Ministry in Context: Why There is No One-Size-Fits-All Ministry (Part 2)

ContextWhat kind of ministry do you have? Are you traditional or progressive? Are you a multi-site, a mega-church, a house-church, or an online church? Are you Emergent, neo-monastic, seeker sensitive, or missional? Or maybe you don’t have any clue what kind of church you are. Maybe you’re church is just “church.” But behind every style of ministry is a spoken or unspoken philosophy of ministry. Churches appear on every street corner in some communities, and while they are not all healthy, their differences may be good things. Individually unique churches are not only good for communities; they represent the pattern of the New Testament.

Churches in the New Testament are not all alike. As you read throughout the New Testament, particularly Paul’s journeys and Paul’s letters, you find that he utilized different ministry approaches in different contexts and planted different kinds of churches. There are several key things we notice in the New Testament that help us understand that each church is unique.

First, notice that in the New Testament churches are granted, by God, their own unique mix of spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians chapter 12 explains that God has granted to the church a variety of spiritual gifts, specifically stating that He “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (v. 11b). God has the exact gifting that he wants for an individual and that individual can then contributes the whole body accordingly. There is no universal “gifting allotment,” rather God gives as he wills. This means any church could have a range of spiritual gifts present in varying proportions. Each church, in other words, is going to be somewhat unique.  1 Peter 4:10 commands believers to use their particular gifting to serve the church, making their particular contribution somewhat unique to their church. The gifts, and the degrees to which those gifts are present, are going to be different in my church than they are in your church. Not better, simply different. As people have different gifts, God has handed out different amounts of gifting, and as people themselves are different so churches will be different. Uniqueness is a reality because God set it up that way by gifting people differently.

Secondly, notice that Paul’s practices were all unique to his context. The most famous example of this is probably found in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Here Paul explains his adaptation in ministry, becoming “like a Jew to win the Jews,” or  like those under the law, or like those not having the law, or like the weak in order that he might win them over to the gospel. He states plainly, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” In other words Paul did not believe in a “one-size-fits-all-ministry.” He understood that different contexts required different approaches. Paul understood that how he communicated the gospel depended on who he was communicating to. We can, if we are not careful, make the gospel appear as though it is so bound to our culture as to be irrelevant to other people. D.A. Carson writes:

This is not to say that all cultural elements are morally neutral. Far from it. Every culture has good and bad elements in it…Yet in every culture it is important for the evangelist, church planter, and witnessing Christian to flex as far as possible, so that the gospel will not be made to appear unnecessarily alien at the merely cultural level. (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 122)

“Paul’s practice,” writes Bob Kellemen, “concurred with his specific calling, which Paul described as ‘the field God has assigned to us’ (2 Cor. 10:13)” (Equipping Counselors for Your Church, 94). Paul adapted his missionary method according to missionary field.

We should look too at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 which, according to Tim Keller, “provides the basic formula for doing contextualization” (Center Church, 111). Here we read:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Here Paul recognizes the diversity of cultures. The Jews were seeking signs, the Greeks were obsessed with wisdom. How he approached those two cultures with unchanging, and universally applicable, gospel of Christ meant considering the questions they were asking. In the book of Acts we see Paul utilizing this philosophy. Keller summarizes the variety of approaches in Acts, he writes:

We immediately notice that Paul is able to adapt his message to communicate with a variety of people from very different backgrounds. In Acts 13:13-43, while in Antioch, Paul speaks to an audience of Bible believers – Jews, Gentile proselytes, and “God-fearers”…Then, at Lystra, in acts 14:6-16, Paul addresses a crowd of peasant polytheists, uneducated folk who still believed in the old gods. Next, while visiting Athens, in Acts 7:16-34, Paul speaks to sophisticated pagans who had largely abandoned belief in literal gods, instead holding to a variety of philosophical views…In Acts 20:16-38, at Miletus, we see Paul delivering a farewell sermon to Christian elders, while in Acts 21:27-22:22, in Jerusalem, he speaks to a hostile Jewish mob. Finally in Acts 24-26, in Caesarea, Paul addresses Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa – governing elites with mixed cultural backgrounds and knowledge of both Judaism and paganism. (112)

Paul knew to approach different people differently. His philosophy of ministry adapted to his locale and his audience. Paul sets a good example for us.

The Bible’s methodology should inform our methodology. As we seek to do ministry we must keep in mind our context. Who is around us, who are we serving, who are we seeking to reach? What kinds of questions are they asking? How does the gospel answer that question? Are we connecting to what’s good in their culture? Are we critiquing what’s bad in their culture? All of this is contextualization. It’s what Paul did. It’s what God did in gifting the church uniquely. Is it what we do? There is no “one-size-fits-all” style of ministry. Each church, in each locale, reaching unique people, is going to look unique. As Bob Kellemen says, There is no “one-size-fits-all because we are not franchising a McDonald’s restaurant; we are ministering to people” (59).

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