A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, August 1st 2021
‘Each of us,’ writes the Apostle Paul, ‘was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift … the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.’ (4:7, 11)
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, but no mention of digital ministers.
This year I was one of the Northern Synod representatives at the United Reformed Church’s General Assembly, the annual gathering of our denomination, whose congregations can be found across England, Wales and Scotland. We met online, and even with lots of breaks, four days of presentations and debates on-screen was pretty gruelling.
This year Assembly debated and accepted a proposal to appoint a URC denominational Digital Minister. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic most churches closed their buildings for worship and were not in a position to offer an alternative. Andy Braunston, who had set up URC Daily Devotions – a reflection on a biblical passage and a relevant prayer, delivered to your email inbox every day, also organised a recorded Sunday morning service, available online, with a variety of leaders from around the URC.
Whilst many URC churches are now worshipping, either in their building and/or online, some hundreds of individuals continue to receive and listen to this weekly service. They must be, by some distance, the URC’s largest congregation on a Sunday morning.
Andy did all this whilst carrying on with his day job – minister of four URC congregations on the south side of Glasgow. Such a combination of tasks for one individual is not sustainable, hence the proposal to have a URC digital minister. They would work full-time to maintain and develop the Daily Devotions and weekly service, plus maintaining and developing a set of resources for those leading online worship, plus(!) exploring possibilities about developing a URC online congregation, with associated worship, teaching and pastoral care.
There was a lot of discussion about this proposal, most of it very positive. No one queried the proposal on the grounds that because the role digital minster is not listed alongside apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in Ephesians 4, it lacks biblical warrant for its existence. After all, the other lists of ministry roles in the church that appear in the New Testament, in Romans 12 (6-8) and 1 Corinthians 12 (7-11) are not identical with the one in Ephesians 4, or with each other. This Ephesians list does not mention gifts of tongues, healing, giving, or organising/administration, but that does not mean they are to be excluded from the life of the Church.
When considering which ministries we need in our churches today, we can consult those biblical lists, and we probably will. A suggestion for a new ministry does not stand or fall on the basis of whether it appears on the biblical list. Happily, here in Ephesians 4 the Apostle provides us with a basis to make those sorts of decisions.
Having listed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, Paul immediately goes on to say why these gifts were given: ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the full stature of Christ.’ (4:12-13) Any potential Christian ministry should be judged on this basis, not whether it is included on a New Testament.
‘To equip the saints for the work of ministry’: in Ephesians, apostles, prophets, and evangelists are listed before pastors and teachers. These ministries, where the Church engages with the world around it – apostles, prophets and evangelists – come before pastoring and teaching, which are more concerned with life within the congregation. Churches in any era need both types of ministries. In this era, when people are not exactly pouring into churches, and many are ignorant of the content of the Christian gospel, we need to make sure to give full weight to the outward-facing ministries in comparison to those focused within the congregation.
‘For building up the body of Christ, until all of come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God’: ministry is for building up the body of the Christ – the Church. Such unity happens when we are united in knowing Jesus Christ, the Son of God. All our church’s organised activities need to have something of this focus upon Christ to them. If they don’t, they are not Christian ministries. They might be perfectly good activities, but they are not the same as Christian ministries, unless they are enabling either those who undertake them and/or those who receive them grow in ‘the knowledge of the Son of God.’
‘To maturity, to the full knowledge of Christ’: knowledge is not just about intellectual knowing – though we do need to know the content of the gospel. It’s also about ‘knowing’ in the sense of experiencing it: I know that you can eat Back Forest Gateau, and I know what it is to eat Black Forest Gateau. Christian ministry is about helping people know God, though knowing Jesus Christ, so that they experience leads them to become more like Jesus Christ; to come to maturity.
The URC General Assembly agreed to move to appoint a Digital Minister. We also instructed the denominational staff to look at making a second appointment. The first post will take up the existing Daily Devotions and Sunday Service ministry. The second post will concentrate upon how churches can engage online with others, perhaps including creating online congregations to do so. These ministries will be caring for what is already there in the Church and looking to minister outside of the Church; concerned with the content of Christian faith and with experiencing Christ in the online world.
You would almost think that General Assembly members had read Ephesians 4! And you would hope that as we in this congregation look to the future we too will look to create ministries that engage both the world outside the congregation, and care for life within the congregation; that share news about God, and experience of God, as made known to us through Jesus Christ. Amen.