The Role of God’s People in Community and the World

I conclude this series on the church and modern mission by looking at the role the laity must have as we go forward. This theme is so large that I will only scratch the surface. I purpose to write a new series, before year’s end I hope, on the theology and role of the laity in the modern church. I believe this is one of the most important biblical recoveries we are beginning to witness in the 21st century.

A Lay Mission

Words such as lay, layperson and laity are all fraught with negative connotations. The word laity refers to the people of a religious faith as distinguished from its clergy. Or it refers to the mass of the people as distinguished from those of a particular profession who are considered more skilled. The first known English use of the word occurred in the 15th century.

The irony of this English development is that the Greek word laos actually refers to a particular people, or a people group, tribe, or nation; i.e., to all those who are of the same stock and language of the entire population gathered together. Thus in the biblical text the laity is the church, the whole people of God. The clergy, if such a concept even exists in the New Testament as we know it today, are those set apart to serve the church, the laos. Even the clergy, if we rightly use this term, were included in the laos, or the whole people gathered in the church as God’s people.

A fresh missionary encounter in the West requires a recovery of ministry among the laity understood in this biblical way. The ministry of the laity must once again be made central to the life and mission of the whole church. In the West, through the development of the Christendom model and the spread of it into the North American context, the clergy grew in stature and prominence until the church depended on the clergy to be the professional Christians who did the ministry for them.

The “professionalization” of the leadership of the church, understood correctly as servants trained spiritually and intellectually to shepherd and guide the church, goes back to post-apostolic times. The Protestant Reformation rediscovered the role of the laity in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. But in the major branches of the Protestant movement this teaching never seriously altered the reality of how the church functioned in Europe and later in North America. Only in the Radical Reformation, among various Anabaptists, did the idea of everyone being engaged in mission take root.

Two Crucial Reasons

David Bosch suggests that the renewal of the laity must happen in the modern missional context for two compelling reasons.

First, the church’s witness will be more credible if it comes from those who do not belong to aseparate guild of pastors. The perception of the majority of younger people in our society is that the clergy are trained professionals who do religion because this is their livelihood, their profession. This is no different from how people think about lawyers, doctors, teachers and others who are trained as professionals. Clergy are trained religionists. They proclaim the message of Christ and Christianity because this is what they do. It is their job, their profession. The breakdown of Christendom has challenged this understanding profoundly. The generation under 40 sees the church as an institution that is generally irrelevant to their lives. They see ministers and priests as professionals who are paid by the church to serve those who take part in this irrelevant institution. Thus, a complete and wholesale recovery of the true mission of the laity is essential if we are to recover witness in the modern West.

Second, because our culture has divided public and private life so profoundly we have no hope of reaching into the public world unless we do it through those who actually live in this sphere. The way to bring together what our culture has divided-the public and private spheres of the world–is for the lay members of the church to engage the whole world as disciples of Jesus. Lesslie Newbigin rightly noted that pastors belong to a separate “religious” world thus only the lay members of the church can bring their peers into a Christian experience of life. These points are wonderfully made by theCape Town Commitment, a unique document that every church and pastor ought to have and discuss. (Available online at:

There is great hope for an ongoing recovery of the role of the laity that can be seen in a movement that goes under the name of “marketplace theology” or “marketplace mission.” Do a Google search and follow the trails if you are interested at all.

Our Witness Flows Out of Our Community

At the very core of the rise of missional theology is community, the congregation. Whether it is in a beautiful church building or a living room, a small store front or a pub, the church must be a community. This is apparent in the New Testament. Yet the church in the West still treads water and refuses to see the importance of “us” and “our life together.”

Lesslie Newbigin rightly observed, in a 1989 book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, that the only hermeneutic (right interpretation) of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. More people are talking about this idea than ever but few still seem to get it. Listen to most of our conversations about witness and mission. A great deal of them are rooted in the first person singular. We have so internalized our individualism, rooted in the Enlightenment and modernity, that we have little understanding of the place and importance of community. Bosch concluded rightly that “unlike philosophical schools or scientific experiments, theology has no life unless it is borne by a community. The same is true of mission” (Believing in the Future, 60).

Let me put this very simply. Local church actually happens when people are shown how to actually engage with their culture 24/7. But this is not happening in most places. Hauerwas and Willimon were right when they concluded: “Christians are sitting on a gold mine called the church, but unfortunately the very categories we have been taught as Western Christians make it difficult for us to notice that it is gold” (“Why Resident Aliens Struck a Chord,” in Missiology 19:419-422).


If we take seriously every element of what I have outlined in this series, there is no guarantee that we will see vitality and renewal in the American Church. God never promises our success! We do not know what the future holds or how the church will cope with what lies ahead in the West.

What we can and must do is address the depth of our faithfulness and commitment. We can speak truthfully to power and we can do this first in the church. David Bosch, from whom I have shamelessly drawn the major principles and outline of my thoughts in these fifteen articles, says that along with Matthew 28 we should add Matthew 10 which should “now be the charter for missiological praxis and reflection” (Believing in the Future, 61).

The greatest danger to our mission may be that we will be increasingly mocked and ignored. This should not surprise us. Persecution may result in various forms. This too should not surprise us. Yet times do change, sometimes rapidly as we saw after 9/11. Whatever the future of the church in America might be we will always have a missionary task to carry out if we are the faithful laos, the people of God. What we must now do is prepare for a future that will look very different from our past. I do not see how this can be seriously questioned by thinking, earnest followers of Jesus.