“We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more more spiritual death we will leave in our wake.”
These are the first words of John Piper in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry. God has used these words in profound ways, not just in changing my thinking but really the course of my life. It was in a staff meeting one morning that I read this chapter and spoke of the dangers of a professionalized ministry, and the consequence of that meeting was a sovereign shift that directed me to seminary and now to the local church where I serve.
I am increasingly concerned, however, about the state of the church, and specifically how professionalism has caused her to suffer. Every minister ought to do everything he can to be skilled in his craft, competent in his work, and unwavering in his commitment to fulfill his calling. And yet, what I am finding today is that when well-trained, gifted men of God excel in their ministry, those who are blessed by them experience two things: a sense of “I could never do that” and a sense of “I only want him to do that.”
The first response reveals the distance created between the pulpit and the pew, and the second response reveals preferential culture that has been created where God’s truth has added value when it is communicated from this particular person (professional). Here is what to be the consequence of these realities:
1. Professionalism tends to foster consumerism. If people do not believe that the ministry you do can be replicated in the lives of others, instead of participating in the ministry, the will passively benefit as consumers of that ministry. Their commendation of your work is not imitation but merely admiration. Furthermore, if someone fills in for a professional who is, well, not as professional, church consumers will not be as pleased with the “goods and services” they are receiving. They feel like the deserve better than this.
2. Professionalism creates a culture of comfort and settled tradition. Because the distance between the pulpit and pew is so great, there is a sense of release and reservation that settles in so that the only thing believers need to do is be comfortable in their consumerism. Narrow the gap by calling for laborers and rock the boat by calling for change, and the people will rise up and defend their comfort zones. Whether intended or unintended, when people come to get and to feed upon others, or their spiritual life is overwhelming marked by passivity and absence of change, there is a culture that has, to a considerable degree, been created by professionalism.
The impact of professionalism in the local church cannot be overstated. It has perpetuated stagnation and relegated the work of ministry to the spiritual elites with credentials to prove it. Where people’s comfort governs the life of a church, there will not be gospel movement, and where there is a culture of consumerism, there will be no embrace of God’s mission. And the tragic testament is that such a church will neither grow nor reproduce but live a slow, painful death. And for the majority of my tenure as a minister (10 years), this is much of what I have witnessed in churches in North America.
Turning the Corner on Professionalism
The way to fix a church suffering with professionalism is not to do away with the gifted, well-trained, and experienced ministers but channel their ministry in a different way. This is the genius of the early church leaders. They understood their calling not merely as ministers but equippers as well. Their end goal was to have apprentices who can duplicate their life, work, and calling so that as the church continues to grow and multiply, there are new laborers and competent leaders for the mission.
Instead of fostering consumerism, we should foster gospel movement. At the center of consumerism is one’s personal preferences and comforts. At the center of gospel movement is the mission of God and one’s “whatever it takes” passion to be a part in it. Indicators of an ingrown church of consumers will be evidenced in the commentary of the people. What bothers them? What do they want or need? The answer will almost invariably focus on some goods or services of the church and a resistance to change (getting of their comfort zone). There is no movement because you can’t mobilize consumers.
But what if the “professionals” choose to create a culture of disciple-making (apprentices)? By that, I mean the focus of their ministry is a steady stream of people through the pipeline of discovery, development, and delegation to mobilize more people for mission. Change replaces comfort as the default disposition and active participation becomes the expectation rather than passive consumption. This means the gap analysis and distance between the pulpit and pew is narrowed so that people are no longer saying “I can never do that” but are saying “I’m called to do that.”
Churches that embrace the mission of God reject the maintenance mentality that people’s comfort zones are never to be violated. Moreover, the reject the cultural Christianity of consumerism that says the best way to live the Christian life is by reaping what others have sown. No, what ministers-as-equippers are unsatisfied in having is a polished “product” that does not transform people and leads to being of kingdom use and missional advance. They know that Christ has promised to build His church, and they also know that Christ has called them to build into men and women a radical call to give themselves for the advance of the church.
In summary, here is how I break it down:
professional –> consumerism (consumers) –> comfort (culture) –> maintenance (movement)
minister-as-equipper/disciple-maker –> apprentices/disciples (doers) –> change (culture) –> mission (movement)
When a church is full of people who are bothered by the fact that more people are not on mission rather than more people not appreciate their personal preferences, there is a shift taking place. When there are new personalities communicating the same truths of God’s Word and are given opportunity to exercise their gifts in gospel ministry, movement is taking place. And when the directional efforts of congregational life are resourced in joyful sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, the walls of comfort have been crushed by the Spirit’s indwelling passion to glorify Christ as witnesses in word and deed.