1. The Crucifixion of Ministry

What is ministry, and why should we crucify it?[1]

The word “ministry” is the English translation of the Greek word diakoneo, which means, in its original sense, to serve as a waiter – bringing food and drink to the table.[2] In our Christian context, this definition of ministry can be the basis of talking about the physical work of the church’s life: financial administration, setting up worship environments, caring for buildings, etc. Often our English word for such ministers is directly adapted from the Greek: deacon.

In the larger picture of the Christian context, however, ministry means more than just serving the physical needs of others. It also encompasses the spiritual and relational lives of others. It means caring for the whole person: body, mind, and soul. These three distinctions of body, mind, and soul are referenced in Scripture (e.g., Matt. 10:28, Mark 12:30, 1 Thess. 5:23) and have been used throughout Christian history to speak of different aspects of human existence.

We will use these terms in this class, but in a general way. For example, we will refer to the “soul” as that aspect of human existence by which we relate spiritually to God and to one another, without attempting to create a complete definition or theology of the soul. We will use the term “body” to refer to that aspect of human existence by which we perceive the world through our five senses, and the term “mind” to refer to that aspect of our existence by which we think and reflect on life – again, without trying to offer a comprehensive definition of each.

Ministry has a holistic meaning when applied to people: it is serving the whole person in body, mind, and soul. This holistic approach is what Jesus had in mind when he told Peter, “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). It includes the physical task of caring for people’s bodies and thus a literal fulfillment in giving people food. Peter fulfilled this aspect of his commission in part by delegating this work to others (Acts 6). He participated in designating seven men to take care of the “tables” that was part of the church’s life together. By his participation in their ordination, Peter was fulfilling his commission to feed Jesus’ sheep – he was making sure that their bodies got fed.

Jesus’ command is also meant in a figurative way. He not only means for Peter to provide people with food, but also for Peter to provide spiritual nourishment to their minds and souls. Peter is to become a “waiter” at the Lord’s table, bringing spiritual food and drink to those whose souls are dying of spiritual starvation and whose minds are broken and in need of healing.

We can take Jesus’ commission to Peter as a definition of the practice of ministry. Practicing ministry means that we – together with Peter and the whole church – feed the sheep of Jesus. We should see this definition in its holistic sense. The practice of ministry means caring for people’s bodies, minds, and souls, the way a waiter at a table cares for the needs of those who are eating a meal.

One trap in ministry is to care only for people’s minds and souls. James warns us about that when he tells us not to tell others to “be warmed and filled” and do nothing for them (James 2:16). The Father has created us in the flesh, to live and experience relationship through touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. To minister to a person is to serve the needs of that person’s body as well as the needs of mind and soul.

At the same time, caring only for people’s bodies without bringing knowledge to their minds or spiritual comfort to their souls is also to neglect the practice of ministry. Paul prayed for the people he ministered to, that they might be given “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they might know Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit better (Eph. 1:17).

An example of this holistic approach to feeding Jesus’ sheep is found in Jesus’ ministry to the world through communion. We will explore this subject more fully in chapter 4, but in the context of defining the practice of ministry, we can take note of two key concepts that Jesus conveys to us through communion.

In giving us the bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, Jesus meant to serve something to our minds and our souls. He is serving to our minds and souls the truth that he is in union with our human nature, that the Son of God has taken flesh and blood into the life he shares with the Father and the Spirit. This knowledge, imparted to our minds by Jesus’ words, is a healing to our souls because it sets free the truth implanted within our souls by the Holy Spirit. That implanted truth is that we are adopted children of the Father – expressed in the reality that the Son, Jesus, is one body and one blood with humanity – and therefore Jesus is our brother, and Jesus’ Father is our Father.

This adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity is of foundational importance to human self-understanding. How does Jesus serve this truth to us? He serves – or ministers – this truth to us in our souls, through his Holy Spirit; to our minds through his words (“this is my blood”, etc.); and to our bodies through the physical touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound of eating food and swallowing a liquid. He ministers to us in body, mind, and soul, leaving no part of our personhood untouched by the reality of who we are in him.

Communion is a microcosm of ministry. Ministry is our ongoing participation in Jesus’ act of serving his sheep the food they need to nourish their whole being: their bodies, minds, and souls. Therefore, to understand what ministry is, we must not only know that we are waiters at the Lord’s table, serving the bread of life, but we must also know what the bread of life is. What is it that Jesus is feeding his sheep? As participants in Jesus’ ministry (his diakonia, his waiting on tables), what food are we serving? What nourishes human life in body, mind, and soul?

To answer this question, we must rephrase it. We must ask, “Who nourishes human life?” It is Jesus. In him our bodies live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28), and by his word our bodies are held together and have their existence (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). It is his mind that our minds were made to mirror (1 Cor. 2:16), and his life with the Father shows us the purpose of our existence (Eph. 1:5).

The practice of ministry is the participation in Jesus’ work of serving himself to his people. Here, again, communion is helpful in visualizing this. At the communion table Jesus says, “this is me, myself, that I am giving to you – my body and my blood.” It is Jesus who is continually, and forever, serving himself to humanity.

As Andrew Purves discusses in The Crucifixion of Ministry, Jesus is the practitioner of ministry.[3] He ministers himself to humanity. At the same time, he graciously chooses to allow us to participate in his serving of himself to the world. In communion, it is people who make the bread and wine, and serve the elements to each other. They are involved in this ministry because Jesus is doing it in them and with them, and because they are in Jesus and with him as he ministers. Through the ministry of the church as a whole, and through each of us as individual ministers, Jesus conveys the reality of himself into the body, mind, and soul of his people.

It is here that we begin to see how ministry might be crucified in addition to being practiced. In the fallenness of our nature, there is a perpetual danger in Jesus’ gracious decision to include us in his giving of himself to humanity. Although we are all in union with Jesus, we are also distinct from him – we still have freedom to think and act. And some – perhaps many – of our thoughts and actions will be sinful or perhaps just wrong.

In order for us to participate effectively in Jesus’ ministering of himself to humanity, some aspects of our thoughts and actions will have to change. We have to be healed. We have to have our minds changed. We have to do new works with our bodies, works that reflect the reality of who Jesus is and not who we have imagined him to be in our darkened minds.

This is the crucifixion of our ministries, so that the ministry of Jesus may become dominant in what we do. In the same way that Jesus’ crucifixion put to death our sinful, human nature, so also the crucifixion of our ministries puts to death the sinful nature of our attempts to serve Jesus and serve others in ways that are not right.

This is the process that Purves talks about. He suggests that the crucifixion of our ministries cannot take place until we have been engaged in ministry for several years, perhaps even as many as 7-14 years.[4] In our human nature, we try to do ministry in the way we think it ought to be done before we become ready to let Jesus put our ministries to death and resurrect them in the power of his resurrection.

Specific events and pressing needs can accelerate and/or change this process. Depending on your circumstances, you may experience this crucifixion stage of ministry sooner or later than the time frame Purves describes. You will have to let Jesus speak to your heart about where you are in your ministry. If you have just started in ministry, or are just beginning to prepare for it, some of what Purves talks about in terms of the crucifixion of ministry may not speak to where you are right now. A deep sense of failure and even disillusionment must set in as we realize that we are inadequate for the task – and then we begin to see what it means that this is Jesus’ ministry and not our own.

Ministry, like many human endeavors, usually begins on a spiritual mountain-top, with high expectations that often last for several years. If you have not yet passed through that beginning stage, you may not understand what the crucifixion of ministry means. But you can still learn from the experience of others and prepare now for the “valleys of death” that are certainly coming in your future ministry. There are highs, and there are lows.

For those who have been at this for a while, you probably have a clear sense of what Purves is talking about. In every ministry there are moments of crisis in which we realize this simple truth: even if none of our past actions has been exactly wrong, none of them have been exactly right, either. In such moments the Holy Spirit gives us a clear picture of ourselves and we see just how much we have been trying to do something for Jesus instead of simply living in the joy of who Jesus is for us.

This is the sort of crisis that Peter was experiencing that day on the beach with the risen Jesus when he received his commission to feed Jesus’ sheep (John 21). Not long before that, Peter had sworn that he would follow Jesus to the death (John 13:37) and then turned around and swore that he never knew the man (John 18:17). By the time Peter sits on the beach with Jesus, his swearing days are over. He’s ready to simply say to Jesus, “Lord, you know” (John 21:15). Peter is ready to say “this isn’t about my faith, my work, my love, or my ministry – it’s about who you are, Jesus, and what you know about the Father who loves me and whose love lives in me.”

At that point, Peter is ready to do Jesus’ ministry, rather than his own misguided efforts. That’s why Jesus gives him his commission then, because Peter’s own “ministry” has been crucified and he is ready to participate in what Jesus is doing.

Who is Jesus?

We have defined the practice of ministry as our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work of serving his people. Ministry is not so much a task that we perform but instead is the work of Jesus in which we are participants. Wherever we are in ministry, we can see from the apostles (like Peter) and the experience of others (like Purves) that the crisis of recognizing the end of our work, and the beginning of our participation in Jesus’ work, is a crucifixion experience for our human nature.

We now need to think even more specifically about what it means for us to participate in Jesus’ service to his people. If Jesus is serving himself to humanity – and we are participating in that with him – then who is Jesus? Is he a great teacher who came to show us the way to heaven, or is he the way to heaven? Did Jesus 1) open the door to the presence of God, a door we need to walk through on our own power, or 2) did he, even before we knew it, bring to us the presence of God?

The answers to questions such as these, about Jesus’ identity and nature, are foundational to what we do in ministry. If I believe that Jesus is serving himself to humanity as a moral teacher, then I will focus on instructing people in how to understand and obey Jesus’ commands. But if I believe that Jesus is serving himself to humanity as the one invites them into the life of the Trinity, then I will focus on encouraging people to believe this truth about themselves.

All our decisions about what and how to preach, how to baptize, how to serve communion, how to evangelize, disciple, and organize the administrative structures of our churches, will be determined by who we believe Jesus is. In the church, where we proclaim Christ in order to encourage faith in him, we can explain our understanding of Jesus’ identity and leave it to the listeners to believe or disbelieve as the Holy Spirit works in their lives.

Here, we need to define how the teacher’s understanding interacts with the students’ understanding about who Jesus is. We are writing not to tell you what to believe, but to help you examine the beliefs you already hold and determine whether you want to change those beliefs in any way and/or make any changes to the practices that flow from them.

This does not mean that we refuse to take a stand on what we believe to be correct doctrine (orthodoxy), correct practice (orthopraxy), and correct emotional response (orthopathy). But your success is not determined by whether you end up agreeing with us. Your success is determined by whether you interact honestly with the material and think about it at a level deep enough for you to intelligently accept or reject any change in your ministry that the material suggests.

Let’s answer the question of who Jesus is. This will lay the foundation for you to understand why we advocate the ministry practices that we do, and should get you to thinking about your own understanding of Jesus – both in how you agree and (perhaps) disagree with what we write here.

When we speak of Jesus serving himself to humanity, and of our participation in that ministry, here is what we have in mind:

  1. He is the second person of the Trinity, revealed to us as “the Son” and “the Word” (John 1:1, 18). As God the Son, he has eternally existed in perfect communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Father created humanity through the Son and by the Spirit, so humanity could be adopted into the joyful life of the Trinity as his children (Eph. 1:5).
  3. This adoption was formally accomplished by the Son (the Creator) becoming human like us (part of the creation) and lifting our humanity into the divine life he shares with the Father and the Spirit (Hebrews 2:10-19).
  4. Jesus is unique among all beings – fully God and fully human. Like the Father and the Holy Spirit, he is fully God – but unlike them he is also fully human. Like all of us, Jesus is fully human – but unlike all of us he is also fully God.
  5. As the unique one who is both God and human, Jesus ministers the life of God to humanity and the life of humanity to God (1 Timothy 2:5).
  6. Since all humanity and all creation were created in and through him, Jesus’ existence in union with creation means the reconciliation of all things to the Father – including all humanity – and thus the reversal of Adam’s fall and the restoration of human nature to union with the Trinity (Col. 1:15-20; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). All have been reconciled, but not all are currently living according to the what Jesus has declared them to be.
  7. When Jesus died he took the whole human race down with him in his death, and when he was resurrected he took the whole human race up with him in his resurrection, and when he ascended to the Father, he took humanity into the life of the Trinity with him (2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:6). All people have been made for relationship with God, but not all are currently participating in that relationship in the way that God intends.

Jesus does far more than simply “show us the way to heaven.” He is the way, he is our life (John 14:6). When Jesus ministers himself to humanity, he is not simply telling humanity how to live, or even telling us what to do to earn our place in the heavenly life of God as children of the Father. Instead, Jesus is saying to us “I am with you in your humanity and you are with me in my divinity. You are my brothers and sisters; because of me you are children of my Father.”

At the most basic level, this means that our participation in Jesus’ ministry is not telling people what they need to do in order to get themselves into God’s good graces. Rather, participation in Jesus’ ministry is telling people that he has already gotten them into God’s good graces. We participate in the ministry of the Holy Spirit when we encourage them to believe this truth about themselves.

We are not ministering to encourage people to make themselves into children of the Father through their own faith. We are ministering to people in order to encourage them to believe that Jesus has already made them into children of the Father through his own faithfulness, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As Purves says, “Our response of faith, repentance and obedience is the Spirit-led consequence of Christ having seized hold of us, not the condition for it.”[5]

In the light of Jesus as the union of God and humanity, Karl Barth describes ministry in this way:

On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him [or her] on this assumption. If the other person knows that already, then we have to strengthen him in that knowledge. If he does not know it yet, or no longer knows it, our business is to transmit this knowledge to him. On the basis of the knowledge of the humanity of God no other attitude to any kind of fellow man is possible. It is identical with the practical acknowledgement of his human rights and his human dignity. To deny it to him would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother and God as Father.[6]

These thoughts expressed by Barth will help guide our understanding of ministry. Whenever we minister, and whatever kind of ministry we engage in, we have one of two goals in mind:

  1. If we are working with people who already know that they are children of the Father, in Jesus, through the Spirit, then we seek to strengthen them in that truth.
  2. If we are working with people who do not know that they are children of God, then we seek to transmit that truth to them.

This is what Jesus is doing. Jesus has accomplished his mission to adopt humanity as children of the Father (Heb. 2:13), and as a part of that mission he has saved the lost (Rom. 5:18; Col. 1:20). Jesus has poured out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17) in order that we might know that he is in his Father, and he is in us, and we are in him (John 14:20). By believing this, we live into the truth that we are children of the Father (John 1:12; 20:31). Whenever we come to preach, evangelize, counsel, or any of the other aspects of ministry, we are not bringing Jesus to a place where he is absent. We are coming to people whom Jesus has laid hold of, and we are participating with Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, in helping them to understand whose they really are (the Father’s) and who is working in their lives (Jesus, through the Spirit).

This is what Purves means when he asks the question “What is he [Jesus] doing here, today, now, in the specific ministerial context that engages me?”[7] In other words, we know – based on the nature of who Jesus is as the union of God and humanity – that Jesus is already present and at work through his Spirit in whatever ministry task we find ourselves engaged in. Our role, as participants in Jesus’ ministry, is to participate with Jesus and his Spirit in helping others see that Christ is already involved in their lives, and to help them trust in who Christ is for them.

A Trinitarian conclusion

This gives us our final definition of ministry:

our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work, through his Holy Spirit, to give himself to humanity so that we will know, in body, mind, and soul, who we are in Jesus as children of the Father.

Like waiters bringing the best wine, the finest rib roast, and the freshest fruit to those who have been dying of hunger and thirst (Isaiah 25:6-8), we share with Jesus in his work to heal the bodies, minds, and souls of his beloved brothers and sisters. This ministry is something we practice, the way a doctor practices medicine, and it is something in which we can always grow in our skill and ability to do, the way a golfer practices his swing.

Our focus on who Jesus is has led us to a Trinitarian definition of ministry. It’s not about a solitary God in the sky whom we are serving. Ministry is about a joyful, vibrant, living dance – the relational dance of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – a dance into which Jesus brings the whole human race.

As Stephen Seamands explains, the Trinity is the ground and grammar of all ministry (indeed, of all existence) and is foundational to all we do in ministry.[8] Our souls, our minds, our bodies, and thus our feelings, our words, and our actions, all need to be conformed to the image of God as Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Many parts of our Christian culture have become almost heretically unitarian in thinking about God. The 20th century theologian Karl Rahner said:

We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.[9]

By Jesus’ grace, a renaissance of Trinitarian thinking is taking place. This is vital to the way we do ministry. If we are going to participate in Jesus’ work, through his Spirit, to give himself to humanity as the one who unites humanity to the Father, then we must start with, as our foundational thinking about God, the fact that he is triune: the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Father.

Over the next nine chapters we will look at major aspects of the church’s ministry: preaching, baptism, communion, evangelism, worship, discipleship, pastoral care, weddings, funerals, and church administration.

In each case we will start by defining those ministries in the light of who Jesus is, in the light of the Trinity, and in the light of the Trinitarian shape of human existence and ministry. Then, in keeping with Barth’s definition of ministry, we will examine how to practice these ministries towards those who already know the truth of their adoption and how to practice those ministries towards those who do not yet know they are adopted children of the Father. Finally, we will look at what ways of practicing these ministries are most effective in encouraging others to know and believe, in body, mind and soul, the truth about themselves as the Father’s children.

Since this series is designed to speak to brand new ministers and seasoned veterans, there will be some material that may seem basic and introductory if you have been engaged in ministry for a few years. If you are relatively new to ministry, you may find some parts of the conversation abstract if you have yet to experience the situations they address.

Since we are each in different places – both in terms of experience and life context – take each chapter as an opportunity to begin thinking about the specifics of your own ministry. Some information will apply to you and some will not. Take the information that does apply and begin talking with our Father in heaven about it. See where Jesus might be leading you, through his Spirit, to change your thinking about, and your practice of, ministry in your specific experience. This series will, Jesus willing, be a jumping-off point for your thought and prayer about your ministry.

[1] Most chapters in this series were originally written by Jonathan Stepp as part of his work for Grace Communion Seminary, and have been edited by Michael Morrison. We have not attempted to mark which parts originated with Jonathan, but we here acknowledge his significant role in creating this material. The title of this chapter refers to the book by Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).

[2] H.W. Beyer, “Diakoneo,” pp. 152-155 in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translator and editor, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).

[3] Purves, Crucifixion, 11.

[4] Ibid., 22-26.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 53.

[7] Purves, Crucifixion, 59.

[8] Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 11-12.

[9] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, translated by Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 10-11.