Ministry in the institutional church is pretty clear cut since it usually has a job description attached to it. Ministry may be pastoring or teaching a Sunday School class. It can also be singing or playing an instrument as a "praise and worship leader" or it can be working in the kitchen to help prepare the fellowship suppers. In the context of the institutional church, it's varied but it's usually also highly structured and it normally takes place in the building where the group meets.
Since ministry is clearly defined, you always know when you do it. However, once you step outside of the institutional system, ministry becomes amorphous and not so easily defined. Since there's no job description, you often don't know when you've done it.
Ministry outside of the religious system is simple but it's also complex. As defined by Dictionary.com, ministry is "the service, functions, or profession of a minister of religion" which is how the institutional church views it. However, the dictionary app on my Nook defines it as "the act of serving" which I believe is a clearer definition of how ministry takes place outside of the institution. Basically, it's the act of serving others and that's a pretty simple definition. However, it becomes complex when we try to determine what this ministry should look like.
Although the outward situations may look the same, everyone's needs are different and that's what makes it complex. If we'll get to know each individual as they struggle in their particular situation, we'll see differences that require different ministry in order to help them. For example, if we probe a bit when trying to help homeless people, we'll discover that there are a variety of reasons why people become homeless so helping each person may require a different solution. Also, needs tend to change so what someone needs today may not be what they need tomorrow.
The word "ministry" tends to have a rather mysterious aura about it but I don't think it was ever meant to be something that is mysterious and that can be done by only a few uniquely qualified individuals. I believe it's best walked out in the every day circumstances of life by loving and serving whomever crosses our path in that given moment. Although some people may require long term assistance, I believe it can also involve touching the life of someone in a simple subtle way. Although we may never see them again what we do in that moment may have a great impact on their lives. It may be as simple as offering a smile and a kind word to a waitress or a cashier who is obviously having a hard day but it may be what they need to turn their day around. Actions like that may not get us a lot of recognition but because for that moment we've offered loving encouragement to someone who needed it, it's become loving ministry.
As we examine loving ministry, I believe we'll see several important characteristics. Unfortunately, much of what we call ministry today is done in order to gain recognition. However, when there's a genuine desire
to help without regard for any personal reward other than the joy
of helping someone else, that ministry will be effective because it touches
the heart of the person in need. Although physical needs may be met,
ministry is only effective when it touches the heart so, the sole motivating factor has to be serving others, not the possibility of any tangible reward.
Loving ministry also involves having a listening heart. If all we have is a listening ear, we may not pick up subtle signals which will lead us to respond appropriately. When we pick up on those subtle signals, we can then offer the best possible help for that particular person. A listening ear hears the words spoken but a listening heart hears the unspoken cry of their heart. People don't always tell us what they're dealing with or they may not even know but, when we have a listening heart, we'll know what is needed or we'll know that we have to probe a bit more in order to effectively help and encourage them.
Sometimes, when I ask someone how they're doing, they'll answer, "okay" but my listening heart lets me know that they're really not okay. So, I'll stop and ask them what's wrong. Sometimes they tell me and sometimes they don't. If they don't, I let it go but hopefully, they've been encouraged that someone recognized their pain and cared enough to ask.
Another characteristic of loving ministry is caring. The hurting person can't just be another notch on our ministry gun as we tally up all of our ministry successes. If all we care about is letting the world know how spiritual we are, we won't always do what's necessary to encourage and assist. Loving and caring for a person can be messy at times, time consuming and often very frustrating but, when we love, we'll go the extra mile. I've found it helpful to try to understand why they behave the way they do by seeing the hurting child in them and, when I can do that, I genuinely love them and patience is no longer a problem. It's automatically there.
I've heard it said that people don't care what we say until they know that we care. That's true because people respond better to true heartfelt ministry that's founded on love rather than on works. Often we may see no immediate change but loving ministry still should be given with no expectation of change. So, the final characteristic that I want to talk about is that loving ministry is ministry that is given with no strings attached. In the end, the person may never do what we want then to do and they may never change but love requires that we give them freedom to make their own decisions and live life however they choose.
We may feel overwhelmed when we see the needs around us but if we'll remember that as children of God, love is our nature and when we follow love, we'll touch the lives of those he brings to us. So, ministry is simply us living our lives and sharing the love we've been given with those who cross our path and that can be done inside of a building or outside of one.