I cannot stand this word and what it represents. I hear it far too often. It represents an attitude that should be banned from local church life.
It is the word JUST. As in, “I’m JUST a layperson.” Actually, that is the specific context that makes me cringe when I hear this word. (I also squirm when it is used in public prayers, but that’s another column.)
The notion that life as a layperson needs to be qualified by the word JUST is at the heart of one of the unhealthiest trends in modern congregational life.
Here is how the J word is often used to convey second-class citizen status:
Minister: “Sharon, I think you have some outstanding ideas about our new discipleship ministry. How about sharing them with the rest of the leadership team next Wednesday?”
Sharon: “Oh thanks Pastor, but I could never do that. You know, I’m JUST a layperson.”
With the professionalizing of the clergy, an unfortunate and unbiblical dualism has arisen across the years. Some of the primary beliefs behind this dualism include:
*Clergy attend to sacred matters, laity concern themselves with secular matters.
*Clergy are the experts, laity are the amateurs.
*Ministry is the work of the clergy, and it is received by the laity.
Ann Michel is Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary. In a 2008 article in Circuit Rider, she suggested that we have created a congregational culture that discourages laity from becoming part of theological reflection and decision-making.
“The local church is filled with a barrage of overt and subliminal messages that reinforce the impression that laity are not qualified to be part of theological decision making.”
The result is over-functioning clergy, under-functioning laity, and a congregation that misses out on the joy of sharing in the satisfying work of making decisions collaboratively and theologically.
Michel offers some suggestions for bridging this chasm that have inspired me to make a list of healthy practices that address this dualism.
- Teach clearly the biblical understanding that all are called.
Far too often, we have elevated call to the point that many believe that only those in full-time ministry can be described as being called. What if we went back to the biblical text and studied the New Testament understanding of call? What we would find is that God’s call is a gift to all who claim him as Lord, and that we can articulate a robust and compelling theology of lay involvement. When we address clerical calling, we will want to do so within the larger context of God’s calling of everyone.
- Let’s practice some role reversal.
Clergy are susceptible to thinking, along with others, that they must always be the public pray-er, or speaker, or authority on all matters theological or ecclesiastical. What if we deliberately invited others into those roles as a means of avoiding the notion that we are the only ones at a reception who can pray, or the only ones who can lead a Bible study on Wednesday nights, or the only ones who can speak a eulogy at a funeral?
Some of the most insightful, most astute things I have ever heard have been uttered by lay persons at Deacon’s meetings, in Sunday School lessons, and during worship. Why not invite more of that on a regular basis?
- Let’s watch our language.
We can start with the J word. Not only do laity describes themselves this way but many clergy use the word to imply a qualitative difference in importance and status. To say “he’s just a layman” is to imply something that scripture simply does not support.
Let’s keep going. When we talk about our role as a minister, why not describe ourselves as “one of the ministers here at our church”? When we speak of the congregation, do we call them “My people”, “My church”, “My choir”, “My youth group”? Really? Seems like we are being a bit presumptuous at that point. All of them are His, not ours.
Same for claiming a role as shepherd of a flock. The metaphor works when we are speaking of Christ and his followers, but it seems a stretch to believe that the congregation is a bunch of lost and foolish sheep without their shepherd/minister to rescue them.
Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 12 and learn again what it means to be the body of Christ. Let’s study Ephesians 5:23 and be reminded who is the head of the church.
One of the great joys of local church ministry is the opportunity to live among and alongside a congregation filled with men and women who are seeking to be God’s people. As a minister, I want them to know how valuable and important they are to the church of Jesus Christ. No second-class citizens exist in his kingdom.