Defining Ministry

Debates frequently arise about whether Southern Gospel, as a whole and as individual groups, is ministry, entertainment, or both. But proponents of different viewpoints often are talking past each other, by defining key terms differently.

A recent email exchange with a Southern Gospel artist prompted the question: What, exactly, is ministry?

Merriam-Webster defines “ministry” as “the office, duties, or functions of a minister.” They define “minister” as “one officiating or assisting the officiant in church worship.” (There are alternate definitions for each, but these are the primary definitions.)

These definitions are not exactly helpful when seeking to understand how the term is used in the specific Southern Gospel context. In a Southern Gospel context, how should ministry be defined?

Under the dictionary definition or a Southern Gospel definition, is there anything incompatible about a minister who entertains? How about a minister who makes his living doing ministry?

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26 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. In regards to a minister making his living from ministry, that one is easy. 1 Corinthians 9:13: the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (NIV)

    That is very straightforward. There is more in the verses previous to this one that help confirm the thought in that verse, if any one cares to read them.

    Also, in the Old Testiment, in 1 Chrinicles 9:33, there is precedent for singers making their living at singing: “Those who were musicians, heads of Levite families, stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night. ” (NIV) Sounds to me like they made their living from singing. Again, go read the entire chapter for context.

    Now, as for the difference bewteen entertainment and ministry: Many times, in my 20+ years of singing, there have been times when the greatest ministry I could perform was to put a smile on someone’s face. Sometimes ministry takes on the form of lifting up a brother or sister who is down, and who needs to smile. Seen it happen many times.

    Now, that being said, I do think that the church world as a whole has become way too enamoured with entertainement. Sure, every preacher needs a litte bit of an entertainer in him, but the main focus too often is on the entertainment, and not on the minstering. It is a very fine line to walk. Great is the minister who finds the correct balance.

  2. Just makes me think of the old Hovie Lister quote when asked “Are you an entertainer or minister” Hovie responded “Yes and Yes! Next Question” one of the coolest quotes next to J.D. Sumner’s “Don’t Preach, Don’t Talk, Just Sing!”.

    • Back to the question at hand: How would you define either term, though? ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Ministry:
        1. Sharing God’s message with the world.
        2. Lifting up the lowly.
        3. A cup of cold water in Jesus name.
        4. The edification of the saints.
        5. The sharing of the Gospel.
        6. To care for this sick, the bereaved, the widows, the fatherless…
        7. Encouraging the lowly in heart.

        Can involve, but is not limited to, points 1 through 7 above… ๐Ÿ™‚ In other words, at least where Southern Gospel is concerned, you can do both at the same time.

      • Great thoughts!

  3. I don’t really see it as all that complicated. Is the singer/group leading us in worshipping God? (per your definition)

    Just as various “worship services” may look different from one church to another, so will SG concerts look different, both from one another and from other church services. The question gets back to, whether ministering primarily to the saved or the unsaved, are they (the musical group) leading us in worshipping God?

    Some groups may be “entertaining” just as a church worship team may sometimes appear “entertaining” or a pastor’s sermon may include some “entertainment” in the form of illustrations, etc. to get the point across. But in the end, when the service or concert is over, have we (the congregation) been led in worshipping God?

    If we have, then ministry has taken place.

    And this isn’t taking into account the fact that one-on-one ministry often takes place after the concert is finished, while the member(s) of the group interact with people.

    I think sometimes we try so hard to distinguish between “entertainment” and “ministry” that we fail to see that they may be joined, and the entertaining aspect may be part of the hook that draws to a place where ministry can take place.

  4. Who cares how Merriam-Webster defines “ministry”? The question is, how does the BIBLE define ministry, and as a result, is a gospel singer considered a “minister” under Biblical descriptions?

    • Quite simply, the Bible was not originally written in English. ๐Ÿ™‚ It is indeed worthwhile to understand what the Bible has to say about the concept that we term “ministry” in English. I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the topic.

      At the same time, since we are carrying on this discussion in English, I will stick by my position that it is indeed helpful to know what the English words we are using signify. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Do you want an English interpretation of the word “ministry,” or a Biblical explanation of what “ministry” should be?

      • Either, though I think the dictionary definition portion is covered decently well. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Daniel this horse has been beaten to death far too often, and too incorrectily, and more importantly, too pius and religious, and the word religious here does not mean necessarily “of God”.

    Is not a preacher getting a hearty laugh in his sermon and turning that eventually into a point he is trying to make, entertaining? Hearing 3 or 4 voices singing songs of Him, blending in great harmony, is that not entertaining? Witnessing people renewed in spirit and focus, is that not entertaining? Seeing revival break out in a church that has long been dormant, is that not entertaining?

    Now re-read the above, and replace the word “entertaining” with ministry. Nuff said!

    JD once said, I am an entertainer. On those occassions when His spirit makes an appearnace, then I simply try to get out of His way”


    • Some discussion boards have beaten it to death. I have tried to avoid that here, only raising the issue when an interesting angle arises (like this one).

  6. At the most basic level, the verb “minister” means to serve. It can be applied many different ways, and is used in the Bible for many different things. In a spiritual context, it would basically mean to be of service to someone in fulfilling a spiritual need.

    “Entertain” would not be about fulfilling a need necessarily, but providing momentary joy. One could say that to “entertain” fulfills a desire of the flesh, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so. As long as what is entertaining you is not sinful, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it happening alongside ministry.

  7. As far as “making a living” goes, think about this. I don’t know how well this might apply to gospel singers, but I heard someone say before something along these lines.

    A church doesn’t pay a pastor for performing his duties as a pastor. Those are spiritual duties for which he will receive a spiritual reward. A church takes care of the pastor’s physical needs so that he can fully devote himself to those spiritual duties.

    • I’ve heard Southern Gospel singers comment to this effect: “We love what we do – we’d be happy to sing for free. We just have to get the flats/offerings to put gas in the bus, pay the mortgage and feed our families back home!”

  8. SG definition of “ministry” – a designation given to a singer or group of singers with questionable education or abilities to avoid certain taxes, licenses and responsibilities in the running of their business. Each singer or group must use the disclaimer phrases, “we are here for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to see a soul saved” and/or “let’s give Jesus a handclap of praise.”

    • Don’t think that holds, since many of the greatest talents, from Hovie on down, have accepted a definition of their music as ministry (while also entertainment).

      • This comment does bring up another question: how many, if any, southern gospel acts are actually designated as a non-profit, charitable, or otherwise tax-exempt entity? I don’t believe you’ll find many that fit that criteria, which means your average southern gospel act probably pays the same corporate taxes as any other taxable organization, with its members also paying the same sort of individual taxes as they would in any other line of work.

      • Good point. Look through incorporation filings for various states – most of the largest groups are indeed corporations and pay corporate taxes.

  9. It would take far too long to cover all of my thoughts on the matter, but the bottom line is if you’re a singing group and you’re not entertaining you won’t be “ministering” for long. I’ve never bought SG music because they were a ministry, I bought it because it entertained me.

  10. Is there a reference in the bible were anyone was ever called to “sing” the gospel? It is entertainment plain and simple, a part of worship.

    • Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 call all Christians to sing the Gospelโ€”though, of course, there are no specific commands to perform those songs for others (be they unbelievers or the redeemed)!

  11. I would like to use a simplified application similar God’s plan of salvation.

    It is all about the relationship of the person being called and the One that is calling.

    Case in point!
    Long time ago, my first summer working at a church camp found me working cleaning the restrooms and various living quarters.
    It was a Sunday mid-morning before three camp meeting services, the district superintendent walk into the restroom.
    He stopped me and told me something that I will never forget.
    You cleaning these restrooms is on the same level as my preaching this morning in the service.
    The restroom is usually the first place to visit by our guests.
    A messy restroom could set the tone for a person worship experience today.
    He stated that the same is the case back in our home church.
    A clean restroom can improve the opportunity for accepting Christ or attending the church in the future.
    By the way, he mentioned the greeter/usher performs the same ministry of giving the first impression in the church.

    I believe God can call anyone to use their Gifts, talent and their love of God to a minstry to win souls for Him including singing His music

    • I agree in using what God has given to advance the cause of Christ, however there is not much entertainment in cleaning a restroom. Standing on a stage in front of an audience singing or playing an instrument is entertainment. There is nothing wrong with that but let’s not elevate it to something it’s not.

      • GMF never said that cleaning bathrooms is entertainment. But it IS ministry.