Guest Book Review: The Crucifixion of Ministry
My sincere thanks to IVP for a review copy of Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP), 2007. And also my thanks to Phil Sumpter for the following review. Enjoy!
Andrew Purve's little book is a call to return to the heart of what being Christian is all about—discipleship to God, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It may sound pithy, but there's a concrete reality at work in this world which functions independently of our theologies, strategies and cherished agendas. This reality is what it's all about and so the most significant question you can ask is "what is this reality" and "how do I connect to it"?
This brings us to the interface of praxis and doctrine. The peculiarity of the Church is that it doesn't have a mission statement to fulfil in any strategic sense of the word. It has an identity as adopted son, and everything it does is dependent on its realizing its identity. This is because whatever ministry the Church may have in its various contexts is utterly derivative of the true ministry of the Church's Father. It's His ministry, and so if the Church is to do anything of lasting value, it must do it as a participant in the true ministry of the One who is the creator and perfecter of all things. The consequences of doing it alone, of attempting to be your own "ministerial messiah," is the burnout that many in the clergy are experiencing today.
For this reason, Purves opens his book with a call on church ministers—though by extension this applies to any Christian—to give up the claim that their ministries are theirs, rather than God's. Rather, we should embrace with joy the "crucifixion" of our ministries in order to make space for God to use us in His unfolding ministry. In other words, true Christian ministry is a profoundly theological act. The primary question we need to be asking is not "What strategies will work best in my ministry?" but rather "What is God doing and how do I join in?" The heart of Purve's book is dedicated to unpacking this doctrinal question.
For Purves, the foundation for our ministry is the Trinitarian claim that God is working in the world through his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is within this Trinitarian movement that the church is to find its true identity and the substance of its witness. God acts to save us in Jesus, who as a human offers back to God the service and worship he desires. The Holy Spirit is Christ's chosen form of presence among us and his function is to join us to Christ so that we can share in the love that takes place between Father and Son. This redemption results in a life of thankful response, and it is the task of pastoral work to call people to share in this "alien love." In short, "The centre of Christian faith and life is our sharing in the love or communion within the Holy Trinity and in the ministry that flows from it" (71).
Within this Trinitarian movement Purves highlights two truths that are of especial importance for ministry: the Doctrine of the Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Doctrine of our Unity with Christ. Following Athanasius, Purves holds that "Jesus Christ ministers the things of God to us and the things of humankind to God." This involves the paradox that Jesus is both the Word of God to us as well as the the one who receives God's Word for us. In other words, our response to the covenant is already fulfilled by one more capable of doing it. This has implications for how we worship, preach and teach, as the primary function of the minister is not to be Christ within the church but to witness to him. Ministry is inherently kerygmatic, pointing beyond itself to what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ.
This reality is actualized for us by the Spirit's uniting us to Christ. Union with the person of Christ means union with his ministry and thus provides the ground of the Church's ministry. In short, the being of the Church involves sharing the mission of Jesus from the Father for the sake of the world.
But what does all this mean practically? "Our task is to locate the identity and practice of ministry in the pattern and event of Trinitarian activity as the Word/Act of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (125). Purves refers to his "three-fold mantra" to help guide the minister in his or her work amongst parishioners. First, we must look for the "declarative moment" when we can bear witness to a particular aspect of Christ's ministry relevant to the life situation of the parishioner. This involves the hermeneutical move of locating his or her life within the Gospel. This should be accompanied by some liturgical, symbolical action, in order to communicate the depth of what Christ is doing. The book ends with three helpful case studies, illustrating the challenge and potential of deriving one's ministry from Christ's.
This review may give the impression that Purves has written a book of abstract theology. However, the argument summarized above is spread over 149 pages, which gives him ample opportunity to fill in the gaps with case studies, anecdotes and exegesis. The message is unfolded very slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, so that by the end of the book you are panting for it to come to a resolution. He manages to fit in the practical dimension into the last few pages. Though this was not as much as I would have liked, he does well to include three helpful case studies to fill out the picture.
All in all, the significance of the subject matter and its general readability make this book an important read for those wishing to locate their practical ministry on the horizon of the doctrinal tradition of the Church.
By Phil Sumpter