Recently I had an unusual experience at one of our church’s early morning prayer meetings. Things were proceeding uneventfully, when one of the men started interceding for our church members who are currently unemployed.
“Lord, help them find good jobs that match their skillset and provide well for their families,” my friend prayed. I’ve faced the challenges of unemployment myself several times over the years, so I gladly joined him in this prayer.
But then something strange happened. I sensed the Holy Spirit prompting me to go in a seemingly different direction.
Suddenly I saw a collage of believers in numerous American congregations. Politely sitting in their pews and seats, they watched attentively as worship teams and preachers performed on the stage.
There was absolutely nothing unusual about this scene. It looked like just a standard Sunday in most churches. Nevertheless, I felt a holy anger come over me as I considered how very wrong this picture was.
You see, the Christians in this picture were spiritually unemployed! They were content to be an audience, but God had called them to be an army.
Friend, please hear me. I love the church. Yet we’ve accepted as normal something that is entirely abnormal when compared to Biblical church life.
According to Ephesians 4:11-12, the role of church leaders is not to DO all the ministry, but rather to equip other believers to function in their calling. There was no spectator Christianity in the early church! When people came to a meeting of believers, they each were instructed to bring their spiritual gifts with them (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Paul explained his radical vision that the body of Christ be “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
Don’t miss this. In the body of Christ, everyone is meant to have a distinct role. We’re all called to do our share of the work so the body can grow stronger. There is no place for “unemployment”!
Good Stewards of God’s Gifts
Paul wasn’t the only one who taught the importance of all believers finding and fulfilling their unique function in Christ’s body. Peter said it this way:
“Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).
Notice the two components of Peter’s message here: 1. Everyone has been given spiritual gifts, not just the church leaders. 2. We must take the next step and use those gifts to serve others.
If we’re honest, this should present a great challenge to our “business as usual” church life. If, indeed, God has given spiritual gifts to every believer, do we all have clarity about what our gifts are? And what about the next step: Is everyone actively using their gifts to serve in practical ways?
If you doubt me on this, I encourage you to read Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16. When the master saw people “standing idle in the marketplace,” what did he do? He gave them a job!
Your Role in the Orchestra
I once heard a story that helps to illustrate this.
One day little Susie returned from school full of excitement. “Mommy, mommy, I made the school orchestra!”
“That’s wonderful, Susie,” her mother replied. “What instrument are you going to play?”
Susie’s joyful expression quickly changed. “They didn’t tell me what my instrument would be!” she admitted glumly.
Friend, doesn’t this story seem ludicrous? Yet it’s tragically similar to the experience of many Christians today. They’re glad to be a part of the body of Christ (the orchestra), but they often don’t have a clue what instrument they’re called to play.
Just as there would be discord in an orchestra where no one knew their role, there will never be much power in a church when only a few designated ministry leaders are exercising their gifts.
Let’s Attack Underemployment Too
Perhaps you’re saying at this point, “But I’m not unemployed in my church role! I have been serving for years as a greeter, usher, or parking lot attendant.” I need to be careful here, for a servant’s heart is the very foundation for all ministry. If you are truly called to serve in one of those service roles, that’s fantastic!
However, let me share a story about my friend Alex that will illustrate the problem of underemployment.
Several years ago, Alex graduated with an advanced computer science degree from a prestigious university. He was immediately offered lucrative jobs in his chosen field, but Alex let fear sidetrack him. Today he is working in the meat department at Publix, making slightly more than minimum wage.
You see, although Alex isn’t exactly unemployed, he certainly is underemployed. The dictionary definition of underemployment is “to take a job that does not fully use one’s skills or abilities.”
How does this apply to our ministries in God’s kingdom? While there’s nothing at all wrong with taking menial roles, some people are like Alex – failing to utilize all the skills and abilities God has given them. As Peter challenged us in the verse cited above, to remain underemployed often means failing to be a good steward of our gifts.
A Common Misunderstanding
A pastor friend who read the first draft of this blog raised an extremely important point: For many of us, our primary ministry is not within church meetings. Instead, our calling is outside the church walls, with a nonprofit organization, in the marketplace, or in our neighborhood. And thankfully, some believers are faithfully serving as the Lord’s ambassadors in media, education, entertainment, sports, business, or government.
Although I’ve spent plenty of time in the church world, some of my most effective ministry occurred when I was a Christian attorney. My decision to become an attorney was sparked by an experience I had during college while conducting a Bible study within the local jail. I realized that most of the inmates were unlikely to visit our churches, so we had to meet them where they are.
As I’ve pondered the various ways God uses people outside of the church, I’ve come up with a long list of examples among my Christian friends:
- Several are serving the Lord within the public schools. Not an easy job!
- One friend runs a home for homeless veterans.
- Another is a leader in his local Meals on Wheels organization.
- Several friends have worked for ministries that help young women escape from sex trafficking.
- One man leads a rescue mission that offers lodging, food, Bible studies, and vocational training to several hundred people each year.
- A long-time friend has a ministry that digs water wells in impoverished areas of Africa.
- A retired pastoral couple now provides much-needed Christian counseling and coaching to families experiencing conflict.
- There are several outstanding Christian organizations that offer adoption services and personal support to women facing unwanted pregnancies.
- Various friends have worked for humanitarian organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse or the BGEA Rapid Response Team.
- The owner of high-end restaurants started a ministry to train homeless people for successful restaurant careers.
- A number of my friends have written outstanding fiction or nonfiction books that point people to a deeper relationship with Christ.
I bet you could easily come up with your own list of believers who have found powerful ministry opportunities outside the walls of their church. We must never forget how Jesus’ Great Commission begins: “GO into ALL the world…” (Mark 16:15).
Gifts Gone Cold
Many of my baby boomer friends have already been Christians for 40 or 50 years. If you interview them, they enthusiastically recount the powerful ways God used them in the early days of their walk with Christ.
However, there’s a big problem. While they’re quick to give a glowing report of the “good old days,” it soon becomes apparent that their spiritual gifts and ministries have now become dormant. Yes, they have received “irrevocable” gifts and callings (Romans 11:29), but there is no longer much evidence.
Even the early church faced this danger. Paul told his protégé, Timothy, “Rekindle the gift of God that is in you” (2 Timothy 1:6). Instead of “rekindle,” other translations say to “stir up” our gifts or “fan them into flame.” Just like the coals on a charcoal fire, our gifts will inevitably grow cold if not frequently stoked and rekindled.
So, let me ask: What’s the condition of your gifts and calling today? Do you know your assigned role in God’s great orchestra? Are you exercising your gifts with excellence – or even exercising them at all?
It has never been more urgent to recognize and rekindle our spiritual gifts. It’s time to end unemployment and underemployment in the church!