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John Piper on Interpersonal Ministry

John Piper, preaching on the importance of “body life” in a sermon entitled “How Christ Enables the Church to Build Itself Up in Love” says the following. I find his words wise and helpful:

Sometimes I wonder if the frequency and seriousness of many problems that Christians face is not owing to the fact that most Christians in America do not experience relational, interpersonal, supernatural church life the way the New Testaments describes it. Psychological problems, marriage problems, parenting problems, self-identity problems, financial problems, career problems, loneliness, addictions, phobias, weaknesses—I wonder if the edividemic of emotional and psychological woes is not the symptom of an organic flaw in the way most Christians experience corporate church life.

For most Christians corporate church life is a Sunday morning worship service and that's all. A smaller percentage add to that a class of some kind, perhaps Sunday morning or Wednesday evening in which there is very little interpersonal ministry. Now don't misunderstand me, I believe in the tremendous value of corporate worship and I believe that solid teaching times are usually crucial for depth and strength. But you simply can't read the New Testament in search of what church life is supposed to be like and come away thinking that Worship services and classes are the sum total of what church was supposed to be.

The inevitable effect of treating church as worship services and classes is to make the people of God passive and too dependent on ordained experts. And could it not be that this pervasive relational passivity and dependence of millions of Christians—I mean passivity in interpersonal, spiritual ministry—rob us of some of Christ's precious remedies for a hundred problems? If God designed the church to function like a body with every member ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit to other members, in regular interpersonal relationship, then would it be surprising to find that the neglect of this regular interpersonal, spiritual ministry cripples the body in some of its functions and causes parts of the body to be weak and sick? Isn't that what you would expect?

I wonder if the incredible felt need for professional psychologists—with the common assumption: Where else could you possibly turn?—whether this feeling is owing in large measure to an organic flaw in the way we experience corporate church life. Think about this for a moment. How do psychological counselors help people? (And many of them do!) It seems to boil down to three things: 1) personal one on one conversations, called counseling or psychotherapy; 2) personal group meetings with others facing similar struggles; and 3) medications, usually some form of antidepressant. Now I think we can be thankful for these things in many cases.

But isn't it amazing that when Christians are in distress and seek help from professional psychologists, short of medication, the help we get comes through one on one or group sharing. When confronted with the pain of people's personal problems where do professionals turn? They turn first to one-on- one conversation. And when more is needed they turn to small groups. Isn't that remarkable! That the multi-billion dollar ministry of psychotherapy that we have created to help hurting people is built almost entirely on the ministry of conversation. They talk. That is the ministry—the power of conversation. In the best settings, wise, insightful, prayerful, loving conversation.

Someone might conclude from this: So the church has failed to provide for this and should now be providing support groups—for all kinds of distresses and abuses. Yes, perhaps so. But the question that is troubling me more these days is more fundamental than that. I am asking whether generations of flawed organic church life is a significant part of the origin of some of our dysfunctions and distresses. It's the difference between asking whether the job of the church is to have programs to distribute vitamin C tablets to remedy a scurvy edividemic, or whether we should have all the while been eating oranges.

The full sermon can be read at: http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/95/091795.html.

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