by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches
The Covid-19 pandemic and the SOP set in place in Malaysia to control it have affected the church and its ministries.1 One of which is the curb on large group meetings. The traditional church thrives on large meetings. This is true of ministries within the church like the worship service and also those outside the church like its community services. This global pandemic has caused, or rather, forced, the church to rethink about how it should do ministry. In fact, in view of the changes that are taking place in and around the church, it also needs to rethink its ecclesiology,2 and the vocational minister needs to rethink his3 role.
The primary purpose of this paper is a re-envisioning of the role of the vocational minister in light of the aforementioned mega change that is affecting the church and its ministries. The vocational minister refers to the main pastor of the church. Nonetheless, in most instances, the discussion is applicable to other pastors in a multi-staff church, as well as to bi-vocational and church leaders who see Christian ministry as their primary vocation. The minister’s role, however, cannot be separated from the church and its ministry. Inevitably we have to also discuss issues pertaining to the nature of the church and notions of its ministry.
This paper is an engagement in practical theology, in that it is about the theology of ministry. Hence, the discussion uses and interfaces with the four commonly accepted ways of doing theology: Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.4 A final point to note about the paper is that while the discussion may be applicable to churches world-wide because of the global effects of Covid-19, the context of this paper is limited to the church in Malaysia.
A DESCRIPTION OF THE MALAYSIAN CHURCH
The best way to describe the Malaysian church regardless of its denomination, language group and size is to tag it with the label “institutionalised.” At first glance this may appear appropriate since religion is one of the five major institutions of society.5
For our purpose an institution is defined as an establishment with a firmly set purpose, structures and code of practice.6 Timothy Keller in Center Church argues that organisations should have both institutional characteristics and movement dynamics.7 He quotes Hugh Helco, “To live in a culture that turns its back on institutions is equivalent to trying to live in a physical body without a skeleton or hoping to use a language but not its grammar.”8 In other words, as Keller observes, institutions bring order to life.9
Institutions are important and necessary, but they also have several negative characteristics. They include, the process of decision making that is procedural and slow, innovation is from top down and implementation is done in departmental silos. An institution may be stable but they are slow to change, their emphasis is on traditions, the past and customs, and future trends are dreaded and denied.10
Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson concur when they say,
“…their [institutional structures] intent is almost always good. Even so, concretized institutionalization does tend to block some of the most powerful aspects of ecclesia as Jesus intended it: a potent social force and gospel phenomenon that sweeps through populations. Any reading of history, Christian or otherwise, shows that institutional religion can become repressive, stifling creative expressions.
One of the most fundamental reboots we need to do in our day is to rediscover ourselves as the same potent, transforming people movement that started with Jesus and went on to change the world. The institutional forms have gotten us where we are now and can’t take us farther. We need to become a people-movement again.”11
Very often with institutionalisation comes institutionalism, and very soon the church is beset with traditionalism and conservatism. As a result it is not be able to respond quickly and innovatively when confronted with change. In fact, it may not want to for fear of betraying its long-held beliefs, values and practices.
If this description of the Malaysian church is correct, then the church needs to do some self-evaluation. However, self-evaluation can only take place if there is self-awareness. The concept of the church’s self-awareness is discussed at length in Cyril Hovorun’s Meta-Ecclesiology. He argues that at different epochs of history the Church encountered challenging situations. They may be spiritual, intellectual, social or political in nature or the result of other historical circumstances. The challenges of these situations necessitated a response from the Church concerning its self-perception.12
Hovorun’s thesis is helpful for the Malaysian church. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a huge challenge to the church—which might even be termed a crisis. How is the church responding? Will its response enable the church to thrive and advance the cause of the Kingdom of God? This is dependent on the level of the church’s self-awareness. The fundamental question that needs to be asked is: Can the Malaysian church see itself beyond its institutionalised nature?
The New Testament Concept of the Church
The New Testament (NT) concept of the church was not that of an institutionalised church. The institutionalised church is a product of the evolving concept of the church over time as it became more organised, more structured, more rigid, and hence more institutionalised.
The writers of the NT used ekklēsia to term the Christian community. In antiquity the term was used for an assembly, as in a regularly summoned political body.13 The people who make up the church then, are those who have been called out to gather as the people of God who hold in common a confession of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour (Mt 16:16, 18, Acts 2:47, 1 Tim 3:15-16).
The foremost characteristic of the church would be the centrality of Christ. Secondly, it’s about a people coming together for the same cause.14 The church may come together for many Christ-centred purposes (Acts 2:42-4), but its ultimate cause is to be empowered and sent out by the Holy Spirit on a mission (Acts 1:8; 13:2-3) centred around Christ’s work of redemption (1 Cor 11:23-26) leading to God being glorified (Eph 3:21). This cause, or the primary work of the church and of every individual Christian, is most succinctly captured in Matthew 28:18-20, otherwise known as the Great Commission.
This NT concept of the church has direct implications on how the Malaysian church ought to perceive itself and its primary mission, and also how the vocational minister ought to perceive himself and his primary function.