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The Essence of True Ministry

David A. DePra

It didnít take long after the apostles died for Christians to develop some strange ideas about ministry. Most people think that ministry is a profession. We think that it is the product of a seminary degree. To us, perhaps ministry means serving at church, preaching a sermon, holding a Bible study, etc. None of those things are wrong things to do, of course, but rather good things to do Ė if done Biblically. But the act of doing any of those things is not the essence of ministry. Never was and never will be.


Ministry is LIFE Ė His life. I put it this way: Christianity is CHRIST IN US. Our witness is CHRIST SEEN in us. But our ministry is CHRIST WORKING THROUGH US.


The fact is, if my ministry isnít a product of HIS LIFE working, first IN ME, and then THROUGH ME, then it isnít His ministry. It may be MY ministry, but it isnít HIS. And truly, if it is MY ministry, big things can be accomplished. Large churches, TV ministries, and even thousands of saved souls are possible results of MY ministry. But despite all of that, if the results are that of MY ministry, rather than HIS, something is going to be missing. And the tragedy is, we wonít even know it is missing.


Jesus always intended to have a Body of believers who were living witnesses unto Him, because of His life in them. It was out of HIS life within, that true ministry was to emerge. This is what happened in the first century, and it shook the world. But unfortunately, it is much easier just to DO ministry, and DO witnessing, in the power of religious flesh. And religious flesh can be quite good and upright. And it is much less costly than what it takes to BECOME a living witness.


If the church today would see just this one thing, it would change everything. For the moment we would see and embrace the true essence of ministry, the entire church system of professional ministry, finance, preaching the gospel, and even most of what is practiced in churches today Ė would collapse. But that would be good. For what would emerge as the result of seeing the Truth about ministry would be a body of believers who themselves are living witnesses unto Jesus Christ, and who could be used of Him as ministers of His goal and purpose.


The Minister and the Ministry


Jesus said that God could, from stones, raise up children of Abraham. My suspicion is that He could do the same with regards to ministers, preachers, and helpers. If all God wants is people who will DO THINGS for Him, then we might not have the problems we have today in the church. But you see, God isnít half as concerned about the things we are doing for Him as we are. Rather, God wants US.


God wants the minister Ė the person who would be used by Him Ė before He even wants to talk about ministry. In fact, unless God first has US, we cannot minister in the Holy Spirit. Godís possession of us, and work in us, of course, is an on-going work that can be happening WHILE we are being used of God. But so often, it is not something which happens at all.


Now, before we proceed, we must reemphasis this Truth. It is foundational, and unless it grips our heart, nothing else is going to work. I say it again: God wants YOU. Not your talents, not your money, not your brains, not your supposed ability to serve in church. He doesnít care all that much whether you are good at preaching, teaching, or solving problems. No. What God cares about is what you are BECOMING in relationship to His Son.


Donít think what I am talking about here is salvation. If you arenít saved, you are reading the wrong article. I am talking about what SAVED people are becoming because of Jesus Christ. Are you becoming more and more devoted to, and dependent upon, Jesus Ė not as a member of your church Ė but in the secret places where no one can see? Are you more and more sensitive to your own faults, yet more and more conscious of the grace of God which is given you in spite of them? Or do you just excuse in yourself all manner of bad attitudes, arrogance, pride, and sin? Do you actually think that serving at church, giving money, or anything else you do, can compensate God for your lack of devotion to the Person of His Son?


The fact of the matter is, there are thousands upon thousands of church going Christians right now, who have absolutely NO CONSCIOUSNESS of any sort of inward working of the Holy Spirit. There is NO conflict between flesh and Spirit in them Ė the lack of which is a DANGER signal. If you sense no inward struggle between the Holy Spirit and your flesh, then Iíd worry. The two are opposed one to another, and if you have no conflict, something is wrong.


When is the last time that the Holy Spirit corrected your attitude? Your words? When you pray, do you bring YOURSELF before God FIRST Ė just like Jesus said you must? Or do you operate continually from the position of being a superior person?


Now, of course, all of this could sound quite critical. It is not intended to be. Consider it an on-going wakeup call. Most Christians have no consciousness of any inward working of the Spirit because they have never been taught they ought to have it. They are not so much rebelling against God, as being distracted by other issues Ė which they have been taught are Godís priority. The result is relative COMFORT and EASE in our churches Ė a "country club," atmosphere. Or Ė and this is just as bad Ė churches whose number one goal is to keep the peace. The trouble is, the Holy Spirit DISTURBS. You can see the problem.


Jesus wants us Ė not to merely witness Ė but to BE LIVING WITNESSES unto Him. Do we recognize that if we go out and witness to people, but are not living witnesses unto Christ, that in the end, we are going to be false witnesses unto Him?


What is a living witness unto Christ? It is a human being who IS evidence of the risen Christ! We are living witnesses unto Jesus when people can look at us and say, "This person is evidence of Jesus Christ. They are a testimony of what happens when a person belongs to Jesus."


And what evidence should be seen by others? Our nice personalities? No. Our dedication to our church? No. Our willingness to give money to our church or missions? No. Our serving? No. None of these things are wrong, of course, and may be good. But you donít even need to be converted to Christ to do any of those things Ė people in cults do them, too. The evidence that people ought to see is our unconditional devotion and dependent to Jesus Christ.


Can we see that the fundament of our witness is our personal relationship to Christ? Our lives ought to be characterized by our relationship to Him. That is BEING a witness. And if our lives are characterized by our relationship of devotion and dependence upon Christ, then good works, real love, and everything else that ought to be in the life of the Christ is going to emerge. But it will emerge Ė not as a product of a religion about Christ Ė but as the result of a relationship with Him.

Thus, we begin to see the essence of real ministry. Real ministry is based in a relationship with Jesus Christ. The minister is able to minister Christ, because Christ has hold of THEM. Stop short of that, and you end up with nothing more than another religion.




In the Bible, ministry is the product of the life of Christ in us, working THROUGH us. Once we understand that, we will understand that it has NOTHING to do with formal training. Nothing. It means that EVERYONE who is in Christ has ministry. Everyone. This does not mean that there is no such thing as leadership in churches, such as pastors, etc. It does not necessary mean formal training is wrong. No. But it can become a snare if formal training is used as a substitute of a personal knowing of Jesus Christ.


There are pastors and teachers. These are gifts of the Spirit. But the pastor IS the pastor, in the mind of God, because of Christ in that person, working through them, unto pastoral ministry. It isnít because of seminary training. In short, a minister isnít a minister because they were IN seminary. They are a minister because Christ is IN THEM Ė unto that end.


Ministry is never the result of someone making a career choice. It is never a matter of me wanting to be a minister, getting training, and then getting hired by a church. Neither is ministry something I do because I like it, sort of like it is all for me Ė to give me a sense of fulfillment. No. In every instance in the Bible, ministry is a direct calling by God. And the first thing God usually does is keep the minister FROM ministry. Rather, God begins by dealing with the ministers themselves. And sometimes, indeed, more than often, many years go by.


One of the primary ways in which God deals with those He calls is to TEAR DOWN everything in them which might take ownership over the very ministry to which they are called. God begins to crucify the flesh of the minister so that they will not pollute the things of the Spirit with their own agenda. This is necessary so that God can entrust to that person the ministry He has called us to.


Most people who end up operating in the flesh do not plot to do so. They probably donít even know there is such a thing. Or donít want to know. God wants to deal with that possibility. But you see, we have a better idea. Letís just forget about the spiritual condition of those called to ministry, and send them to seminary. Thatís all they need for ministry.


Iím not against seminary. Iíve been there. But I can tell you that the real value of it is that it keeps you in the Bible Ė something you can do without seminary. The brutal Truth is, there is really only one preparation God says is necessary for ministry: To be with Jesus. To see Jesus. And because of that, to be unconditionally devoted to Him.


Ministry ought to be the outcome of unconditional surrender to Jesus Christ. It ought to just happen Ė His life in us ought to well up and BE ministry Ė even if we donít have a name tag to hang on it. Ministry is Christ Ė through us to others.


Not a Career Choice


Never think that a large church cannot be built by the power of religious flesh. It can. Cults have proved that. Never think that a preacher cannot become successful, well-liked, and highly influential, but all because of NATURAL gifts and abilities, rather than through the Holy Spirit. This also is possible. Furthermore, I am not here necessarily talking about fakes, charlatans, and hucksters. Iím talking about nice people. There are lots of nice, successful people out there today, totally sincere in what they are doing. But many of them are not doing it in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are doing it through natural ability, and the power of religious flesh. God isnít in much of it.


Again, people generally simply DONíT KNOW. But why? Well, itís all the result of the SYSTEM we have created. It is so ingrained into people that ministry is a career choice, or a profession, that most people never question it. To most of us, if a person is, "IN the ministry," well, then if they have the right training, then they should, "minister." For those who are not, "IN the ministry," well, they ought to know their place. All of this is part of the system we have created in the Body of Christ today of seminaries, church government, and cookie-cutter religion.


Where is Jesus Christ?


The problem in the Body of Christ today is NOT that we are failing, "to keep up with changing times." Rather, it is that we have not kept IN the will of God. Where is Jesus today in our churches? The same place He is in personal lives Ė for the church is nothing but the sum total of those personal lives.


I have been in congregations where the people were nice enough, but once church was over, there was NOT ONE WORD from anyone about Jesus. Christ was not discussed, referred to, or even mentioned. The attitude was that church was over, and so it was time to move on to other things. I donít mean that Jesus ought to be the subject of every conversation. But if you understand what I mean, when Christian people talk about problems and issues, there ought to be a CONTEXT of Christ. A vocabulary. A suggestion of what God wants in the situation, or an exhortation to find the will of God. Indeed, if you did not know better, you would not even know you were standing around with a group of Christian people in some places Ė right after church.


There is another mentality I have seen. People are all excited about what God is doing in their church. But you rarely hear anything about what God is doing IN THEM. This misses the point totally.


One of the indicators that something is wrong today in the Body of Christ is the continual ranting about everything that Jesus will give you. People preach about how to get God to bless you, heal you, make you rich, and give you your dreams. But how much teaching have we about the Person of Jesus Himself? How often do we hear that we ought to, "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness," and that if we do, ALL that is part of Godís will shall be added unto us?" Indeed, when is the last time that you heard a message about HOW to seek first the kingdom, what that means, and what the results will be? Usually, we are told that to seek first the kingdom means to give money to church first, and then pay our bills. Or something to that effect. Can we see that these Truths go beyond


It is a difficult lesson to learn: God doesnít need me. Furthermore, no matter how talented I may be with natural abilities, unless the power of the Holy Spirit is working through me, that which of flesh IS flesh, and will gender only what flesh can gender: More flesh. Thus, the important issue is not how good of a speaker I am. Or how much professional training I have as a pastor. The issue is HIS LIFE within me Ė and how much freedom HIS LIFE has to operate through me.


We can say the same thing from another angle. No matter how UNTALENTED I am, if His life is working through me, there will be ministry. Again Ė ministry is CHRIST. It isnít me. I am only the vessel. And unless God has possession me my heart and life Ė I wonít even be much of a vessel.


Can we see the Truth here? If I have credentials for ministry, it is not necessarily because I am called. It may only be because I am trained. If I donít have credentials, it is not because I am not called. It is because I have not been trained in a religious institution. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in ministry ought not to be, or that those who are not in ministry ought to be. Not at all. But it does means that God never intended for there to be a religious hierarchy in His church Ė defined by formal training. There were to be leaders Ė defined by a calling from Jesus Christ.


If Jesus Christ has called me to ministry, then my LIFE, and my MESSAGE, will have an effect upon the Body of Christ unto edification in Christ. I donít need to wear a badge, or post credentials. His life will be operating through me and minister Ė in accordance to my devotion to Him.


Ministry is HIS LIFE. Ministry is Jesus Christ being evidenced and, "ministered!" And unless He is in me, and has freedom to come through me, there can be little ministry. Do we think this can be accomplished merely by going to a seminary and getting credentials?


We are better off with church leadership who have walked with Jesus and are able to minister in the Spirit, than we are with those who are dead spiritually, but have all kinds of credentials. But of course, it is almost a waste of time to even talk of such things. Few are going to listen today. It is almost impossible to crack the mentality of most in leadership.




Certainly, the apostles exemplified the principle of what God is after. They were said to be, "ignorant and unlearned men." Yet God used them to turn the world right side up! Some intellectually arrogant Christians today ought to wake up to this fact. God could not care less how smart you are. It will NEVER help you in the things of God. And it may, in fact, be your undoing. For you may think that your intellectual grasp of scripture IS the thing God is after. It isnít. God doesnít want you to learn merely doctrines and teachings, so that you can parrot them and impress people. He wants you to learn Christ. And if you do, it will cost you everything you admire about yourself. THEN you might be able to minister in the Spirit.


This doesnít mean the GOAL is to remain ignorant and unlearned. No. The goal is CHRIST.


Read the NT qualifications for leadership in Timothy and Titus. See any degrees or credentials there? Nope. Not a hint. What you do see is that those in leadership are required to evidence a LIFE and a RELATIONSHIP with Jesus Christ. Fruits.


Many churches today are not interested in the spiritual health of the congregation. Thank God some ARE concerned with it. But many donít even know to be concerned about spiritual health Ė that is Ė they themselves have never been taught what spiritual health means. Rather, things have become so marred as to the purpose of God, that today a successful church is measured by numbers and money, and not LIFE. The goal is to grow a church, not to nurture the people in it.


If we had our priorities straight, Jesus would have the freedom to build HIS church. And those priorities put HIM Ė His life in us Ė at the top of the list. This starts with leadership. It is amazing how easy it is to be excited about CHURCH, and how hard it is to get excited about Jesus Christ.


Purpose of Ministry


The purpose of ministry is to, well, umm, minister Christ. To minister HIS LIFE. This is more than just a message preached or taught. It is the IMPACT of His life, in us and through us, to others. In short, rather than have a ministry as a THING, we are supposed to BE the ministry.


But according to the apostle Paul, the COST of true ministry Ė the ministry of LIFE to others Ė is death in you. Few want to accept this as necessary. But it is. That is because there is too much in each of us to hinder the flow and use of the Holy Spirit. If you want to be used, God must bring a death to those things.


Can we NOW see that ministry is not the product of reading books? And that, "to minister," is more than just preaching and teaching? Sure. Not to disdain those things, but they are merely the delivery. The true ministry is what God has done IN ME of His Son. It is THAT which God uses in the lives of others. He wants to edify others in Christ and bring them to maturity.


Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. 12 So then death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:1-12)


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