Over the years, there is a conversation I’ve had in a few different forms. It happened when I was a parish minister and now it comes in a slightly different manner as I work with people considering full-time ministry.
The parish ministry version goes something like this:
Person: “We are looking for a new church to join.”
Me: “Well, there are a lot of good churches around here, what exactly are you looking for?”
Person: “We are looking for a larger church with a really good kids’ and youth ministry and small group network with lots of ministry happening.”
If I know this is a mature, ministry-minded person and push back a little to ask about joining a smaller church and investing in building their ministry, the response is often, “Yes, but we also have kids, and we want them to have a really good church experience”.
The “considering full-time ministry version” goes something like this:
Person: “I am looking to be involved in full-time ministry.”
Me: “Wow, that’s great. Is there any particular type of ministry that you have in mind?”
Person: “Yes, I’d like to be involved in a church that has a decent-sized ministry team.”
Again, if I push back a little and ask why not serve in a smaller, under-resourced church that has potential to grow, with willing people, the response is, “Yes, but I’m not so well suited to work on my own – I need a ministry team around me”.
Now, I don’t want to be too judgemental. Some people may really need to be in a bigger church with a good ministry heritage to be able to serve most effectively, and some kids might really need to have a large cohort of peers to help them develop and grow in their own faith. But… can we not at least seriously consider being a builder not an inheritor?
What I mean is, it’s a wonderful thing to inherit the work of others with all its fruit but how much difference will we really make? Could we not make a bigger difference by going somewhere that does not have “all the ministry bells and whistles” and partner with the saints there to help build the ministry?
We might come from a church with a great music ministry, or men’s and women’s ministry, and so look for a new church with the same thriving ministries. But, with our past experience, wouldn’t it be great to go somewhere without these and seek to help develop them? What an encouragement that might be in our new church.
When it comes to our children and their faith development it is scary when we select a new church, trying to work out what will help them most. But not all kids thrive in a large, stratified church youth ministry. They can get lost in the crowd or be corralled into an age and gender-based small group that is not a good fit.
By contrast, kids in a smaller church youth ministry have the opportunity to really get to know all the others across the age group and gender divide, and possibly more easily become involved in some sort of ministry as they grow older.
As for joining a church with a “decent-sized ministry team”, I fear that is confusing paid ministers with volunteer church members/ministers. Surely, all the saints share in the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12)? Yes, volunteers all have other jobs to keep them busy but they, too, bring their gifts and energy to building God’s church. Together, paid and volunteer, we are the ministry team.
Finally, by inheriting the ministry of a good/larger church we may miss the blessing of seeing the Lord build his church as he uses us (and our children) in doing a fine work in a less-resourced context!
I love those words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, where he talks about his “building”, along with the work of Apollos who followed him, but then the joy of seeing the Lord make it grow:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
I also love Paul’s joy at seeing what the Lord did through his ministry with the Thessalonians when he writes:
We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).
I know, I know: making choices about church membership and ministry are complex, and “builder” and “inheritor” are not mutually exclusive categories. Yet, as we think about our choices and motives, can we at least consider being a builder, not an inheritor?