Ministry of Word and Sacrament?

A question about ministry has concerned me for a while. It regards the concept of ‘Ministry of Word and Sacrament’ which is the primary view of formal ministry in my denomination.

Of all the examples of ministry depicted in the New Testament, how did ministry of word and sacrament emerge as the front runner? And how did the formalised role of ‘worship leader’; leading communal worship, teaching of the congregation and conducting communion, come to be at the centre of leadership in the Christian Community. More importantly, how has this model persisted, to the exclusion of most other ministries?

I’m genuinely confused at the emphasis placed on ministry of word and sacrament. For example what is Sunday service ministry of the word based upon? Is it Paul’s teaching in the hall of Tyrannus? Is it Jesus’ visits to the synagogue? And if so, why not base ministry of the word on other preaching and teaching activities, such as in small groups or in the street?

And with regard to the sacraments of baptism and communion, why are these restricted to being conducted by a specific official of the church? In both cases there is little New Testament evidence to support the restrictions placed on word and sacrament today. And the limited evidence includes exceptions eg. where those set apart for ‘table service’ both preach and baptise.

I also wonder how such a definition of ministry either survived or was the product of the Reformation. How did leadership in the Christian community become generally defined by Sunday pulpit teaching and the conduct of the sacraments? Why does a movement defined by the priesthood of all believers restrict ‘priestly’ activities to the clergy?

Why does this all matter? Well, it’s interesting that leadership in the Christian community is largely focussed on the provision and administration of the Sunday gathering. Church leaders lament that that members are ‘Sunday Christians’ and we regularly preach that they need to be followers of Jesus every day. And yet the entire Christian community and its leadership are centred on the Sunday service. Despite the New Testament emphasis that the people of God, themselves, are the new temple, we seem fixated on recreating Temple worship led by a priestly caste.

One of the impacts of Covid-19 on the church has been to threaten that entire structure. I was at an online seminar recently and the speaker commented on the reaction of most churches to Covid. ‘While the world has been going through an existential crisis churches have been preoccupied with when we can get back to our Sunday services.’ But perhaps it’s not surprising that Christians perceived the loss of Sunday services as a greater existential threat than Covid-19? Because without Sunday worship what are we? And why are we? For centuries we’ve arranged ourselves around providing a weekly event and for a while we couldn’t.

It might be argued that since word and sacrament are so central to Christianity it is right that we are in a hurry to get normal services resumed. But interestingly, I’m not sure that in the New Testament word and sacrament are confined in any way to the context in which they usually take place today. Church history may have formed a view on their proper place, but this can be challenged on biblical grounds.

I wonder if the protestations of churches that they should be allowed to maintain corporate worship during Covid-19 has less to do with the proclamation of the Good News or the Glory of God than to do with the loss of purpose and identity of Christians and their leaders. Because even with churches closed or restricted, the Kingdom of God has not stopped growing in 2020. In fact perhaps the Kingdom has benefited from followers of Jesus being forced to spend more time at home with their families and to take more interest in the wellbeing of neighbours rather than spending so much time in church meetings and preparing for Sundays?

Parish Minister or Parish Manager?

I recently flicked through the Church of Scotland’s in-house magazine ‘Life and Work.’ It was the September 2020 issue and as usual it asked a ‘Big Question’ of a group of parish ministers.

The specific question related to how the respondents had maintained spiritual health during lockdown. And although a breadth of theology was represented, interestingly, similar responses came from the participants.

Most mentioned being able to take more exercise which they combined with reflection or prayer. And most commented that they had been more contemplative some specifically relating this to engaging with Scripture.

I have found a similar result of the restrictions of Covid and it has challenged me about what exactly I was doing before.

I have a friend that moved on from parish ministry to a new form of Christian outreach. When I asked if he would return to the parish, he replied ‘why would I want to go back to managing a charity?’ Charity management is probably not what most people think ministers do. But it’s exactly what most ministers do. And in these days of pressure to improve the performance of our churches, it is to improved management that many ministers turn.

I’ve heard complaints from church workers that most ministers are not good managers. And in many cases that’s probably true. When I trained for ministry, management was barely touched on. If a minister is an experienced, competent, manager it is probably through a previous career.

However early in parish ministry it becomes apparent that a major part of your job will be the management of staff, facilities, resources, volunteers, and organisational structures. To some this may come as a relief from the more ethereal and unquantifiable role of preaching the Gospel. Others will find themselves overwhelmed by a role for which they are neither prepared or skilled. Of course, many churches have skilled participants to share this task. But, in the process of elders being redefined as ‘trustees’ the spiritual leadership of a church has been further, subtly, reshaped.

Yet amidst the Covid misery might we find a glimpse of hope? Parish ministers are re-discovering their core vocation to enjoy the presence of God, in person, in Scripture and in Creation?

If there is renewal for the church it will not come solely or even primarily through better, leaner and more efficient administration. It will surely come through a renewed passion and a rediscovery of the power and beauty of the Scriptures and their Lord.

What’s in a name?

In Scotland we have many different words for rain. They all refer to water falling from the sky but the different terms introduce nuances in the way and speed the water is falling.

Some translations of the New Testament use the word ‘preach’ where the original text recognises more nuance. For example where the NIV says preach the Synoptics often have a verb meaning announce or proclaim (eg. Matt 3.1). But sometimes the word denoted by preaching, in the original text, is the noun ‘Proclamation’ (eg. Matt 12.41). And in the book of Acts ‘preach’ in the English translation can refer to a verb in the original text which we might call ‘good newsing’ or ‘announcing good news’ and is the basis of the word ‘evangelism’ (eg. Acts 8.40). At least once in Acts the NIV says ‘preach fearlessly’ but the original text says ’boldly speak’ (Acts 9.27). And on another occasion in Acts the original language uses ‘spoke the word’ but the NIV says ‘had preached’ (Acts 14.25).

The New Testament also uses a separate word for ‘teach’ alongside preaching. For example in Matt 4.23 we read in the NIV that ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom…’ How are we to understand this verse? Is the teaching separate from the preaching? In the original text there appears to be an extra ‘and’ which might separate the two activities. But the NIV appears to understand the content of the teaching to be the preaching of the Kingdom. Are teaching and preaching then synonymous?

Later in Acts we find the Apostle Paul arguing for Christ in local synagogues, on the Sabbath. For example in Acts 17, the NIV says that Paul ‘reasoned’ in the Thessalonian and Athenian synagogues. Here, the original text uses a word related to dialogue or discuss. How does Paul’s arguing relate to Jesus’ teaching/preaching in synagogues? Then further on in the chapter Paul is said to be ‘preaching’ and the original text uses another word for ‘declare’ or ‘announce’ which we’ve not yet come across.

I am not a serious Greek scholar, by any means. But I hope that this brief examination of some NT references to speaking, in relation to the Gospel, indicate that our quest to define what we mean by preaching is not entirely straightforward. By preaching, we tend to specifically mean a lecture style monologue. But where the NIV uses the word ‘preach’ or variants, the original text appears to indicate public speech to share the Good News. Additionally, sometimes the context for Gospel speech might suggest that teaching, preaching, discussing and arguing could be interchangeable or at least related activities.

We should, therefore, be careful of assuming or imposing back into the text our relatively uniform understanding of preaching.

Some Questions about Preaching

For more than a decade, I’ve been preaching almost every weekend. In preacher terms, that qualifies me as a relative noob. In that time a number of questions have stuck in my mind concerning what I’m doing when I attempt to preach. Here are a few.

  • When does speaking become preaching?
  • What is preaching trying to achieve?
  • Is the intent of speech what defines it as preaching?
  • Is the content of speech what makes it preaching?
  • Is a particular method or approach what defines preaching?
  • Are preaching and teaching synonymous?
  • Does preaching need to be public speech?
  • How large an audience is required to define speaking as preaching?
  • Does preaching need to be spoken words?
  • Is recorded speech preaching?
  • Is recorded speech preaching only if it was originally live, public, speech?
  • Is the role of a public herald the archetype for a preacher?
  • Is ‘street preaching’ the purest form of preaching?
  • Is teaching the Bible in the Christian community preaching?
  • Is teaching the Bible in small groups preaching?
  • Is preaching defined by the person who preaches?
  • Does ordination make the speaker a preacher?
  • Does specific training make the speaker a preacher?
  • Are sermons preaching?
  • Is every part of a sermon preaching?
  • Can written words be preaching?
  • Is the Bible preaching?

What is Preaching?

If you already know the answer to that question, then likely this blog will disappoint you. For the last 15 years I’ve been a Preacher in some capacity. But I’ve always had a nagging question; is this what preaching is meant to be?

I’ve been fortunate to learn from some great Preachers, each with their own style and approach but broadly doing the same thing: standing in a church building, usually on a Sunday morning, presenting a monologue on a Biblical text or Gospel message. Is that Preaching?

I believe in Jesus Christ, I know we need to share the Good News, but I’m not entirely sure we’ve got Preaching right. Join me as I wander in search of some possible answers.