Bursting the Bonds of the Layman
One of the most tragic aspects of the western evangelical landscape has been the hollowing out of the layman’s Christianity. Notice that I did not say the layman’s role in the church, though that is undoubtedly incorporated in what I mean by “Christianity”; but it is so far from the specific thing which I mean that I must use the term “Christianity” broadly. By Christianity I mean the entirety of the Christian life. From home life to work life to church life. It is being hollowed out.
Over the past decade or so there has been a noticeably palpable resurgence in the emphasis on the relationship between faith and work. Indeed, many churches have made it a point to emphasize how the layman ought to work at his daily 8-5 job. Our pulpits continually extol the virtues of secular work urging parishioners to “redeem” their work, along with a host of other confusing commands about how one ought to work.
On the face of it this may seem acceptable, and not just acceptable, but commendable. And insofar as it hits on a salient point of Biblical truth, it is helpful (Colossians 3:17). However, the emphasis of Scripture is hardly ever about people’s work in the world. The emphasis is about God’s work in the world to redeem a fallen humanity and fallen world. And the great part about God’s working to redeem a people for himself is that we get to take part in that mission. Everyone. Not just pastors. Not just missionaries. Everyone.
If we are honest with ourselves, the layman’s situation in the western church is desperately bleak. Even in solid Bible preaching churches, where you can hear a weighty sermon every Sunday morning, his outlook is bleak. The layman is being fed the table scraps of the Christian life as he is left with nothing to do but take in more information, attend another bible study, make some attitude changes at home and work hard at his 8-5. His soul feels dry. Shouldn’t there be something more to this pearl of great price, he often wonders. Is he really just supposed to work hard and give lots of money and build up theological knowledge? Or is he too, no matter what his knowledge level, asked by Jesus to come along and call others to join him on the road to Emmaus?
But the professionals (in many cases, innocently and unwittingly) have taken this life from him. The painful reality is that our very church structures have communicated things to our laypeople no matter how much we might say differently from the pulpit. While we may be able read the book Brothers We Are Not Professionals and heartily agree, it would appear that our structures tell a different story. That no matter how personal and not professional the minister is, he is caught up in a structure that portrays him as a professional. In a sense, most ministers are not able to offer much else besides the table scraps of Christianity because when the church is built on a the priesthood of a few and the participation of a few, we shouldn’t be surprised that all which remains for the layman is working hard at his 8-5.
Churches had to give their laypeople something because as churches got more “solid,” it seemed more impossible for the everyday Christian to be on mission with Jesus. The layman is always waiting for one more training class to be released, one more course on evangelism to share the Gospel, one more book to read. Heavy input, low output, because the standard has been set too high.
But what if we set up church structures and the Christian life in such a way that said we truly believe in what the Bible says about the priesthood of believers? Consider the words of Peter, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of who called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Most of our doctrinal statements affirm the priesthood of all believers but most of us feel like we are living in a Christianity where there is a priesthood of a few, the professionals. Those washed by the blood of Jesus are all priests and all called to “proclaim the excellencies” of God.
Or what if we took Paul at his word when he gives perhaps his only clear instruction for what a church gathering should look like, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26) Each one! I haven’t heard that discussed in many circles about how to structure a church service. You may think this is impossible. You are right. In the current structure, it is impossible. Which means our structures need change that allow the layman to partake in the feast that is Christian ministry, Christian witness and so much more.
Our brothers and sisters in the global south are witnessing amazing movements of God that are led by lay people. That is not a misprint, the major movements of God happening around the world are being led by laypeople and the professionals are unseen. Think about that paradoxical axiom for a moment. The lay people are seen where the professionals are not and major movements of people to the Gospel are occurring. In the west, the professionals are seen and the lay people are not and we aren’t seeing much in terms of amazing works of God in drawing people to himself. Oversimplified? Perhaps, but a very strong nugget of truth exists in this paradoxical reality.
In his book Miraculous Movements, Jerry Trousdale tells of how God is using ordinary people to do the impossible around the world:
One of the surprises when you see Disciple Making Movements from the inside is that the people you will meet are extraordinary in the impression that they make on you, yet they come from very ordinary backgrounds and often are employed as farmers, weavers, office workers, carpenters, herdsmen, fisherman, tailors, agriculturalists, health-care workers, city officials, soldiers… and many other ordinary professions. You may ride with a driver, and he’ll tell you that he planted a church this year. A policeman will tell you how he makes disciples among the civilian populations. (pg. 171)
Trousdale goes on to tell countless stories of how God is using ordinary people to plant hundreds of churches. He tells stories of people like Namir, the church planting donkey cart driver, who is able to share the Gospel with people who ride with him.
The reason I draw attention to these examples is because our brothers and sisters in the third world see themselves as being on a mission with Jesus to reach the lost world, even in their jobs. They are fishers of men. Greater disciples than the missionaries they work with. Their primary concern doesn’t seem to be how to work hard or do their job better. While that certainly is a part of following Jesus, it is not the main part.
The layman’s Christianity in the third world is alive and well. They have been fully released to ministry. Ordinary people are sharing Jesus with others and planting churches. I am hopeful that we as a western church, as we listen to the word of God and learn from our brothers and sisters overseas, will be able to pour new biblical foundations for the life of the layman.