All Ministry is God’s Ministry

By Jim Vitale

“The church is in decline.”

That’s what we keep hearing. The truth, however, is much more complicated. It is true that the overall percentage of Christians in America is decreasing. A recent Gallup study indicates that roughly 73% of Christians were members of a church in 1937; that percentage dropped below 50% in 2020. Similarly, Pew Research discovered that, “self-identified Christians make up 63% of U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago.” That being said, there are still more Christians in America than ever. Current estimates suggest there are about 210 million Christians in America; in 1950, there were roughly 136 million. Statisticians refer to this trend, rather confusingly as “negative growth.” This means that while population increase suggests there are more Christians in American than ever, the proportion of Christians to non-Christians in decreasing.

I offer these observations not to make things confusing, but only to suggest that saying “the church is in decline” does not capture the whole truth. Population numbers alone would suggest that our churches are fuller than ever, even if that is not accurately reflected in your congregation.

But the fact remains that times of changed and, for many of us, our churches are not as full as they once were. Congregations (particularly main-line protestant congregations) across America are lamenting diminishing attendance, decreasing membership, aging parishioners, uninvolved youth and families, and the apparent absence of young adults. It’s enough to make any passionate, faithful church-goer anxious.

The church is dying, we say, and our minds run wild with all the implications of that statement: America is lost. Christianity has failed. We have failed. The Kingdom will not come. And so on. These fears are totally understandable and legitimate. It makes sense that we would feel this way.

And, these feelings are not the whole truth.

In his book The Soul of Ministry, Ray Anderson makes the obvious, yet oft forgotten observation that “all ministry is God’s ministry.” When pastors, deacons, lay leaders, and congregations refer to their work as “my ministry,” they are (largely inadvertently) claiming for themselves something that actually belongs solely to God. When we “do ministry” we are really just participating in God’s ministry. In his book, We Are Here Now, Pat Kiefert augments Anderson’s observation by adding that the success or failure of any ministry belongs ultimately to God.

We are left with this powerful truth: All ministry is God’s ministry and the success or failure of that ministry belongs entirely to God.

It’s not up to us. We are participants, to be sure, and highly valuable ones at that. But the work we are doing was started and will be completed by God. God’s ministry to the world began at creation when God brought the world into being. It continued when God wove clothing for Adam and Eve after their fall. God ministered to humanity in bringing Noah through the flood, making promises to Abraham, and leading Israel out of slavery. God’s ministry culminated in the person of Jesus Christ whose incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension saved us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. And God’s ministry to humanity and all creation continues in the powerful (if often inscrutable) work of the Holy Spirit.

The church in America may or may not be in decline (depending on how you want to define your terms), but there is no way that God’s ministry in this world or this country is over. God’s ministry literally went to hell and back. God can handle a decline in church attendance.

I wonder if what we fear is not the death of the church or God’s ministry but rather change. Perhaps what we fear is the death of our traditions, our way of life, our legacy. Things don’t look the way they used to look and we lament that—because we really liked the way they looked. We liked having full pews. We liked having a million kids running around on a Sunday morning. We liked having a robust educational program. We liked having the church fair or the potlucks or the extravagant and deeply meaningful Christmas and Easter services.

And for a lot of us, those days are over. It makes sense we would be sad and even a little afraid. Things aren’t what they used to be. Everything seems to be changing.

And all ministry is still God’s ministry. And the success or failure of that ministry continues to belong to God.

Even if we have to close our church doors, sell our buildings, and meet in someone’s living room—
God still ministers to us and invites us into that ministry.

Even if we have to shut down our summer camps and invite kids to come do VBS in our back yards—
God still ministers to us and invites us into that ministry.

Even if we have to let our pastors go, dissolve our denominations, and lean only on the faithful Christians in our neighborhood—
God still ministers to us and invites us into that ministry.

Change can be difficult and laden with sadness. Change can be a reason for grief. But God’s faithfulness has weathered the storms of death and it can weather this change, too. We don’t need church buildings or denominational structures or summer camps to participate in God’s ministry. Those things are all good and wonderful and we should be happy to have them—but God’s ministry persists anywhere there are people. And there will always be people in need of God’s ministry.

So take heart. The times they are a changing. But God’s ministry never does—and no matter what may come, no matter what the landscape may look like, God will still invite us to participate in God’s ministry of goodness, grace, and love for the world.