Article

Ministry as art

October 21, 2015

Ministry is not like painting by numbers even though it is often presented as if it is. A pastor grows a large church, writes down his strategy, and markets it as “8 ways to grow any church.” Thus, ministry is envisioned as simply a matter of finding the right formula. Follow the blueprint, paint according to the numbers, and you can produce a beautiful piece of art. Only painting by numbers is not art.

Lest someone think I am over-exaggerating in asserting that ministry is often viewed in a formulaic way, let me tell you a true story. About 15 years ago, I was preaching in Saskatoon Saskatchewan, Canada. I was not preaching on Sunday, and I was invited to attend a Mennonite church. It was frigid outside, just as I had always imagined Canada being in my mind. Having never attended a Mennonite church, I was thankful for the invitation and intrigued about what it would be like. I was stunned when I got there. The first thing I saw upon entering the facility was a huge baseball diamond diagram on the wall, and when I entered the worship area, the pastor came out wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It was not exactly what I had expected in cold, hockey-loving Canada. What was going on?

The pastor had obviously picked up on Rick Warren’s baseball diamond discipleship analogy from The Purpose Driven Church: Knowing Christ (1st base), growing in Christ (2nd base), serving Christ (3rd base), and sharing Christ (home plate). But he also seemed to pick up on Rick Warren’s wardrobe choices without any thought of the difference between living in Southern California and Saskatoon. Why would he do something that seems so absurd? He was painting by numbers. The result was not art but rather cheap mimicry.

If the ministry could be reduced to this kind of generically reproducible formula, then pastors could be churned out with factory-like rapidity. No pastor should see himself simply as an interchangeable cog in an ecclesial industrial complex. We are not merely punching an ecclesiastical time clock for Jesus. Being a faithful shepherd of Christ is not something that can be done in a scientific assembly-line fashion. Knowing a particular flock in a particular geographical place at a particular time in history and faithfully leading, feeding and guiding them demands ministry artists — not automatons.

Of course, this is not simply true for pastors, but for all Christians in their particular sphere of influence. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in a masterful lecture called, “Individuality, and Its Opposite,” printed in An All-Around Ministry warned, “We must never preach to others with a counterfeit voice." He continued, “Brethren, in connection with our individuality, we ought to feel a great respect for our own sphere of labor." Spurgeon then illustrates his point,

Going through the famous factory at Sèvres, the other day, I noticed an artist painting a very beautiful vase. I looked at him, but he did not look at me; his eyes were better engaged than in staring at a stranger. There were several persons at my heels, and they all looked at him, and made various observations, yet the worker’s eye never moved from his work. He had to paint the picture upon that vase, and what benefit would he get from noticing us, or from our noticing him?

He kept to his work. We would fain see such abstraction and concentration in every man who has the Lord’s work to do. “This one thing I do.” Some frown, some smile, but “this one thing I do.” Some think they could do it better, but “this one thing I do.” How they could do it, may be their business; but it certainly is not mine.

Remember, dear brother, if you give your whole soul to the charge committed to you, it does not matter much about its appearing to be a somewhat small and insignificant affair, for as much skill may be displayed in the manufacture of a very tiny watch as in the construction of the town clock; in fact, a minute article may become the object of greater wonder than another of larger dimensions. Quality is a far more precious thing than quantity.

Of course, you can and should learn from all kinds of people, but you cannot be them for Jesus; you can only be you for Jesus. Spurgeon urges, “Know your work, and bend over it, throwing your heart and soul into it; for, be it great or small, you will have to praise God to all eternity if you are found faithful in it." In other words, we are to be artists to the glory of Christ in the particular ministry he has entrusted to us. Spurgeon explains,

Men are not cast in molds by the thousand; we are each one distinct from his fellow. When each of us was made, the mold was broken;—a very satisfactory circumstance in the case of some men, and I greatly question whether it is not an advantage in the case of us all. . . .  Be yourself, dear brother, for, if you are not yourself, you cannot be anybody else; and so, you see, you must be nobody. The very worst notes in music are those which are untrue; each true sound has its own music.

Is your ministry sounding a true sound? Are you creating ministry art to the glory of Christ, or are you painting by numbers according to someone else’s template? All genuine art is an act of culture-making that reflects time and place. Thus, genuine art cannot be industrialized and mass-produced. Genuine art takes rooted, painstaking, patient and individual effort. Genuine art cannot be severed from time and place. It is only genuine art that possesses qualities that allow it to provide inspiration to others artists in a way that transcends time and place. Great paintings cannot be reproduced with paint by number kits and neither can great ministry. But great paintings can and should inspire others to create their own art, and the same is true in the art of ministry.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is the Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to his role on the faculty, he is also the pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He is married to Judi and they have eight children.  Read More by this Author