THE CHRISTIAN QUOTATION OF THE DAY
Christ, our Light

CQOD Special Archive

Amateur Ministry

by Robert MacColl Adams


         "Amateur" used to mean a person who did something for the love of it. The word comes to us from the Latin amare, "to love," by way of the French where secondary meanings have not yet abolished the primary one. An amateur athlete used to be one who played a game for the love of it; an amateur musician was one who loved the making of music. Amateurs at ball-batting or trumpet blowing may not always achieve high quality, but they understand that a thing worth doing at all is worth doing even badly, and they knew from experience that there is a pleasure in doing something oneself which is qualitatively different from the pleasure of observing the performance of others.
         Nowadays, the secondary or extended meanings of "amateur" dominate the use of the word: it mostly means dabbler, because so few care enough about an avocation to throw themselves into it; or novice, because it is common for a period of unpaid probation to precede serious professional performance; or duffer, because of the feeling that one who is really good at something will be earning his living at it. The modern world has almost ceased to believe in love as an effectual motive for action. But I hope that, in writing for Christians, I can speak of being motivated by love apart from any hope of personal advantage, and be taken seriously. Nobody who has experienced the love of God can believe that it works only one way. Real love is something like light; and it is a very black body indeed which reflects none of the light that falls on it.
         When I speak of a Christian as an "amateur" minister, therefore, I mean one who ministers for love—whether of the ministry, or of those to whom it is given, or of Him in whose name it is offered. I do not mean one who ministers for a little while each week, or some weeks, as the mood takes him; nor one who is preparing himself for a career by a period of unpaid service; nor one who cares so little for his ministry that he is not concerned to raise its quality. To such dabblers or novices or duffers I wish to say nothing which might encourage them in the delusion that they are "amateurs" at all. Nor are they, in any but the most superficial sense, "ministers". I am using the word "ministry" to denote the kinds of service called diakonèo (to wait on tables or to run errands) from the Greek New Testament. Such "ministries" were more often rewarded with crusts, kicks, and curses than with titles, tithes, and tiaras. But they were necessary functions, however menial they were. I think we could get along without our Mayor for quite a spell: indeed, I am not conscious of a need for him at all; but if the garbage-men quit for a couple of weeks, our city would be uninhabitable.
         Perhaps I need to say that I do not mean "amateur" as merely the opposite of "professional". There is something (though not, I think, very much) to be said for our practice of paying our "ministers", and it has been said, often and variously. I think many advocates of the institution have confused permission with recommendation, gifts with salaries, ruling with service, and money with honor. On the other hand, the payment of clergymen is advocated by some of the best Christians I know, and I cannot say that I know they are wrong. Also, I know by personal experience and observation that a man can be paid for services and yet give them for another and sufficient reason. Anyone who has served in combat forces in wartime knows that the money he was paid was not the reason why he served. We must not let the fact that mercenaries exist make us forget that patriots exist, too. The topic of financial support is really out of place in a discussion of motivation, except for one thing: the effect which the practice has had on the payers. We have forgotten the distinction between two very different things: one is the legitimate aiding of a man who has been called to a ministry which his own finances and personal exertions will not support. and our paying of a man to carry out the ministries to which we are called.
         The ministries I am talking about include nurturing the young, instructing the ignorant, supporting the feeble, visiting the lonely, nursing the sick, encouraging the faint-hearted, feeding the hungry, exhorting the lazy, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, befriending the outcast, cherishing the hateful, and carrying the message of the love of God to His enemies. Where, I wonder, did we ever get the idea that this old world is so nearly a bower of roses that one zealous Christian in the professional ministry can discharge all of such duties as are the share of, say, five hundred Christians? Where did we get the idea that the Lord will be satisfied with anything less than the whole of that man's life, and of ours, too? Did God put our ministries before us in order that they be done, or in that we might do them? Of course, the work is worth doing: but the Holy Spirit gives me my work in order that by willingly doing the will of God, I may become a mature son (not merely a child) of God,
         Can the love of Christ move a Christian to fruitful, effective, full-time, unpaid service to those who belong to Him? I have no hesitation in answering, Yes, it can, and it must. St. Paul wrote, "The very spring of our actions is the love of Christ. We look at it this way: if one died for all men, then in a sense, they all died; and his purpose in dying for them is that their lives should now be no longer lived for themselves but for Him who died and rose again for them." There is the motive. Can anyone doubt that St. Paul's ministry was fruitful—in wisdom, in Christ-like character, in testimony to the power of the Spirit of Christ—or effective—in conversions, in churches planted, in men raised up to carry on the work? Yet St. Paul spent long hours working with his hands to support himself. He served Christ, therefore, as an "amateur". Dare we say he was not really a "full time" worker? Or was he not really "unpaid"?
         The fact that St. Paul occasionally received gifts may make his example equivocal, though I don't think it does. In any case, his decision and his advice are clear enough. To the Christian elders of Ephesus he said, "You know well enough that these hands of mine have provided for my own needs and for those of my companions. In everything I have shown you that by such hard work we must help the weak". To his Thessalonian converts he wrote, "Our struggles, and hard work, my brothers, must be still fresh in your minds. Day and night we worked, so that our preaching of the Gospel to you might not cost you a penny." I think he knew our Lord's warning about hireling shepherds; but whether he did or not, he knew about hirelings. Jesus Christ didn't invent hirelings, He observed them, and he spoke of their nature to others who had observed them. He reminded us all of what we should have known already, that a servant who serves because of the money he receives can not, in fact, be trusted. Our ignoring this fact of human nature is a striking example of another observation of our Lord's, that the children of this world are wiser (in their way) than the children of light.
         Are people really so different now that what was so unthinkable to the Lord and to His earliest (and closest) followers should have become the only way in which His church can continue to exist? I don't believe it. On the contrary, I feel sure that the Holy Spirit can call a man who earns his living by "secular" employment into effective, full-time service to Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Holy Spirit never calls anyone to ineffective or part time service. What He permits because of the hardness of our hearts is far short of His real desire for us.
         A man whom the Spirit calls to service will have to consider the work by which he earns his living as a part of his Christian ministry, not as a means to an unrelated end. He will have to be a good employee, a respectable professional man, an honest dealer, or a reliable craftsman, if his Lord is not to be dishonored. He will undoubtedly have to sacrifice some opportunities for profit or advancement, especially if he is to acquire the training necessary for some kinds of ministry. He may hardly know the meaning of "spare time": he can hardly have a favorite hobby or diversion, or take a fraternal affiliation seriously, or be as well read as he might like; and doubtless his bridge game and his golf game will suffer. But, as Roger Williams said, "When the Holy Spirit calls a man, he will go, though all the world stand in his way." And if such a man's life shows the influence of Christ, the world cannot explain it away by saying that he lives as he does because he is paid to do so. Oh, there will be other explanations offered; but they may not be quite so satisfactory as that one.
         It is very likely beyond the powers of any but the most gifted of such "amateur ministers" to serve a church as our churches like to be served by their "ministers"; but this task is actually beyond anyone's powers, part-time or full time, unpaid, paid, or over-paid. It seems at least possible that our churches might be better served by several amateurs than by one "full-timer". But there can be no doubt that a group of Christians—whether this is two roommates studying the Bible together, or a family at its prayers, or all the Lord's people in Austin, Perth Amboy, or Timbuktu—will be best served if they all minister, each as he has received a gift. We are all one body in Christ, differing in grace and gifts; but all the gifts are given by the same Spirit to the various members for the same purpose, the completion and perfection of the one Body. Every member of Christ has his peculiar function, to which no other is called. We are not interchangeable parts; and when one member fails, the whole Body is weakened. The lack of any general sense of unity and inter-dependence among Christians today is the inevitable result of generations of near-perfect paralysis of the Body of Christ; and the professional ministry, which is so marked a feature of contemporary, occidental Christianity, is only a symptom of the real trouble. Professionalism and the limitation of the Christian ministry to a few, which is its unavoidable accompaniment, are not the murderers of the amateur ministry: they are only the seeds which have grown from a suicide's grave.
         The spectacle of a "church" in which one man speaks several times each week, while a hundred other men never speak at all: in which one man prays, and a hundred other men only listen to him pray: in which one man calls on every bereaved family, and a hundred other men never call on any: is, I think, a spectacle to make the angels weep. But we are not angels, and we have difficulty in not thinking of it as normal, even inevitable, even desirable. When we do examine it critically, we usually blame the professional ministry and the ecclesiastical system for the moribund state of the [putative] Body of Christ. But it is we, the ordinary Christians whose love has grown cold and who have lost all desire to serve, teach, help, honor, or love one another, who have created the system. To the question whether it be right to pay a man for certain Christian services, there may be two answers; to the question whether I can refuse to render services merely because I am not paid for them, there can be only one.
         We hire a man to preach to us, teach us, admonish us (as though a man could really admonish his employer), shepherd us, give our alms for us, pray on our behalf, study in our stead, and evangelize our friends for us. We expect this one man to exercise all the gifts which the Holy Spirit has distributed among some dozens or hundreds of us according to His wisdom. We suppose that our paying a few dollars to one of our brethren justifies us in despising the leadings of the Spirit of Grace. I say that we have come dangerously close to thinking that the gift of the Holy Spirit can be purchased for money; and you know where that idea belongs.
         I don't see how any Christian can read the New Testament and still go on insisting that his relationship to other Christians makes no demands on him, or that his Lord has no call on a life which He has bought and paid for. Do you really think you are at liberty to "go second-class" if you wish? Do you truly expect to be "carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease"? Do you possibly intend to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and offer, for His approval, deeds done by hands other than yours? If so, you need to read the New Testament again, for the Holy Spirit has not yet taught you anything out of it: you have not yet found your place in the Body of Christ. If you do not find it, we shall all surely suffer; but you will suffer most of all, because you will be refusing to grow into the person God intends for you to be. For such a refusal, there can be no remedy, now or ever. God offers us His very best; and, because He loves us, He will not let us be satisfied with less.
        May 1960

 

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Last updated: 06/05/09