"Top Down" or "Grassroots" Ministry?

In the early years of my seminary experience, I quickly began to realize that within the Calvinistic and Reformed Church at large there was something of a divide over whose role it was to carry out ministry in the local church. I would frequently hear members of broader churches saying things like, "The goal of the pastor should be to work himself out of a job" and "People in the church need to learn how to shepherd each other;" but then I would hear members of more stridently Reformed churches say things like, "God only appointed elders and deacons to minister in the church" and "I would be happy if the elders and deacons did all the work in the local church." Broader churches often tend to focus on "every member ministry"--while minimizing the need for robust pastoral ministry--while more stringently Reformed churches tend to focus on the primacy of pastoral ministry--to the minimizing of vibrant congregational life and ministry. Both approaches often appear to be overreactions to perceived deficiencies or abuses in the outworking of the opposite approach. The question with which we are faced is this: "Should ministry in the local church be done from the 'top down' or should it be 'grassroots?'"

Theological treatments of this subject have largely centered on the exegesis of Ephesians 4:11-12 (here is one very fine example)--especially with regard to the meaning of the phrase, "for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry." Did God give pastors and teachers to "equip the saints for the work of ministry," or did he give them to the church to "equip the saints" and "for the work of ministry." Regardless of what conclusion one reaches as to the meaning of vv. 11-12, a birds eye view of Ephesians 4:11-16 supports a both/and, rather than an either/or, answer to the question. The end of the section speaks of the "body building itself up in love." This clearly places the emphasis on both the role of pastors/teachers and congregants in the life of the ministry. Ministry in the local church should, in a sense, be both "top down" and "grassroots." While the use or misuse of Ephesians 4:11-12 is certainly of importance, there is a particularly interesting Old Testament passage that helps shed a great deal of light on the subject--namely, Judges 5:2.

After coming back from gaining victory over Jabin, King of Canaan, and Sisera,  the commander of his army, Deborah--Israel's mothering judge--uttered the following opening words of her victory song:

“When leaders lead in Israel, When the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the Lord!"

Deborah had just experienced the fruit of leadership and of willing volunteers giving themselves to the work of the Lord (Judges 4). Deborah took the reins of leadership when Barak was unwilling to do the work of leading God's people forward in battle, and Jael offered her services to see the victory through. It was not Deborah or Barak who struck the fatal blow to Sisera, thereby gaining ultimate victory against their enemies; it was Jael, the wife of Heber, who drove the tent peg through the temple of Sisera. While some might have a hard time knowing how to jump from physical battles in the Old Testament to the work of ministry (i.e. service) in the church in the New (which is, incidentally, by means of analogous spiritual warfare), the same principle that Deborah laid down applies to both contexts. When leaders lead and the people willingly volunteer themselves in the church, the Lord is praised! There is enormous benefit in a prolonged meditation of this principle and application of it in the context of the local church. When the two aspects of ministry occur in the life of a congregation, the end result is that God gets the glory and praise in the assembly. 

God's appointed leadership for a church--as is clear from the book of Acts and the pastoral epistles (see esp. Acts 20, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus)--is elders and deacons. If elders and deacons attempt to lead but the people are unwilling to volunteer their time, energy, prayers and resources, the church will become nothing more than a preaching post full of complacent, discontented and cold congregants. Additionally, the leadership will be continually frustrated. This does not result in God getting praise from His people. If the congregants seek to volunteer to use their gifts for ministry in the local church, but the leaders don't lead (or lead poorly), the end result will be confusion or schism--a variety of people vying for control and an opportunity to assert their opinions in a harmful way. Additionally, the congregation will not receive the spiritual care that it needs--as that is the principal reason for which God has ordained elders. This does not result in God getting praise from His people. Of course, the worst possible scenario is that of leaders failing to lead and the people failing to volunteer themselves. In this case, the church is destined to fail. This will certainly not result in God getting praise from His people. 

While there is no "magic formula" to have a church in which "leaders lead" and "people willingly volunteering themselves," there are several principles and practical structures that help facilitate this in a local church. Consider the following:

Leading from the Top Down

A healthy church will have godly, wise, courageous, caring and theologically solid elders at the helm, planning and implementing ideas to best meet the spiritual and developmental needs of the congregation. These men are responsible to lead the congregation forward in a healthy way with regard to worship, discipleship, outreach, theological education, missions, church planting, etc. A healthy church will also have godly and wise deacons who will be responsible for leading the congregation forward with regard to their physical needs, mercy ministries, building maintenance, set-up, operational matters, etc. Everyone who serves in the church in any capacity must be approved by the elders or deacons. This will help ensure that theological error or individual unfaithfulness will not adversely affect the congregation as a whole. After all, God has appointed elders and deacons for the preservation of His truth and the maintenance of the congregation. 

Fostering "Every Member" and "Grassroots" Ministry

Two basic ways in which leadership in a church can encourage healthy "every member" and "grassroots" ministry are the establishment of committees and small groups. Committees (or "ministry teams" if the word "committee" sounds too sterile for you) chaired by godly men and women help encourage service among members of the congregation. The purpose of committees is to delegate ministerial matters to congregants who will assist the elders and deacons in carrying out planned ministries. Ideally, a committee would be made up of several individuals who would then labor to get others in the congregation involved in the life of ministry. Those who chair committees should be trained to spot the gifts of the members of the church. This helps ensure that the right people are encouraged to serve in a capacity that is commensurate with their gifting. Of course, this also assumes that the right people chair these committee! In our church plant, we have a committee for worship, music, set-up, women's fellowship, baby and wedding shower, greeter ministry, hospitality, children's ministry, nursery, Christian education, finance, meals ministry, food and fellowship and outreach. After the session sets the parameters for each committee, the goal is for them to become self-running ministerial teams. The committee chairs gather quarterly to meet with the pastor to review needs and to identify potential congregants for service. As long as the person chairing the committee is willing to work in accord with the goals and desire of the session for the particular committee, they have the freedom to labor without being micro-managed. Setting up committees, and getting them to run smoothly, takes time--and is often met with challenges along the way--but it will yield immense payoff in the end. 

The same idea is true with regard to small groups. The best way to encourage the congregation to use their gifts in service within the body is to establish weekly or semi-weekly small groups. While it takes a great deal of time for planning and oversight on the part of the session to get small groups organized and off the ground, they too will yield enormous benefit to the life of the congregation. Small groups give people a chance to be together in fellowship, prayer and community. Ideally, elders should be involved in leading small groups, if you have enough to do so. Regional small groups allow people to grow with one another while being purposeful about being on mission together in their neighborhoods. Having elders lead the small groups (if a church has enough to do so) will help ensure that the elders are regularly pastoring the congregants and are aware of the needs of the body. Small groups are also good places for members to hear about the operational and ministerial needs of the church. We encourage our small group leaders to ask the groups for input on ideas about outreach in the community. This, in turn, jump starts "every member" and "grassroots" thinking among the body. 

While much more can be said, my hope is that this post will encourage pastors and congregants alike to be considering the great need for "top down" leadership and "grassroots/every member ministry" to occur in the life of the church. While spiritual and numeric growth should result when a church enters in on this work in a prayerful and biblically faithful way, the greatest end result will be that the Lord will be praised. "When leaders lead; when the people willingly offer themselves--bless the Lord!" 


Related Resources

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne The Trellis and the Vine

Paul Tripp Instruments in the Redeemer's Hand

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