sound just as odd as if they had said, “We’re painting our family…
How have you witnessed the impact the language with your community?