Adapted from Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World by Stephen J. Nichols.
“Lord, what would you have me to do?”
If Bonhoeffer were to meet a person with such questions he would say:
Do something. Serve somebody. That is ministry. That is God’s will.
Certainly there is legitimacy to taking stock and being strategic and asking soul-searching questions. There’s also a place for waiting on God, for times of withdrawal and personal meditation. But sometimes we overthink it, and sometimes we overindulge the self.
In Bonhoeffer’s thinking, every child of God is a minister; all Christians are called to ministry. Bonhoeffer sees our task of ministry in seven particular ministries in the church (listed in Life Together). All of us can do at least one of them well, many can do a few of them well, and even a few gifted individuals in the church can do them all well.
In other words, we can all do something. We are all called to ministry.
For Bonhoeffer, ministry is not about power and authority, but service. The word itself, diakonia, means service, a word held in high esteem by Bonhoeffer. His list of ministries, then, reflects this fundamental starting point of what ministry is about.
The ministry of holding one’s tongue
Bonhoeffer pegs silence as a self-discipline worthy of highest virtue. “Where the discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in a particular place where he can gain ascendency over him.”
The ministry of meekness
“He who would learn to serve must first to learn to think little of himself.”
The ministry of listening
Listening—attentive, sympathetic listening—comes far too hard for us. Comparatively, talking comes far too easy. It’s the reason James the brother of Jesus had to warn us to be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19) and not the other way around. As Bonhoeffer points out, “He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.”
The ministry of helpfulness
Bonhoeffer challenges us here to “be interrupted by God,” to put our plans on hold and to help those who come across our path and need help.
The ministry of bearing
Not only are we called to help, but we are also called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). Bonhoeffer speaks of it as our duty; in fact, he says, “It is the fellowship of the cross to bear the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian. If any member refuses to bear that burden he denies the law of Christ.”
The ministry of proclaiming
Once these first five ministries and their respective obligations are in place, then Bonhoeffer turns to the “platform” ministries. Bonhoeffer stresses the need for authentic Christian living before the action of proclamation. To put this colloquially, one needs to “walk the walk.”
The ministry of authority
The exercise of pastoral authority—the second of the “platform” ministries. Bonhoeffer makes the case that without the first five ministries, the platform ministries, just like the preaching in the opening scene of his novel, become little more than the bellowing of hot air.