By Frank Decker
If you are a pastor, perhaps you remember how people began treating you differently when your identity changed from “student” to “minister.” You began to notice that the types of parties to which you were invited were tamer and the jokes people told in your presence had a more stringent filter. And, the moment you were introduced as “Reverend” certain masks seemed to appear. I remember the very week, over 30 years ago, when that unwanted barrier arose, and have been wrestling with that tension ever since. Over the years there have been many times when I have wondered how different my witness would have been had I pursued the secular vocation of my choosing and served Jesus in that context.
I suspect most people in mainstream Christianity view ordination and pastoral ministry as the apex of the ministerial calling: that thing that one does if he or she is “called to the ministry.” And yet, ironically, the “minister” label is an aid to the spread of the gospel only in places where Jesus has already been made known. In other words, missionally speaking, the title of “Christian minister” is, in my opinion, rarely helpful and often a distraction. In fact, when I travel to frontier mission contexts, primarily in Asia, there are times when I’ve found it more helpful to identify myself (truthfully) as a “cross-cultural trainer” or an “administrator.” On one visit to some fish farms, I was even advised by my Muslim host to indicate that I was a “tilapia taster.”
This begs the question, has the professionalization of ministry facilitated this irony, this dilemma?
Sometimes I find myself envying folks like my friend Jay, who seems freer to move into peoples’ lives without the identity of “minister.” Jay and his wife are preparing to serve through The Mission Society in the Muslim world. His profession? He owns a heating and air conditioning repair company.
According to Jay, “Our missionary training pointed us towards visiting a mosque, which then led to invitations by our new Muslim friends to attend several of their community events.” As Jay began to relate his story, I thought of the contrast between his incarnational approach of going out and visiting people in their mosque and the image of a church committee sitting around a table trying to figure out how to get more people to attend their worship services.
Jay explains how his vocation is a great asset. “It was definitely my work that presented the best opportunity to know Muslim families. The first Muslim man I met was Abu. When I was in his house repairing his furnace, I started asking questions about Islam. I was asking because I genuinely wanted to learn more about his faith and his Pakistani upbringing. We had a great conversation, and before it was over I asked him if non-Muslims were allowed to visit his mosque. He eagerly offered an invitation for me to visit there. I was then introduced to the leader who is in charge of the mosque. We quickly became friends. Finally, one of the men suggested that I pin a stack of my business cards to the bulletin board in the mosque. This has provided for me an introduction to many Muslim homes, pre-approved by the imam. And many constructive conversations about faith and the Lord Jesus have resulted.”
So, am I advocating that if the Lord is calling you to ordained ministry, you should desert that call, or that we should ditch the idea of the ordained ministry altogether? By no means. And I don’t think I missed God’s calling by following the path of ordination, either. However, what I am saying is this: As the Body of Christ, let’s own the fact that after 2,000 years of church history, about a quarter of the world’s population has yet to even hear the gospel. In response, let’s behave as if we really do believe in the priesthood of all believers, viewing the professional clergy not as perched at the summit of ministry, but rather as vital equippers living in the base camp, enabling those who can find their way into peoples’ homes and lives because they can fix their furnaces better than they can preach a sermon.
After all, the light of Jesus is sometimes more likely to advance into new places clothed in overalls or a nurse’s uniform rather than a black robe.