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  • Principles Related to a Strategy for Ministry (Peter Fitch)

    The following is an excerpt from Chapter One, “Theological Perspectives on Suffering,” from an unpublished doctoral dissertation entitled Using a Study on Suffering to Develop Spiritual Growth, by Peter Fitch. It was prepared in partial fulfillment of the D.Min. degree for the School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in 1998. The study on suffering mentioned in the title is a devotional workbook called “Learning to Suffer Well” which blends Evangelical and Charismatic approaches to problems related to suffering, and which integrates significant classical quotations from fathers and mothers of church history in an attempt to familiarize modern Christians with some of the depth of their heritage. It was also prepared by Peter Fitch in partial fulfillment of this program.

     

    The Practical Problem

    Up to this point I have been examining a philosophical question. Now it is time to focus on a very practical problem: how would God like us to go about helping Him in the task of alleviating suffering? This might not be so hard, except that various flavours of Christianity teach very different things. Some groups wish to work through political means in order to help the social conditions of marginalized peoples. Some campaign for their vision of a righteous society. Some try to feed and clothe those in need. Some try to share a Christian message, hoping that an experience of rebirth will help. Some try to pray away evil influences. Some, in various ways, put all their energy into building churches. Some teach the Bible to people. What are we to do? How may God best be served?

    The answer is not easy, and any or all of the things mentioned may have to be done from time to time (some must be), but I would like to focus on two approaches in particular. This is because of their widespread influence, and also because they are both formative in my own life and in the context of my ministry. I am a professor at a Christian university in New Brunswick, Canada, and a pastor of a Vineyard church which is closely connected to the university community. The university was founded in the early 1970’s as an interdenominational school by Canadian Evangelical Anglicans. Over time, the life of the university community became influenced by various aspects of Charismatic renewal. So I live and minister in overlapping communities that share significant influences from the contemporary Evangelical and Charismatic worlds. I have come to believe that a mature approach to a good deal of personal suffering may be found by an integration of these approaches.

    Evangelicals are known for their strong emphasis upon Biblical knowledge and teaching, their missionary impetus, and their excellence in developing character through teaching about the fruit of the Spirit. In terms of weaknesses, Evangelicals have sometimes demonstrated a Pharisaic spirit toward other believers if they evidenced less Biblical knowledge. They have also at times failed to understand (for some this is due to theological conviction), that God desires to heal and deliver people today in the same ways that He did in the Bible.

    Charismatics, deeply influenced by Pentecostalism, have great strengths in terms of enthusiastic, heart-felt worship, successful evangelism, and an emphasis upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to release healing into specific situations. Their weaknesses relate to the important role that subjective experience sometimes plays in terms of establishing religious authority, and the extremes which can follow from emphasizing experience over doctrine. Sadly, Charismatics are at times capable of displaying pride toward those who have not shared their experiences, or of insisting that others do. This can cause division. Also, there are instances where extreme Charismatic teaching has spoken of God as though He is a dispenser of health and wealth benefits, similar to a gumball machine dispensing treats. Either explicitly or implicitly, the notion has developed that if we come to Him with enough faith, He will respond with whatever we ask (making our desires the final authority). But problems arise when someone is not healed, or circumstances are not miraculously changed. Many people have been deeply wounded by the sense of defeat and the confusion that has resulted from this kind of disappointment.

    In terms of responding to suffering, Evangelicals and Charismatics each have strengths to impart and weaknesses to avoid. Many Evangelicals, having emphasized the fruit of the Spirit more than the gifts of the Spirit, have endured suffering with great courage. They have learned how to improve character through trials. We can all benefit from their example. But God, in providing the gifts of the Spirit, has given us the means to fight against suffering in some of its forms. It is a serious weakness not to attempt to appropriate all that He has given.

    Many Charismatics, on the other hand, having emphasized the gifts more than the fruit of the Spirit, have seen wonderful demonstrations of God’s power to heal and to deliver from evil. They have known about these blessings and have actively sought them. But some have fallen into error because they did not develop an adequate theology of suffering. Those who teach that healing is always available from God as long as one has enough faith, place a terrible burden of oppression and guilt on those who are forced to the conclusion that their faith was not strong enough to save loved ones from disease or death or other hardships.

    What is needed is a synthesis which recognizes the importance of both the fruit and the gifts. When we suffer, we are right to fight against the suffering with prayer and all of the power which God releases into the Church. However, while we are fighting, no matter how long the battle rages, we are right to understand that God works through suffering to produce the qualities of Christlikeness in His children. Therefore, we can be content in any condition (Phil 4:12,13), even as we devote all of the effort of our heart to changing it.

     

    The Willingness of God to Heal

    Perhaps the desired synthesis is evident in a short passage at the beginning of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In this passage, Second Corinthians 1:3-7, comfort is the dominant word. It appears (once as a noun, nine times as a verb) ten times in the five verses. It is something which flows from God who is “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.” In other words, it is the best salve in the world: it is the very nature of the Father Himself flowing into the open cuts and bruises of His children as they carry the Name of Jesus into a darkened and hostile world. Paul says that suffering and comfort both overflow to him. And he says that both are for the Corinthians: if he suffers it is because he is reaching out with the Gospel and being persecuted; if he is comforted, it is so that he can continue to minister to them and teach them to follow in his footsteps. Real life is not found in the decadence and pride of their culture; it is found in a life of service to and friendship with God, a path of hardship and comfort which they too have embraced.

    It is at this point that we can begin to see why Second Corinthians 1:3-7 may provide an answer to our quest to find a synthesis between Evangelical and Charismatic points of view. Paul is content in suffering because he knows that the comfort of God is flowing His way, and that it is also flowing to his converts when they suffer. But what is this comfort? The word, which is used so frequently, is in every case a form of the Greek word parakalew (parakaleô). In its noun form it designates “one called alongside,” or “counselor.” It was used of an advocate or counsel for the defense in a legal context, and it is the word which Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26).

    Whether or not Paul was aware of this usage, it seems helpful for us to amplify his meaning in this way. The comfort which represents the very nature of the Father (v.3), and which overflows to the apostles as they are afflicted, equipping them to bring healing to others (v.4), is the presence of God brought near by the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul does not mind the weight of affliction as it presses down upon him; he knows that if evil pushes him down, God will lift him up. In the light of this promise, any condition will do. As he faces the worst, He receives the best. Every affliction brings the presence of God nearer.

    This is the secret. When suffering comes to the children of God, so does the Holy Spirit. He flows to the deepest places of our pain. He comes to release grace: the sweetness and beauty and strength of His unmerited presence. He develops fruit, and we suffer well as we bear up under difficulties. He grants gifts, and we suffer well as we fight against the sources of our pain. He forms in us the character of Jesus, and we suffer well.

    At times He releases both Evangelical fruit and Charismatic power. At times it is one and not the other. But He comes, and He begins the task of putting things right in us. Our job is to cooperate with Him and to trust. Perhaps we will see an end to suffering in a moment; perhaps we will not see it completely vanquished until we reach heaven. But He will be there. We are to receive what He has for us right now, and to keep pressing in for tomorrow’s blessing as well.[1]

     

    A Strategy For Ministry

    The concept of a God who loves in freedom, and who shapes sons and daughters to follow Him, as well as the notion of a God whose presence comes to the place of suffering, establishes the foundation for providing a strategy of ministry for Christian congregations. We are to release people into the world who have a heart to bring healing and reconciliation with God in whatever ways they can, and who are confident that ministry is best carried out in His strength rather than their own. I believe that the following ideas can help to clarify what this might look like.

    First of all, knowing God is better than knowing about God (Jer. 9:23, 24). I agree with Richard Neuhaus’ comment that “…what is needed is not the training of religious technicians but the formation of spiritual leaders.”[2] Ministry flows from people who know Jesus, who are being transformed by Him, who are led by His Spirit, and who accept His call to carry His Kingdom rule into a lost and hurting world. In other words, ministry flows from the presence of God through people who worship Him in spirit and truth. As Paul said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20).

    Ray Anderson has also said this well:

    He [Jesus] did not leave with them a manual with techniques and skills gained through equipping. Rather, he promised them the empowerment of the Spirit. This is what began at Pentecost and what continues to this very day as the Spirit’s ministry through Jesus for the sake of the church.[3]

     

    Secondly, it is essential that all of God’s people understand that they have the mandate to minister. Greg Ogden has this to say about the true role of ministers:

    The role of a pastor is “to help men and women practice any ministry to which they are called.” The New Reformation returns pastors to their proper role in relationship to God’s people: equipping them for ministry. The raison d’être of pastors is to die to self so that members of the body can come alive to their ministry. So the rediscovered role of pastors in our day is not to do ministry for those who are passive recipients of their care, but to empower the body through the avenues of the pastors’ individual gifts and to call forth every person’s potential for ministry.[4]

     

    These comments by Charles Van Engen are also valuable. He says,

    The success or failure of the ordained person’s work and ministry will be judged only according to the degree to which the Church becomes the missionary people of God.[5]

     

    And:

     

    Thus one criterion of the effectiveness of missionary leadership should be whether the whole membership of the church is growing in grace and in the knowledge of God toward “mature adulthood.” Where this is happening the leadership is effective. . . . In missionary churches the effectiveness of the leaders is not measured by what they do or do not accomplish, but by how the people of God are equipped, enabled, organized, and inspired to participate in God’s mission in the world.[6]

     

    This means that church exists not only for the faithful who have managed to find a haven behind its walls. It exists also as an active mission force which will influence surrounding society through families and jobs and recreation and various forms of rescue work. In this way it become a “missionary church” or congregation because all of the people are released to minister.

    Thirdly, the nature of its ministry is compassionate and therapeutic. Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13). As Ed Piorek has said, quoting contemporary prophetic figure, Paul Cain, “When the prodigals see the Father’s love in the Father’s house, they will come home.”[7] More than this, the Father’s love ought to be shining in the faces of those who minister in His name. This means that people need to see the members of the church mission force as people that love them unreservedly, without moral judgments about the root causes of their problems. Correction and moral instruction, if they are to come, must follow genuine care. We must demonstrate more interest in the person being ministered to than in what he or she has done. This does not mean that biblical standards are to be ignored; rather, it is a matter of putting first things first.

    Greg Ogden strikes a good balance. He encourages the “new reformation” churches that he writes about to be therapeutic communities that accept people as

    they are, in all of their brokenness and need, and yet he is not content if people are not

    exhorted to change. He writes,

    Bruce Larsen years ago chided pastors when he said that the local bar often communicates a more accepting atmosphere than the church. In the midst of a casualty-creating world, the church needs to be a place where we come with wounds exposed and hear loud and clear, “Grace dispensed here.”[8]

     

    But he also says:

     

    Grace is balanced by truth. A therapeutic community accepts people as they are, but loves them enough not to allow them to remain that way. Love without teeth is sentimentality. We do no one a favor by allowing him to hurt himself in his sin.[9]

     

    A fourth aspect of a strategy for ministry is to train people to think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets. Bounded sets create clear boundaries between members and non-members of groups; generally upon the basis of shared beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. The problem with bounded sets, besides an unattractive air of exclusivity, is that it is impossible to tell whether someone has a heart commitment to the exterior means of inclusion. The behaviour may be right, but the heart may be far away. In a centered set, the boundaries of group belief and behaviour are not as important as the direction of the heart. Someone may look very different from the rest of the group, but if the heart is pointed toward the center, the desired goal, his or her involvement in the group is deeply valued.

    Paul G. Hiebert explains centered sets in an article entitled, “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories”:

    It is created by defining a center, and the relationship of things to that center. Some things may be far from the center but they are moving towards the center, therefore, they are part of the centered set. On the other hand, some objects may be near the center but are moving away from it, so they are not a part of the set. The set is made up of all objects moving towards the center.[10]

     

    This means that is possible to have many active members of a missionary congregation who do not yet look particularly “holy.” People are accepted and valued while they are still in process, and equipped to help others before they have worked through all of their own major problems.

    A fifth aspect relates to “ministering from below.” In spite of what they might desire, people do not need a hero as much as they need a friend. Jesus, by incarnation, by embracing flesh, gave the true model for ministry. This is well described by Ray Anderson:

    The humanity of God as expressed through Jesus Christ makes God an ally of those who are bereft of love, who are betrayed, and who are stricken and oppressed. Wherever Jesus was found, there the humanity of God was found on the same side as humanity under distress. As James Torrance has eloquently said, “Christ does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then going away, to leave us to get better by obeying his instructions–as an ordinary doctor might. No, He becomes the patient! He assumes that very humanity which is in need of redemption, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of perfect obedience for us, by dying and rising again, our humanity is healed in him.”[11]

     

    In other words, the best ministry is carried out by those who come close to those in need, unafraid to share their sufferings and distress. It is a lesser form by far to merely sprinkle people with words, water, or crumbs of food. Incarnational ministry touches the ground and stays the night (in whatever ways are appropriate) with the one who suffers.

    Sixth, the best qualification for ministry is not education, training, highly developed morality, or even a high level of spiritual anointing; rather, it is a knowledge of weakness. The other qualities are desirable, but it is only a knowledge of weakness that allows God’s power to break into situations with the atmosphere and dynamism of His Kingdom. This is clearly taught by Paul who spoke of “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7) and said,

    Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

     

    This is one of the reasons why young believers are sometimes more effective in helping others than those who have been developing faith for some time. Faith in God can be obscured by faith in past experiences or in a sense of one’s own skills, anointing, or accomplishments. For older believers, a rich experience of failure is generally a necessary prerequisite for true ministry. Otherwise, people forget to depend upon God and believe that they can do His work in their own strength. The blessing behind this idea, though, is that “everyone gets to play.”[12] There is not a certain level of training or holiness which must be accomplished or developed before we can start ministering to others.

    Seventh: however, skill in ministry can be enhanced by experience and training. The best way for this to occur is “on the job.” Jesus taught large groups, and modeled acts of ministry before large groups, but the best learning in the Gospels seems to take place in debriefing sessions with the disciples after an event in which they were involved. Questions are asked and answered along dusty roads and around campfires. In this way, cognitive growth is not separated from real life. It is never a mere abstraction.

    Perhaps Matthew’s Great Commission passage may be understood as a model of training: “…as you go, therefore, make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all that I commanded you, and see, I Myself am with you all the days until the end of the age” (Mt. 28:19-20, my translation). It is in the going, in the give and take of concrete attempts at ministering, that disciples are trained and ultimately released to do more. And, of course, if they are to keep all the commands that the first disciples received, they themselves are to learn to share the works of Jesus as well as the words (Mt. 10).

    Jurgen Moltmann who also understands the need for a theology of suffering, and who marvels at the grace which is at times displayed in the faces of handicapped and disfigured people,[13] affirms this clearly:

    Jesus does not bring the kingdom of God only in words that waken faith; he also brings it in the form of healings which restore health. God’s Spirit is a living energy that interpenetrates the bodies of men and women and drives out the germs of death.[14]

     

    Eighth, effective ministry can best be carried out when God’s particular intentions are discerned. Jesus said He could only do what He saw His Father doing (Jn. 5:19). This is key. Spiritual ministry is led by the Spirit. God may want to heal someone’s body, but there may be prior steps involved. Perhaps sins need to be confessed, or people forgiven, or darkness renounced. Perhaps the healing for this day is a word of encouragement or a hug. When God so directs, the best ministry is accomplished by caring silence.

    Ninth, it is appropriate to expect that God will give whatever spiritual gifts are necessary for ministry at the right time. People should be encouraged to wait expectantly upon God in different situations, and to follow the impulses that they sense in their inner being (within the bounds of Scripture and common sense). It is possible, as some have taught, to spell faith r-i-s-k. This is not to say, however, that emotional intensity and religious compulsion are positive helps. In fact, they often obscure discernment.

    Proper ministry always cares for the dignity of the person. People need to be loved. They do not need to be berated for a perceived lack of faith; neither do they need to be manipulated. It is right to ask God for help, but results are in His hands. A good test of ministry is whether or not people are strengthened, encouraged, or comforted by what has transpired (1 Cor. 14:3).

    A tenth principle relates to the necessity of community. No one person can do all that needs to be done. People often need rebuilding in many aspects of life and it is a false form of spirituality that does not interest itself in practical needs. So, there are many ways to care, and a multiplicity of giftings are required. Beyond this, however, there is the witness of the Spirit of God more completely expressed in community (Mt. 18:19-20), and there is the promise that the best sign of the kingdom will be revealed by the disciples’ love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35). In fact, Jesus said that His and the Father’s presence would be drawn to communities that learned how to live in love[15] (Jn. 14:23).

    This is also one of the reasons why so much effective ministry, not to mention effective training, is carried on through small groups of believers. The presence of God is demonstrated in the quality of serving relationships, and the atmosphere of the kingdom (righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit–Rom. 14:17), often has an immediate healing effect upon hurting hearts.

    Together, these ten ideas inform a strategy for ministering to those who are hurting and suffering. People who know God, and their own inability to help, are able to carry His presence into difficult situations. This is best done as groups or teams, full of the love and mercy of Jesus, find ways to “join”, become one with, people who are experiencing pain. It is the presence of God through the compassion of the ministering people that brings help. At times miracles of healing may take place; at other times, miracles of encouragement, patience and trust may be released. The key is to follow the Spirit’s leading.

     

    Conclusion

    It is an exciting vision: complete congregations confident that a powerful, loving, and righteous God has freely chosen to bring comfort to hurting people and build them into His sons and daughters, mobilized to go out in His strength and bring healing and reconciliation. Their best training will happen “as they go”, and working together in loving communities they will allow the atmosphere of the kingdom to pervade their life in such a way that those with whom they come in contact will be dramatically affected. They will be concerned for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the people that they meet, and it will be their joy to see what happens as a result of the presence of God in their midst.

    And He will be there. Circumstances will weave together in remarkable ways. Churches will honour and respect different denominations and different traditions. Prophetic words, often received from more than one person, will inspire hope, and physical and emotional healings will take place. The power of evil over people’s lives will be broken. Sins will be forgiven. People will sense the presence of Christ in worship services and small group meetings, but also in restaurants and along city streets. Practical acts of love will continue to startle people out of complacency. Older, negative paradigms about the boredom associated with religion will give way to joyous new understandings. More and more people will give their lives to Christ and begin to serve Him. Justice will begin to be reflected through societal structures. There will be peace.

    For me, this no longer seems idealistic. I live in a community where everything that I have mentioned has begun to happen. The seeds are there. It is true that they might be missed if someone did not know where to look, but I believe that it is also true that they are growing. It is my hope and dream that they will reach fruition and strongly influence our small area. And then, perhaps, our town might itself be a signpost for the kingdom.

    Suffering made us cry out. It forced us to search for answers. For most of us it had a part to play in bringing us to God. Now, as we have begun to learn about His kindness and compassion, the suffering of others spurs us on. It is time for a mobilized church to become an active mission force, to be the hands and feet of God in bringing mercy to those in need. This paper is an attempt to provide a theology of ministry related to suffering. I hope that it will also add insight and motivation to Christian leaders who would like more understanding about how to train and release people as ministers of healing in their own contexts.

     

    [1] Substantial portions of the last two sections are taken from the preface to “Learning to Suffer Well.”

    [2] Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom For Ministry, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 219.

    [3] Ray S. Anderson, God So Loved: A Theology For Ministry Formation, pre-publication copy of The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders For God’s People (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 143.

    [4] Greg Ogden, The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1990), 97.

    [5] Charles Van Engen, God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church, foreword by Arthur F. Glasser (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 156.

    [6] Ibid., 176.

    [7] Brian Doerksen, Father’s House, printed material accompanying sound recording, produced by Paul Janz and Brian Doerksen, recorded and mixed by Patrick Glover at Mission Control Studios, Mission, B.C., 1994.

    [8] Ogden, New Reformation, 104.

    [9] Ibid., 106.

    [10] Paul G. Hiebert, “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” Gospel In Context, Vol. 1, No. 4 (October, 1978), 28.

    [11] Anderson, Soul of Ministry, 99.

    [12] Carol Wimber, John Wimber Memorial Service, quoting one of John Wimber’s principles in eulogy (November 21, 1997), Mercy/Vineyard Publishing, 1998.

    [13] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 193.

    [14] Ibid., 190.

    [15] The context of this passage, particularly John 13-15, indicates that an essential part of obeying Jesus’ teaching relates to the command to love one another.