by Lim Soon Hock, Empowering Churches
This paper was written in November 2020 when the government of Malaysia imposed restrictive curbs, SOPs, and lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). This significantly affected the activities of the church.
A REVIEW OF THE ROLE OF THE VOCATIONAL MINISTER IN THE MALAYSIAN CHURCH IN LIGHT OF A CHALLENGING CHANGE
As we review the role of the vocational minister in the Malaysian church, the first point to note is that change in and around the church does not alter the minister’s ministry functions. However, change may alter his emphasises from among his varied functions and how he carries out his functions.
An example is from the changing size of a church. Gary L. McIntosh posits that churches have different needs depending on size. A small church is not just a miniature version of a large church but an entirely different entity.1 Hence, as a church grows from small to medium-size to large the dynamics of the church also changes. This does not only affect the church’s structure, orientation and strategies but also the pastor’s role.2
Change in or outside the church always demands a response if it is to be positively addressed. On one hand it should be met with a response of consistency concerning the purpose and values of the church. On the other hand, it should be met with a recalibration of the priorities and methodology of doing church and ministry.
The Minister’s Leadership Function
In a crisis brought about by change, among the three functions of leading, feeding and caring, the minister must prioritise his leadership function. He needs to study the change, the effects of the change and how to address the change. He doesn’t do this alone but with his leadership team. Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon the minister to take the lead. Leadership is a key function of the vocational minister. He cannot surrender that role to anyone.
The Use of Technology3 and Online Platform
The biggest visible change in the Malaysian church as a response to the effects of the pandemic has been the adoption of the online platform as a substitute or as a complement to limited onsite meetings. When the Movement Control Order was first enforced in Malaysia on 18 March 2020 churches all across the country were caught totally unprepared (except a few churches that already had an online presence). Churches responded with varying degrees of rapidity, expansiveness and intensity in their adoption of the online platform.
Some churches immediately started to learn and use the available technology to livestream their worship services. Most churches were slow to adopt the new technology. Some were quick to make use of existing digital communication tools for small group meetings and to provide daily or weekly devotional content for their members. Others felt challenged by the new technology or were stretched by their limited resources. Some churches made significant financial investment to upgrade their equipment for quality virtual broadcast. Many simply hoped and prayed that all this would quickly pass and the church would be able go back to do church and ministry like the time pre-Covid-19.
These varying degrees of responses from churches in Malaysia underscore the importance of the leadership function of the minister. In other words, the minister’s leadership determines how his church responds to change.4 Moreover, a church’s response to external changes demands internal changes. Managing congregational changes requires wise, Scripture-guided and clear leadership from the minister.
The Unchanging Purpose of God and His Church
More importantly, the minister’s leadership is needed to direct the church in a “long obedience in the same direction.”5 Priorities and methods may change, but the purpose and values of the church do not change. The minister must constantly and continually lead the church towards the purpose of God as revealed in Scripture. Foremost, in terms of the mission of the church, is to make disciples of the nations (the Great Commission, Mt 28:18-20).
Hirsch and Ferguson contend that,
“…Jesus gets the privilege of decisively defining the movement that claims his name; nonetheless, leaders in his church need to take this task of defining the parameters of how people think about the church with utmost seriousness. Allowing Jesus to guide us, it is part of the leadership task to somehow manage how the rest of the organisation as a whole sees itself and its function in the world. In other words, it’s the leaders’ job to define ecclesia for the people and organization they lead.
This puts a huge theological responsibility on leadership to ensure they have a vision of the church that is consistent with the church Jesus built. We cannot shirk this, especially in moments of crisis that require accurate recalibration.”6
What is the recalibration that is needed to fulfil the Great Commission in this new season where mass gatherings are curtailed? The answer must be in small groups. The ministry of small groups is not new, but in this new season it needs to be emphasised and reconstructed. The minister needs to lead the charge in reconstructing the small group ministry of the church. For example, the small group needs to become even smaller. 12 may no longer work. 20 is certainly unworkable. Six might be ideal. Also, the general thrust of the small groups in coming together for Bible study and fellowship is not significantly focussed enough if the church is to fulfil the purpose of the Great Commission. The thrust of the small groups has to be disciple-making and life-on-life discipling.7 In this regards the minister needs to provide the leadership model of discipling in small groups in his church.8
The Minister as Trainer
The minister obviously cannot carry out discipling by himself. He needs to multiply himself. In other words, he needs to empower others to do the same (2 Tim 2:2). He has to see himself as one of God’s gifts to the church whose function is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-13). And the area which he is to equip his church is naturally in the area of his giftedness or expertise, which is to shepherd or disciple others.9 Hence, the pastor reproduces according to his own kind.10
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne call for ministry mind-shifts. Their list of 10 ministry mind-shift items includes: from running programmes to building people, from running events to training people, from relying on training institutions to establishing local training, from engaging in management to engaging in ministry and from seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth.11
They propose a mental image of the pastor as trainer who functions as a preacher and trainer, instead of a clergyman who is a preacher and service-provider or a CEO who is a preacher and manager.12 Their comparative chart of the three images of the pastor is helpful.13
The same sentiment is shared by William Willimon. In A Reader for Ordained Ministry he discusses a number of images of the 21st Century pastor that includes the more far flung images of media mogul and political negotiator and the more commonly held images of preacher and servant. He asserts that it is the nature of the Christian ministry to be multifaceted and multidimensional. He insists that the “gospel does not change, but the context in which the gospel is preached and is enacted do change. A predominate pastoral image might have been fruitful in one age may not be so in the next.”14 Nonetheless, because the Christian ministry is significantly countercultural, Willimon says he finds “much to be commended in the image of the pastor as a missionary, or more accurately, a lead missionary or equipper of the missionaries.”15 The last point is key to the minister’s function in the present and challenging season of change. The minister’s function is not only to lead his church to fulfil the unchanging commission of disciple-making, but also to train and empower his church for this same purpose.
The church member, who has been thus trained, may not be called nor able to preach in a large meeting, but he can carry out a disciple-making ministry with a small group of people. During this season where large gatherings are curtailed this makes for a significant ministry strategy. A next step might be for the vocational minister to further train and release able men and women to start new churches in their neighbourhood and places of work; in fact anywhere, where they can engage non-believers and disciple believers. It is time for a mental shift, to stop thinking of church in terms of church gatherings, but to be the church everywhere. This is in total alignment with the NT concept of the church, which is simply a people gathered, centred around Christ and in mission for the Kingdom.16
The Malaysian church may not be aware, or may not want to admit, that its subservience to its institutionalised nature has made it quite impotent. The needs of the members, the programmes of the church, and keeping the church establishment intact are more important than the mission of the church. That being the case, in a season when the church is hit hard with an external and challenging change the prevailing mindset of the church cannot effectively respond to the change. Neither can it keep its focus on its mission.
It is the role of the vocational minister to provide leadership for the church to respond to the change. No doubt, the minister’s function is also to feed and care for the sheep whom the Lord has entrusted to him, but in a season of change he needs to step-up in his leadership function to lead the church to fulfil the unchanging purpose that God has for His church, namely, to make disciples of the nations.
The vocational minister can do this best by multiplying himself through training his members to be disciple-makers. In the present challenge when the church gathered needs to go small, the move to disciple-making in small groups is ideal. Perhaps, these empowered disciples can even start small churches where the Lord has put them. It is not difficult to envision a movement of organic churches17 mushrooming all over a city, a nation and in the nations of the world. This is perhaps the answer to lockdowns due to a pandemic or in times of persecution. And it might very well lead to a movement that Keller, Hirsch and Ferguson speak about in their books.