“Top Down” or “Grassroots” Ministry?

Two basic ways in which leadership in a church can encourage healthy "every member" and "grassroots" ministry are the establishment of committees and small groups

“Broader churches often tend to focus on “every member ministry”–while minimizing the need for robust pastoral ministry–while more stringently Reformed churches tend to focus on the primacy of pastoral ministry–to the minimizing of vibrant congregational life and ministry. Both approaches often appear to be overreactions to perceived deficiencies or abuses in the outworking of the opposite approach.”

 

In the early years of my seminary experience, I quickly began to realize that within the Calvinistic and Reformed Church at large there was something of a divide over whose role it was to carry out ministry in the local church. I would frequently hear members of broader churches saying things like, “The goal of the pastor should be to work himself out of a job” and “People in the church need to learn how to shepherd each other;” but then I would hear members of more stridently Reformed churches say things like, “God only appointed elders and deacons to minister in the church” and “I would be happy if the elders and deacons did all the work in the local church.” Broader churches often tend to focus on “every member ministry”–while minimizing the need for robust pastoral ministry–while more stringently Reformed churches tend to focus on the primacy of pastoral ministry–to the minimizing of vibrant congregational life and ministry. Both approaches often appear to be overreactions to perceived deficiencies or abuses in the outworking of the opposite approach. The question with which we are faced is this: “Should ministry in the local church be done from the ‘top down” or should it be “grassroots?'”

Theological treatments of this subject have largely centered on the exegesis of Ephesians 4:11-12 (here is one very fine example)–especially with regard to the meaning of the phrase, “for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry.” Did God give pastors and teachers to “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” or did he give them to the church to “equip the saints” and “for the work of ministry.” Regardless of what conclusion one reaches as to the meaning of vv. 11-12, a birds eye view of Ephesians 4:11-16  supports a both/and, rather than an either/or, answer to the question. The end of the section speaks of the “body building itself up in love.” This clearly places the emphasis on both the role of pastors/teachers and congregants in the life of the ministry. Ministry in the local church should, in a sense, be both “top down” and “grassroots.” While the use or misuse of Ephesians 4:11-12 is certainly of importance, there is a particularly interesting Old Testament passage that helps shed a great deal of light on the subject–namely, Judges 5:2.

After coming back from gaining victory over Jabin, King of Canaan, and  Sisera,  the commander of his army, Deborah–Israel’s mothering judge–uttered the following opening words of her victory song:

“When leaders lead in Israel, When the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the Lord!”

Deborah had just experienced the fruit of leadership and of willing volunteers giving themselves to the work of the Lord (Judges 4). Deborah took the reins of leadership when Barak was unwilling to do the work of leading God’s people forward in battle, and Jael offered her services to see the victory through. It was not Deborah or Barak who struck the fatal blow to Sisera, thereby gaining ultimate victory against their enemies; it was Jael, the wife of Heber, who drove the tent peg through the temple of Sisera. While some might have a hard time knowing how to jump from physical battles in the Old Testament to the work of ministry (i.e. service) in the church in the New (which is, incidentally, by means of analogous spiritual warfare), the same principle that Deborah laid down applies to both contexts. When leaders lead and the people willingly volunteer themselves in the church, the Lord is praised! There is enormous benefit in a prolonged meditation of this principle and application of it in the context of the local church. When the two aspects of ministry occur in the life of a congregation, the end result is that God gets the glory and praise in the assembly.

God’s appointed leadership for a church–as is clear from the book of Acts and the pastoral epistles (see esp. Acts 20, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus)–is elders and deacons. If elders and deacons attempt to lead but the people are unwilling to volunteer their time, energy, prayers and resources, the church will become nothing more than a preaching post full of complacent, discontented and cold congregants. Additionally, the leadership will be continually frustrated. This does not result in God getting praise from His people. If the congregants seek to volunteer to use their gifts for ministry in the local church, but the leaders don’t lead (or lead poorly), the end result will be confusion or schism–a variety of people vying for control and an opportunity to assert their opinions in a harmful way. Additionally, the congregation will not receive the spiritual care that it needs–as that is the principal reason for which God has ordained elders. This does not result in God getting praise from His people. Of course, the worst possible scenario is that of leaders failing to lead and the people failing to volunteer themselves. In this case, the church is destined to fail. This will certainly not result in God getting praise from His people.

Read More