The decline of the western church in the 21st Century (spiritually, numerically and financially), has forced many to review the models of ministry on which our churches are based. So, for example, a church which may have employed a minister or pastor to lead the people, may now be forced to consider a different model in order to keep the doors open.

In the Anglican Church in Tasmania, one of the features in rural communities has been the adoption of a model of ordaining local people to act as non-stipendiary clergy. But, whilst in some cases, this approach has helped stem the decline, there is little evidence to suggest that the change has actually helped our churches grow.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. New models of ministry are often hampered by the restraints of a church’s traditions. As a consequence, fiddling at the edges is hardly likely to produce any great result. Indeed, it may make the situation worse.

It would seem to me that the solution to the problem is to not just tinker with a model within the restraints of a denomination or tradition, but rather to go back to basics – to put aside tradition, and look at the problem from a Biblical perspective. And if our struggling churches did that, I would expect them to look very different.

Now one of the things about the structure of the early church was that it varied from place to place depending upon the need. In general, there were overseers, elders and deacons, but the model of ministry was not necessarily the same in every place. Furthermore the kind of ministry that was provided tended to be focused on the local congregation, rather than on the wants and expectations of the wider community.

So, for example, when the Apostles had a conflict between needing time for teaching, and providing pastoral care to widows, they appointed seven deacons to look after the widows within the church (Acts 6:1-7). They adapted a structure to meet the local need, and maintained as a priority the needs of the local church community.

And if those principles were applied to the modern church, we could well have different styles of ministry practiced in each of our congregations. A very different scenario than is practiced or maintained in many of our churches today.

For any review of ministry to be worthwhile, then, any traditions or denominational baggage needs to be set aside, and the situation looked at anew.

As a consequence it may be helpful for churches to consider the following two questions:

1. What kind of ministry within a congregation is required?
Current thinking often seems to assume ministry is required to lead worship services, to administer communion, to provide pastoral care, to conduct weddings, funerals, baptism, etc. etc. Yet not all of those may be appropriate to every congregation. Indeed weddings and funerals may well represent the expectations of the wider community, rather than the needs of the people of faith.

2. How do we appoint our leaders?
Now this might seem an odd question. Except that one of the problems associated with giving someone a title (through ordination, or whatever), is that there may be expectations that go with a title, that go beyond the reason for them being commissioned As a consequence, it may be better to license people for particular functions.

Now I can hear the outcry already. We’re Anglicans! We’re Baptists! We’re Catholics! etc. etc. But surely the point is that this is God’s church that is in decline, and it is incumbent upon as Christians to be actively involved in the growth of his church. We are supposed to be Christians who believe in a God that looks after our needs (not necessarily our wants).

Church growth will only happen if God is at the centre of our enterprise. And things only go wrong when we leave God out of the loop, and put tradition first.

Posted: 29th October 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis