Ministry in the Middle Space

One reason I wrote my new book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City is that I believe there is a common misunderstanding of the relationship between doctrine and ministry.

Let me illustrate. A puzzling but common sight today is that many churches share the same doctrinal foundations, yet go about ministry in radically different ways. For example, consider two Presbyterian churches that both subscribe wholeheartedly to the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms. The first church uses contemporary music and very little discernible liturgy, employs lay ministers to lead meetings and ministries as well as pastors, and deploys the latest marketing and media strategies. The second church operates in almost the opposite way, using classical music, traditional liturgy, and emphasis on the ordained clergy. They also vigorously criticize the methods of the other church as a betrayal of the Reformed faith, and perhaps even of the gospel itself.

The same doctrinal foundations seem to be producing two completely different sets of ministry expressions. How can that be? And is it even a bad thing? Because the answers are not obvious, we draw two common but wrong inferences.

One mistake is to conclude that the first church is not holding to its doctrinal foundation firmly enough, and therefore it has “gone contemporary.” Traditional churches often say, “While they may subscribe to the Confession with their mouths, they don’t really believe it thoroughly.” The problem is that the foundational doctrinal statements (in this case the Westminster standards) do not speak directly to these matters of method and style. You could argue that the Confession implies this or that style of ministry, but proving the presence of these subtexts and implications is hard. There’s no reason to conclude that the contemporary-styled church must necessarily be untrue to the doctrine to which it subscribes just because of the style of its practices.

The opposite mistake is to conclude that the second church is traditional in style because it is holding firmly—possibly too firmly, depending on your point of view—to its doctrinal foundation. More innovative churches often assume, “they are backward and narrow because their doctrine and theology makes them so.” The dangerous conclusion is that, in order to do ministry that “really engages our culture today,” we need to re-engineer classic evangelical doctrine, such as substitutionary atonement, forensic justification, inerrancy, the holiness and wrath of God, and the necessity of ordained ministry. So some church leaders—who don’t like the form these ministries take—think the answer is to de-emphasize or even rework the traditional doctrines these ministries defend.

I believe neither side is seeing the true cause of the differences—the “hinge” between doctrinal foundation and ministry expression.

Rick Lints, to whom I owe much of my thinking on this topic, explains in The Fabric of Theologythat once we settle our doctrinal foundations, we still haven’t answered the question of how exactly we are going to communicate and live out our doctrine in our place and time. He observes, for example, that churches have different readings of what in a culture should be affirmed and what should be criticized.

So let’s look at the question of the use of contemporary music forms. Wherein lies the difference? The Westminster standards don’t speak to timbre, rhythm, volume, melodic line, and tempo of music. They may speak indirectly, but certainly not directly, to emotional expressiveness. The divide is not over how the Confession is read, but over how the culture is read. One church sees contemporary popular culture as toxic (or perhaps as very thin and shallow) and therefore inappropriate for use in worship. The other church sees contemporary culture in more positive, or at least neutral, ways. So two churches with the same basic doctrine, but different attitudes toward the surrounding culture, will choose different ministry expressions to communicate that doctrine.

It’s not just readings of culture that shape a church’s ministry expression. Churches also have different understandings of Christian tradition—how much from the past should be kept, how much discarded, and why. They also have different understandings of the role of reason and persuasion—in comparison with the roles of emotion and community—in our preaching, evangelism, and discipleship. None of these questions are directly addressed in most confessions or statements of faith, yet it is clear that where we come down on these issues has a huge impact on how we do ministry. And so Christian ministry will still look different in various times and places, just as the universal Biblical principles of marriage take an infinite variety of particular forms in the unique personalities of millions of Christian couples.

When we’ve reflected on our contemporary culture and, on that basis, determined the basic shape of how we are going to practice and communicate our unchanging doctrine, we have arrived at what Lints calls a “theological vision.” Two churches with the same doctrine, yet holding different views of culture, tradition, and reason, will see different theological visions. Those different visions will in turn lead them to adopt different ministry expressions, methods, and programs.

To continue our example, the Reformed thinkers of the Puritan era produced the Westminster Confession. Many who subscribe to the Confession also greatly revere that time in history and so have largely adopted Puritan ways of preaching and doing ministry. They may naturally assume that anyone who subscribes to the Westminster Confession should also emulate the ministry practices of its writers. But that assumption is based on presuppositions about the nature of culture and the role of tradition, not on the Confession itself.

Still, these assumptions will matter deeply in the end. For to have a low view of contemporary culture but a very high view of the Puritan era will produce a very different theological vision—and consequently a different blend of ministry—than you will produce if you see common grace in culture and are highly sensitive to any distortions in the Puritans’ ecclesiastical practices and views. Either way, it is important to notice that no assessment of modern culture, or of the role of tradition, or even of the specific practices of the Puritans, is enshrined in the confessional standards themselves.

It has become clear to me that while most Christian leaders do very deliberate, conscious study and thinking to arrive at their doctrinal beliefs, they are almost blind to the process of developing a theological vision. They often just “catch” their convictions about culture, reason, and tradition without really thinking them out. They come upon a ministry that they admire or that helps them personally and then they adopt it wholesale without recognizing the presuppositions, convictions and decisions that went into it.

To be faithful and fruitful, more Christian leaders should pay attention to this “middle space” between believing doctrine and choosing methods. The vast majority of resources on “how to do church” discuss either the Biblical basics of church belief and practice or specific ways to adopt certain ministry programs. I don’t know of any book that, instead of asking “what should our doctrine be?” or “what should our programs look like?” instead asks “what is our theological vision for ministry in our time and place?” That’s why I wrote Center Church.