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The Present Future: Releasing God’s People

Today I continue my thoughts on Reggie McNeal’s The Present Future with his third new reality for the twenty-first-century church: “A New Reformation: Releasing God’s People.”

Let’s begin with McNeal’s understanding of the new Reformation. What is new about it? What is different from the first Reformation of the 16th-century?

“The first Reformation was about freeing the church. The new Reformation is about freeing God’s people from the church (the institution). The original Reformation decentralized the church. The new Reformation decentralizes ministry. The former Reformation occurred when clergy were no longer willing to take marching orders for their ministry from the Pope. The current Reformation finds church members no longer willing for clergy to script their personal spiritual ministry journey. The last Reformation moved the church closer to home. The new reformation is moving the church closer to the world. The historic Reformation distinguished Christians from one another. The current Reformation is distinguishing followers of Jesus from religious people.” (p. 43).

Given this new reality, churches today have to stop asking the wrong question. The wrong question is “how do we turn members into ministers?”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like a bad question (it is certainly a common question!) Afterall, one of Luther’s “battle cries of the Reformation” was the priesthood of believers. This was, and remains, a good emphasis. However, the problem is in how this theology has been applied. Because the Reformation maintained a “professional clergy” system, the priesthood of all believers was perhaps too narrowly defined. Specifically, this resulted in “ministry being defined largely in church terms and lay people often being viewed as functionary resources to get church work done.” In other words, clergy (pastors and missionaries) is still in charge and responsible for the “big” stuff (preaching, missions, etc), while the rest of the church is responsible for supporting the institution of the church with their time, prayers, money, talents, etc. In more words, the priesthood of all believers has turned the “laity” into Sunday school teachers, not pastors and missionaries. To say it yet another way, clergy recruits the priesthood of believers to “do things” on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evenings…clergy has not done a good job of releasing the priesthood of believers as missionaries.

Please don’t misunderstand the previous paragraph. I firmly believe in the necessity of the corporate gathering of believers. I also firmly believe in the value of church education, etc. This means that there will always be a need for nursery workers, children’s teachers, youth teachers, etc. I believe that these are legitimate ministries and are in fact missional because they are helping conform people to the image of Jesus Christ. The problem is when “ministry” is limited to activities in the church building. And it is difficult to deny that in our North American context, ministry for most people takes place in the church building on Sundays and Wednesdays. This is too limiting.

There are several reasons why this has occurred. However, McNeal challenges church leaders on this point: “I see some unhealthy caregivers in ministry who are often so needy for approval themselves that they allow their boundaries to be violated by church members, then wind up bitter toward people they are serving. They refuse to release ministry to laypeople because they would lose their own identity. They then complain about how they are overworked, mistreated, and underappreciated. Their sense of entitlement betrays them. Some are controllers who search for status under the guise of being caring servants. Some have entered ministry largely for their own needs and then complain when those needs aren’t being met.” (p. 47)

Here is McNeal’s conclusion: “We have failed to call people out to their true potential as God’s priests in the world.”

Amen. So to correct this, we need to ask the tough question, which we will discuss next time.

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