The term laity is a word derived from laos, a Greek word meaning people. In the biblical sense, it includes all people who believe in and are committed to Jesus as Savior and Lord. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is a fundamental belief among our clergy and laity. In recent years this doctrine has been a topic of major importance as we seek to evangelize the world. This belief presents a paradox to all thinking leaders in the Church of God: we acknowledge the “priesthood” but still it is a sacred few who actually do the work of ministry. The laity are needed. The doctrine of the laity is so important, that if adequately understood and properly expressed in the life of God’s people, it could bring about a spiritual awakening that would revolutionize the life and ministry of the church.
Church of God Laity and the Present
The Church of God has been a trendsetter in the arena of lay ministry. Consider the following:
- We are among a handful of denominations that partially fund and staff a full Department of Lay Ministries.
- There is a general acceptance of laity as ministers and sincere attempt to understand the vital role of the laity.
- Many lay people are involved in meaningful ministry in our local churches.
However, there remains a lot of work to do in this area of preparing God’s people for ministry. The words of the late Rev. Richard C. Halverson strike a responsive cord when we consider the plight of the laity. He said, “The church has succeeded in pulling Christian men and women out of the world, out of society, and out of community and civic affairs. It has become a little island of irrelevant piety surrounded by an ocean of secular need.” The present status of our laity seems to be introspective as we tend to look at ministry only within the confines of the church. There are two key areas that are responsible for this situation:
- Our calling. Often, the role of the laity seems to be gauged only by finance and attendance. We serve as council members, trustees, clerks, teachers , advisors and board members. It appears that still only a “sacred few” do the real work of the ministry. The Church of God has wrestled long with the problem of Christian vocation and partnership in ministry. Are laity “called” (the word “calling” comes from the Latin vocatio meaning “vocation”), or are only clergymen? It appears that the laity chose what they are to do, but the clergy are the ones who receive a divine call into ministry. The issue here is not the clergy but clericalism which results in the exclusivism of God’s work. One leading laymen in our church put it this way, “I believe our present status [referring to lay ministry in the Church of God] is considered a “perk” of the church and not a recognized source of ministry. A ‘perk’ is something you can use or take advantage of but it’s not vital.”
- Our ministry. When we think of “full time ministers” we tend to think of only those who are ordained as clergy. Ministry is a station for a few rather than the function for all. The concept of “pray, pay and obey” is painfully evident as the primary function of lay people. The laity are valuable because of who they and what they can do. The laity are not used to reach the goal of the church…they are the goal! We must see that
- laity can receive a “call from God” in their daily work,
- the vocation of lay people is a stewardship opportunity and,
- the work of the laity is the will of God in the life of the believer. The secular work of the laity must be viewed as both a “calling” and a “ministry.”
Church of God Laity and the Future
We have to be concerned with the future of our church, the only future which cannot and must not anticipate retirement. To be wedded to today is to be a widower tomorrow. We live a new fast-paced, technological society that calls for dramatic change in thinking and action. The program structure of the our denomination is built on a model that is at least one hundred years old. That is, most our present boards, agencies, commissions, associations and departments arose from our early history. The change that has come has been within the structures, not in new structures. Dramatic change is needed in these areas:
Perception. The laity must be considered as equal partners in ministry and recognized as priests in the marketplace. Teamwork with the pastor and his staff must be emphasized and well developed. It would be revolutionary to cultivate such a level of teamwork with lay leaders.
Enablement. In order for lay ministry to flourish, the support of voting ministers in needed. Lay leaders must be a vital contributor to ministry, not just “another pair of hands.” State Offices and local churches must be willing to hire and pay laity to work full time as lay ministers.
Education. The laity must be able to defend their beliefs and share them with others. They must become students of the Word. The laity deserve to have an opportunity to receive education that will motivate, educate and continuously train them to enhance teamwork, pride of workmanship, personal growth and productivity.
Training. Training and discipling are needed in the ministry of elders and deacons. Training is needed in the area of outreach and evangelism so that lay people can be fruitful in ministry. Somehow the standard of excellence for lay leaders should be benchmarked to that of the clergy. The clergy could set up a standard that would measure the quality of lay training.
Outreach. Ministry has to take place beyond the confines of the local church. We need to reach out far beyond our walls not only in public relations type ventures but in hard-hitting, soulwinning evangelism efforts. The laity must be released for ministry. This aggressive outreach goal must involve the laity in the following ways:
- Winning the lost to Christ and getting them into the local church
- Discovering their “giftedness”
- Affirming and motivating them
- Training and discipling them
- Giving them meaningful opportunities for service
The future awaits us, a future which will not tolerate yesterday’s Church in today’s world, let alone the world of tomorrow. The future is in the hands of the leaders in the Church of God. This is an hour of challenge. And of promise. The choice before the church as we face the future is continue with our present pattern and style of ministry or to allow for a “second reformation” — a reformation of the released power of the laity-God’s people-in the world today. We truly need holy boldness.