What is Jesus doing right now?
According to Ephesians 4, he is ascended in heaven and is gifting his church for greater mission and unity. He’s giving leaders, who equip all the saints for ministry, so that the whole family can be built up in maturity.
By contrast, we all too often create ministry systems that prioritize professional ministers, not the whole body. But Ephesians 4 reminds us that we need the entire church to be engaged in mission, not just professional ministers. This is what I like to call “deep discipleship”—the invitation to all members into the task of building a unified church growing in Christlike maturity.
That’s Jesus’s mission. And if it’s Jesus’s mission, then it should be the local church’s mission as well.
Ministry Is Not Just for Experts
One trend that’s common in the church is an expert/amateur divide.
The divide between the “experts” and “amateurs” is easily seen when the experts—those employed by the church—think their job is to do ministry for the saints, not with the saints. They’re on the stage, writing curriculum, holding microphones, and leading ministries. This looks like pastors who read and teach the Bible in such a way that their congregation thinks, I could never read the Bible like that. It looks like worship leaders who are more interested in putting on a performance for an audience than in calling the congregation into greater participation. These spiritually elite experts are perceived to be the ones who really do the work of ministry, because they’re seen to have some kind of talent, gift, or skill set that sets them apart from the rest of the congregation.
Ephesians 4 isn’t just about what the church should be doing, but about what Jesus is doing for and through his church.
Meanwhile, there is also a group who perceive themselves to be the amateurs. Rarely are they given the opportunity to do ministry; they just passively receive the ministry done by the experts.
Too often ministry experts enjoy the distance between themselves and a congregation of amateurs. They enjoy being seen as the experts, and they have little incentive to bridge the gap, so instead they make the gap greater. But that isn’t what Paul outlines as the shepherds’ and teachers’ purpose: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11–12). Ministers, pastors, and leaders aren’t called to do all the ministry for the congregation, but to serve and prepare the congregation such that the “amateurs” can carry out the work of the ministry.
Equipping ‘Amateurs’ for Ministry
Great teachers don’t create distance between themselves and their students; they seek to remove that distance by helping their students learn. Likewise, students don’t simply want to observe great teachers; they want to learn so they too can participate. Leaders in the church aren’t called to create distance between themselves and the people they’re leading—they’re called to equip them for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4 isn’t calling teachers, ministers, and pastors to do the work of ministry for the church, but with the church.
God isn’t interested in creating an audience; he wants participants. Paul is insistent that one of the main purposes of the church is to invite all people into the work of ministry—not reserve it for a select few. In the church there isn’t a group of people who do ministry, and a separate group of people who receive ministry. All members of the family are called to do the work of ministry, and all members of the family are called to receive the ministry of others. We’re one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:12), and leaders are supposed to bridge the gap. Churches that want to create a culture of deep discipleship call on everybody to participate. They want to get all people—every single member—involved in the mission of building up the body of Christ.
Aiming for Maturity
Ephesians 4 also insists that all members are called to maturity—growth in Christlikeness. This may be one of the biggest gaps I see in ministry philosophies. Many Christians seem to think that most maturing happens outside of the local church, through online ministries, large conferences, or private devotions. But Paul insists that the local church is main context for fostering maturity.
One of the main purposes of the local church is to help saints grow up in their “faith and knowledge of the Son of God to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). God’s goal for Christ’s body, and for each individual member, is continual maturation into Christ’s image. Deep discipleship in the church is to help you and the people you lead achieve Christlikeness, another way of saying “God’s will for your life.”
Let’s Get Busy
If the goal of discipleship is Christlikeness, then all of our ministry efforts should aim toward that end. As F. F. Bruce observes, “The glorified Christ provides the standard at which his people are to aim: the corporate Christ cannot be content to fall short of the perfection of the personal Christ.”
Maturity is a long, arduous process. But it’s a process Jesus is fully committed to. He won’t stop until the church is as “tall” as he is, having attained “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The amazing thing is that he lets us help. So let’s get busy.