Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry by Donald E. Messer

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Pastoral Ministry
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2. What are Messer’s three reasons for seeking Contemporary Images of Ministry?

  1. Images can inflame the imagination and provide us identities beyond simply filling offices or fulfilling role expectations.
  2. Hope of recovering a sense of urgency.
  3. May also enable us to find a sense of direction or organization motif for our communities of faith in the world.

3. In Chapter Two Messer compares the images of ministry used by the Reformation, the Evangelicals, and Contemporary images. What are some of the similarities and differences between the way these three ages and groups imaged ministry?

            The Reformation employed the terms “pastor” and “preacher” to designate ordained ministry.  Evangelicals implemented “prophet” as their category of choice.  Contemporary images have been much more varied and diverse: physician of the soul, enablers, facilitators, midwives, clowns, mana-persons, storytellers, wagon masters, player/coach, counselor, administrator, and professional.

The Reformation and Evangelical images of ministry are quite similar.  Pastor and preacher were used in conjunction with the Word of God being communicated to the Church.  Likewise, the prophet was a conduit of God’s word, proclaiming the Word to our world and culture.  The biggest difference between the two lies in their goal.  The Reformation sought to return Scripture to the people, making it accessible to them.  Evangelicals sought to reform society and win souls by preaching Truth from God’s Word, bringing people under conviction.

The Contemporary images of ministry in comparison are much less defined roles.  Due to the number of images prevalent, there is a diffusion of power in the images employed.  However, the Reformation, Evangelical, and Contemporary images are largely responses to hierarchal structures that separate and delineate clergy from laity.  The Contemporary images progressed this agenda even further by limiting or negating us/them language in the church.

There are some that believe preaching is diminishing in importance; however, those that can use media and communicate are finding large audiences.  Thus, the Contemporary images do not necessarily throw away preacher and prophet conceptions of ministry.  The drawback is that there is a greater separation between clergy and laity due to the “cult of personality” that sometimes accompanies this mass media transmission of preaching.  Thus, the message of Scripture tends to be intimately tied with the character of a pastor.

A difference between Reformation and Contemporary images lies in the separation of clergy and laity.  Although the Reformers sought to return Scripture to the people, exegesis and hermeneutics were still primarily the dominion of the clergy.  Contemporary concepts are much more conducive to imaging pastors as fellow sojourners with laity.  Labels such as director, facilitator, coach/ player depict the pastor as both a leader and a servant.

Although Contemporary images do not outright reject the Evangelical image of prophet, there is a greater focus on relationships, mentoring, and discipleship.  The prophetic image was primarily about winning souls and transforming society.  The Contemporary images are not opposed to this but believe that relationships undergird ministry and bring about lasting, significant change in the lives of others.  As such, much of today’s images integrate mentoring and counseling, which is connected to the Reformed image of pastor.  But, the Contemporary image is harder to incorporate with the prophetic image and model.

2. What is Messer’s definition of “Divine Madness?”

            Divine madness is the ability to recognize one’s freedom as a minister and to not get boxed in by the expectations of the community.  This “madness” is the ability to communicate God’s word, even when it might not be popular with others.  “It is ‘divine madness’ to act with integrity and freedom even when the pressures of cultural and congregational conformity seemingly ensure personal and professional benefits.  It is to forsake gospel faithfulness because genuine fear has conquered one’s courage” (47).

3. Name someone you know or who you have heard of, not mentioned in the chapter, who you believe fits the Divine Madness description and tell me why you think so.

            In my mind, John Wesley fits the “Divine Madness” description.  Wesley was ordained in the Anglican Church.  However, Wesley stepped outside of the typical boundaries of ministry (i.e. field preaching and ordaining ministers himself) to preach scriptural holiness in his context.  It was not always popularly received, especially by other clergy and the intelligentsia.  Despite these opponents, Wesley faithfully preached holiness and established congregations throughout his country.  Although Wesley himself never ceded from the Anglican Church, he did not allow himself to be boxed in either where he felt led by God to minister in different ways.

Due to Wesley’s willingness to push the envelope in ways that were not popularly received, there was a great revival that happened on English soil.  That revival also spread to other countries, including Ireland and the American colonies.  He was opposed in different ways by people like George Whitefield, a close, personal friend that disagreed with Wesley’s theology.  He was not deterred but continued to live and preach a message he felt was needed by the world, even though they did not always realize they needed it.  His culture was challenged and often reacted violently to those challenges.  But, he established many good things in his wake that brought about new realities for these systems.  If he had listened to his detractors (including his older brother) it is possible that the thousands he did reach would have not heard the hope-filled Gospel.

4. Define these three common misunderstandings of ministry: Hired Hands, Sexless Servants, and Superhuman Saints.

            Hired hands are paid clergy.  Because they are paid to do a job, clergy are expected to do that job in the way prescribed by the community.  When there is a “stepping on toes” moment, clergy can be guilted back into line to acquiesce to the desires and wishes of those in the flock.  The threat of losing one’s job or being penalized financially may cause some clergy to lose their sense of “Divine Madness” by succumbing to the pressures of the community.  Thus, they are rendered communicatively impotent, merely teaching and preaching in ways that will not offend.

“Sexless servants” is a fairly obvious title.  It is reasoned that clergy are creatures that do not participate in sexual activity.  At the very least, the community cannot imagine them as such.  Clergy are perceived as “eunuchs” or “emasculated” servants that are not really earthy creatures at all.  However, clergy see sex as a gift from God.  They have the same basic needs as anyone else.  And, they are disposed to the same types of transgressions and indiscretions as the laity.

“Superhuman saints” is similar to the sexless servant motif.  Clergy are often imagined as perfect beings.  This perfect person image is upheld, too often, by both clergy and laity.  Clergy are seen as being able to attain a higher level of faith and holiness than the “typical” Christian.  However, we must be reminded that everyone is a sinner, ministers included.  Although there is a sense that character of the minister is tied to the office of minister, we can also say the same about every Christian.  So, yes, we want to affirm that ministers are held to high standards in their character.  At the same time, they are not perfect and are subject to temptation, failure, and sin like anyone else.

5. In 100 words or more write out a comprehensive yet concise theology of ministry according to Messer…now write out in 100 words or more YOUR theology of ministry.

            According to Messer, ministry is a gift from God to the people of God.  It is a calling, not a career.  The authority of a minister cannot be divorced from their authenticity.  The office may bestow “power” upon a person, but it is a person’s character that grants them trust in the community.  A minister is a servant to the Body and to the world.  The Body is a covenant community with myriad gifts to serve the world and each other.  “Professional” preparation for ministry is not the only qualification of a leader; it also must involve the person’s character (“personal piety”).  It is a mystery that is beyond us to understand or describe.

Ministry is a calling endowed upon every Christian, the priesthood of believers.  We are called to love God with everything that we are and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This means we are called to serve each other in love and to serve our world as representatives of God’s presence in the world.  Ministry is the responsibility of every Christian.  Ordained ministry is service to the Body to equip the believers for every good work.  It is not a higher calling, but it is no less a significant calling.  And, it is an office recognized and bestowed upon an individual by the Church to represent the Church in the world.

2. Define these phrases as Messer would: The church as Community of the Compassionate and Wounded Healers.

The church as Community of the Compassionate means that we are a people able to see the “least of these.”   As the Church of Christ, we are called to care for those who find themselves outsiders, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the helpless.  Compassion moves us beyond mere pity.  It moves us to action.  We speak against the systems that create these systems of oppression and abuse.  We work to rectify and redeem those systems.  We respond to God’s love for us by loving others.  Thus, we are the image of God reflected in a broken and hurting world.

Wounded healers are those people that have embraced their autobiography, brokenness and all.  It is that brokenness that allows us to be “wounded healers.”  Our suffering allows us to show compassion toward others that are hurting.  We are able to empathize and walk alongside those that are hurting.  And, we become witnesses to the work of Christ, who is our Healer and Redeemer.  It is Christ’s reconciliation of our brokenness that allows those shattered pieces of our lives to be brought together as a beautiful mosaic of grace and healing for others.

3. What are the identifying marks of a servant church?

            The identifying marks of a servant church are: 1) recognizing God as servant, 2) understanding that God is present in servanthood, and 3) understanding that Christian servanthood is defined by the Cross (101-02).

4. What are the dangers of being a servant leader?

            Messer recognizes four dangers in being a servant-leader.  First, in adopting the servant leader image of ministry it is critically important that a person not simply resolve the paradox by stressing either the servant or the leadership dimension to the exclusion of the other.  It is a tension and balance to live between these two realities.

Second, a related danger for both women and men is for ministers to settle for too little power.  Due to the abuses of power, clergy will sometimes avoid power and be much more hands-off in their leadership.  But, this can cause just as many problems as domineering leadership.  There must be a balance.

Third, a difficulty clergy experience is the crossfire of mixed signals as to the type of people and the styles of leadership the church wants.  Churches wants a leader that is God-driven and humble.  Yet, at the same time, Churches wants pastors that are “vigorous leaders” capable of directing the Church to places of progress and growth.

Fourth, the danger of a cultural or chameleon ministry must be recognized as a possible servant leader interpretation.  The servant leader may become comfortable with the “status quo or so enthralled with the avant garde that the gospel or kingdom of God become synonymous with contemporary causes or culture (105).  A servant-leader is able to call into question those elements of culture that are antithetical to the gospel message.

5. Are you a wounded healer? Are you a servant leader?

            I would have to say that I am a mixture of both.  Although I haven’t had a life that has been ravaged as others have experienced, I have had grief and pain in a few particular areas of life.  I have a family that has been torn apart through divorce.  And, my own personal struggles in dealing with that have allowed me to be compassionate with those that are dealing with family/ marital issues.  This broken part of my life has opened me up to others so that I can understand in a deeper way their pain, shame, and hurt.  And, I can point beyond those situations to a hope that is larger than what we might face.  I am able to relate the ways that Christ has brought me through those difficulties and used them for His glory.

I also see my ministry as servant-leadership.  Christ calls his disciples to that ministry and I have understood my calling to be no less a call to servant-leadership.  I serve the servants of God by equipping them for every good work.  I motivate, encourage, rebuke.  I look for the potential in others and draw their attention to how God might use their gifting.  I give direction and vision to the ministry I have been entrusted and invite others to join in the work that is being done.  And, I love and serve those that are most difficult to love and serve.

What do you think is the relationship between ministry and politics?

Ministry and politics are not the same.  However, that does not mean that ministry does not engage in politics at some level.  Many of the “evils” that we face are driven by systemic realities.  Some theologians refer to these systems as the “powers.”  The pharaoh-like systems are often entrenched with abuse and oppression.  They manipulate, distort, and mismanage God’s good resources.  People are reduced to statistics and labor costs.  The result is a de-personalization of others, lack of stewardship, and cut throat competition.

Ministry undoubtedly enters in the midst of these circumstances.  It takes measure of these realities and seeks to right those grievances.  Although we don’t necessarily enter into the political arena in the same ways that the world enters into those systems, it no less seeks to call those systems what they are.  That does not go to say that all politics are evil.  Wherever people are gathered there will be a level of structure that happens.  However, when those structures exist for their own purposes instead of God’s life-giving purposes then they have overstepped their bounds.  Ministry gives personhood back to the outside and the oppressed.  It gives life to those who are in broken systems.  And, it provides healing for those that are wounded because they have become a commodity.  It is really a tale of two kingdoms in tension.

2. If you accept the image of being a “political mystic” what five ways will it be lived out?

            Messer lays out five ways that the image of political mystic will be lived out in contemporary ministry.  Political mystics “take spiritual formation seriously,  do not accept sharp dichotomies between material and spiritual problems, travel light with the world’s goods and honors, believe that dreaming is a practical art, and persist and protest not simply in order to change the world but to ensure that the world does not change them” (131-33).

3. Did Chapter 7 change your response to the question I asked you prior to your reading or your opinion of ministry and politics? Explain.

            No, chapter 7 did not change my opinion of the connection between ministry and politics.  Messer believes that a life of prayer cannot be separated from a life of action that seeks justice and peace.  Sometimes our search of the Scriptures brings to light injustices in our world.  Other times our culture’s injustices lead us to seek out Scripture for guidance.  Prayer connects us to God’s work in the world.  It is through prayer and Scripture that we are invited into the work of restoration and redemption that God is doing in the world.

Similarly, a life of prayer is dead if it does not lead to obedience in response to God’s call.  That call is to embody justice, mercy, peace, and the love of Christ as the Body of Christ in the world.  Although I’m not sure I like the tag of “political mystic,” I agree with the general premise that a pastor must live in a Kingdom of “idealism” while inhabiting a world of “realism.”

4. Describe the Enslaved Liberator image.

            The Enslaved Liberator is the pastor that lives in tension between worlds.  They live in limbo between the Kingdom that has come and the Kingdom that is still to come.  The Enslaved Liberator lives and operates within the sinful culture.  However, this person calls to account those structures in society that propagate such evil.  There is a realization that they not only call to account those systems, but that they are a part of the problem as well.  We have all, on some level, participated in these demoralizing systems of oppression.

The Enslaved Liberator, according to Messer, will point to Jesus as the One who liberates.  The minister realizes the challenges of evangelism today.  It not simply about preaching a well thought out sermon, but living a sincere life of faith.  This is a challenge because we are captives of our culture at times as well.  Secondly, the Enslaved Liberator understands that God often seeks to free and redeem the poor and outcast.  We are called to act for justice in these situations, just like Moses was called to bring God’s people out of Egypt.  Like Jesus, we are called to pronounce Jubilee for those in bondage to the economic, spiritual, psychological oppression of our world.  That often means that we will side with those who are powerless and poor.

5. We are part of a denomination…what were your thoughts on Messer’s section on the “post-denominational” church.  Share your thoughts with me.

            I agree with Niehburh’s assessment of denominationalism that has become so prevalent, especially within North American culture.  This division is antithetical to the Christ that unifies us through the One Spirit.  Granted, the Body is made up of many parts and all of those parts are needed.  But, the various parts of the Body are not rogue Lone Rangers.  Wesley is correct in saying that we must be united in essentials and grant charity in matters of non-essential character.

And, I agree that there is a certain “post-denomination” culture that is spreading.  There is a wider degree of ecumenism and cooperation among the various expressions of the Church.  And, I further agree that we should work to continue this trend as much is possible.  However, I am not entirely sure that denominations will vanish.  And, I am not positive that this is necessarily a bad thing.  Rather, I see the various denominations as rooms within the same House.  Connected together, they form one house with many functions.  It is a spiritual house of living stones.  Each of these denominations can be seen as parts of the Body of the Universal Church of Jesus Christ.  Each part is a vital member of the Body.  When the denomination exists for its own purposes, then it has become subversive to the Kingdom.  However, understanding a denomination is only a structure and not the Kingdom itself may yield a denomination to further work, live, and cooperate with the larger Body of Christ.  There may come a time where these structures are not only necessary but impossible to maintain.  Unfortunately, in the foreseeable future, there is still much ground that must be covered for this to bear fruit.

2. Of the images of Christian ministry discussed in Messer’s book which image do you aspire to most? Least? Write a one page response to each.

            Of the images of Christian ministry that Messer discusses, I identify the most with the servant-leader model of ministry.  The servant-leader model captures the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of Christian ministry.  Pastors are leaders but they are only leaders through service.  Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest among them would be the servant of all.  Leadership is not ascribed to someone simply due to the occupation of a position.  Rather, leadership is granted when others find you trustworthy.

A servant-leader is not above or outside of the community.  Rather, a pastor is one that is able to identify with the flock because they are in the mix of congregational life, engaged in service to the community.  Such ministry again finds root in the description of Jesus as one who came to serve, not to be served.  Leadership in the Kingdom of God is upside-down.  It is paradoxical.  One who would like to find their life must first die.  Similarly, one who would lead others in the Church must first be servant of all.  It is a life that calls for compassion toward others, especially those that are outsiders.  It is a ministry that is driven by Love.

As Messer points out, there is an imminent danger in the servant-leader model.  A pastor may too easily and heavily identify with the servant or the leader aspect of the model.  Pastors must find a balance in power.  The servant-leader must be able to inhabit both of these aspects of ministry.  Pastors must be able to both give away power and exercise power faithfully for the good of the community.  To over-identify with either side can do immense damage to the church and the pastor.  It can render a church living under tyranny or a pastor that is a congregational doormat.  In either case, there is little direction in shepherding a congregation to be servant-leaders to our world.

The servant-leader also understands ministry as liturgy, “the work of the people.”  Ministry is not accomplished by a “Lone Ranger.”  Rather, ministry is the Body of Christ operating in unity through the Spirit.  As such, the servant-leader is called to equip the Body for every good work so that all may see God at work and praise Him.  Such a pastor understands ministry and the Church existing for others, not simply for themselves.

The image I identified with the least was the Prophetic-Mystic model.  That does not mean that there is not room for this in ministry.  There is need for the prophetic voice to call out in the wilderness the way of the Lord.  However, having seen the many abuses that happen with this model, there is a skepticism that accompanies this model.  Those that position themselves as “prophet-mystics” cause red flags to shoot up in my mind due to the many doomsday prophecies that flood televisions, radios, and literature.  Many times there are scare tactics employed to bring people to a point of decision.  This seems antithetical to 1 John 4, which proclaims that perfect love drives out fear.  Gospel drives out fear because of the grace and mercy we find in God.

Granted, Messer does join the mystic image with the prophet to emphasize the need for prayer and connectedness to God.  Undoubtedly, prayer is where we gain strength and further sense God’s work in the world.  Ministry cannot happen without this aspect remaining intact.  But, I do not think “mystic” should only be joined with prophet but is a vital element of every office.  Prayer must never be divorced from ministry.  A servant-leader, engaged in a community of compassion, ultimately seeks to change the local culture, which is typically reflective of the culture at large.  Servant-leaders are not apolitical.  However, their politic is not engaged in top-down activism but through bottom-up servant-hood.

The prophet-mystic, in my mind, focuses on the larger structures and the people with power to effect change in the world.  A case can be made from Scripture for this type of outreach.  However, Jesus ministry was centered upon the outcasts and the outsiders of society.  Those in power realized the subversive acts that Jesus was committing by living in such ways.  The larger culture takes notice when the community of believers ministers to the pariahs of society.  It is in these moments that the culture is called to account.  There is a degree of overlap between these two images that Messer proposes.  For my part, the prophet-mystic is not the type of ministry I am called to embody.  No doubt, there will be moments when the pastoral office calls for me to wear that hat, but the servant-leader makes more sense in light of the culture to which we minister.


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