By Dave Kahle
See if this doesn’t sound familiar.
If you want to be considered a “first class” Christian, you must be active and visible in programs organized by the church. And, of course, there is some special, exalted roll in God’s eyes for those full-time professional Christians who are employed by our churches as pastors, ministers, and other church workers. Real ministry, first class ministry, is reserved for ordained, seminary trained specialists.
The rest of us are relegated to more inferior rolls in the unofficial hierarchy.
This deeply held belief ranks Christians in a spectrum of levels. For example, at the very bottom of the spectrum are those Christians who don’t belong to a particular church, and who rarely attend a worship service. Christian culture views these people as the lowest class, teetering on the margins of Christianity. If they don’t attend a worship service, we generally think of them as only nominally Christian, if that.
Next up the ladder are those who only attend Sunday morning services. We think of them as Christians, but somehow just barely. Of course, if you attend Sunday school classes as well as worship services, then you are one step up the spectrum.
Then there is the core group of true Christians who attend twice on Sunday as well as midweek services. They are viewed as the inner circle.
Of course, we move significantly up the ladder with those who are involved in some program of the church beyond the regular gatherings. Teach a Sunday school class, lead worship, be a deacon, organize the prayer chain, etc. and your status takes a step up. Become the leader of one of these programs, and you ‘re a half step ahead of the worker bees. Become an elder or board member, and you are almost at the top.
The top is, of course, reserved for the clergy. Regardless of denomination, the clergy — those seminary trained, paid ministers are, of course, the first class Christians.
That is the view of the Christian culture in the 21st Century North American churches. While it isn’t part of any denomination’s written code that I know of, it is a deeply and broadly held unspoken conviction throughout the institutional church.
This was always a problem for me. For much of my Christian existence, I have longed to become a first class Christian, to take my spiritual growth to its ultimate level. It wasn’t that I have been concerned about what others thought of me, nor did I aspire to “clergy-hood.” Rather, I have sincerely wanted to grow as a Christian, to move closer to God, to become the kind of person He wants me to be. But, since I was not trained in a seminary, nor ordained, first class Christianity was always outside of my reach.
I could never reach my potential as a Christian as long as I was just a layman. I could never really do God’s work, be a minister of His kingdom, unless I was somehow granted a full-time ministry within the church.
For many years, I accepted that belief, and operated within those boundaries. I taught Sunday school classes, chaired the board meetings, served as an elder, even brought sermons in worship services when there was no minister available. But I was continually reminded that I would never quite measure up.
Here was an example. During a time period in which my congregation was between hired ministers, I taught the adult Sunday morning Bible class. The class was dynamic, well attended and became a significant learning experience for everyone. On the new minister’s first day, he introduced himself to me, and thanked me for teaching the adult class, telling me how much he appreciated me standing in for a minister. The message was subtle but clear: now that the A team was on site, the B team was dismissed.
It didn’t make any difference how gifted a teacher I may have been, nor did it matter how dynamic or significant the Bible class was. The first class Christian would assume the responsibility. I had been subtly put in my place.
It wasn’t until I was away from the institutional church for a number of years that I began to see how insidious and damaging this cultural paradigm is. Notice that each of these points of the spectrum all have one thing in common: they measure a Christian’s perceived spiritual maturity by his/her relationship to the institutional church.
In other words, your value to the body of Christ, your self-image of your own place in the kingdom, your inclination to find opportunities to use your gifts — all of these are always defined by your relationship with the institution. It’s how many times you attend “church” and how active you are in the “church” programs that define your spiritual development and your place in ministry in God’s kingdom.
At the heart of this practice is the idea that the institutional church is the definer of your spiritual maturity and commitment. It’s your relationship with the church that determines who you are as a Christian. And it’s that relationship with the institution that shapes your spiritual self-image. Yes, you may be a child of God, but your life’s ministry is of secondary value in the church. Church work is really far more important than “life work.”
You may be wondering, “What’s wrong with this?”
I could list a dozen major problems brought on by this deeply held paradigm. But, the issue that I’m concerned about today is the one that most impacts me personally – the sinful waste of the power of the Holy Spirit in the millions of Christians who view themselves as unable to use their giftedness because of their unconscious acceptance of this paradigm.– the millions of Christians who labor under the hindering idea that they are second-class Christians – inadequate and unworthy of significant Christian growth and accomplishment because of their lack of involvement with the institution.
So they live their lives with their gifts thwarted, their relationship with God hindered through their own image of themselves – an image that is reinforced in thousands of subtle ways by the Christian culture that accepts this belief unquestioningly.
Let’s look at this from a positive perspective by asking this question: Can one be a growing, mature Christian whose life honors God, whose efforts advance the kingdom, who lives close to the center of God’s will for his/her life, and not, in any way, be connected to an institutional church?
More specifically, Can a Christian be gifted to do well at his/her life-work? By this I mean those activities that occupy your day. The work that you do for a living, the PTA meetings you attend, helping your children with homework, cutting the grass, etc. And, Can that set of gifts be just as vital and important to God’s plan and His kingdom as those of the Sunday morning orators? Is your life-work, even if it is not attached to a program of the church, your ministry?
The answer to all these questions is the same. Yes.
God wants every area of His creation to be in voluntary submission to Him. He wants us totally committed to Him. That means that He wants our life-work to be a reflection of Him and His personality as well as our prayer time, our study, and our worship.
The Bible is crammed full of stories and exhortations that indicate that our lives are to be our ministry. That every day, in every aspect of our lives, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend God’s influence to that area.
Here’s just one such example –“salt.”
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
When salt is contained in its jar or shaker it does no good. It’s only when a small amount of salt is placed into the “unsalted” food that it performs its function – to flavor and preserve that into which it is placed.
What a great picture of our ministries. In everything we do, we bring the flavor and favor of Christ to it. We extend the Kingdom and its influence into every sector of human life.
That ministry, to salt human life with our presence, is every Christian’s ministry, the special role that only he/she can play. It is a ministry that is in every way just as, if not more, important than what the professional clergy organizes. The programs and projects of the professional clergy are man-made and man-instituted – constructions conceived and organized by men to give meaning, provide work, and , in many cases, to justify salaries. Your life ministry is appointed by God. It is a special, God-given opportunity that is unique to you.
It is, for some of us, more than enough that we comport ourselves as Christians in the workplace. That is a matter of allowing our day-to-day lives to be directed by the Spirit and shaped by our Christian values. Our work is sacred. Our jobs are sacred. Our jobs are a great part of our ministry. We are ministers of business.
What about you? Have you had similar thoughts, or wrestled with similar ideas?
Dave Kahle is one of the world’s premier sales authorities. He’s presented in 47 states and ten countries, and authored twelve books which have been translated into eight languages and are available in more than 20 countries. In his virtual executive roundtables, he works with Christian executives from around the continent. Visit www.davekahle.com. He and his wife, Coleen, have raised 5 children, 19 foster children and enjoy 13 grandchildren. He splits his time between Grand Rapids, Michigan and Sarasota, Florida.