What Do We Get Out of It? Why Ministry So Often Sucks

Aristotle and the Reason Why Churches So Often Get It Wrong

Aristotle said that there are two kinds of moral action—those acts that are intrinsically good (i.e., “good in themselves”) and those acts that are instrumentally good.[1]

“Oh crap, here he goes again.”

Just hang with me a minute. An act is intrinsically good if it can’t be said to be done for any reason external to it. An act is instrumentally good if it can be said to be done in the service of something else.

“Kill me, please.”

No, wait. All right. I tell my kids to do their homework. So, they do their homework. Why?

“Because you told them to do it.”

And they might do it because they want to please me, or because they fear displeasing me.

“Exactly.”

Are there any other reasons why they might do their homework, totally unrelated to me?

“They might do their homework because they want to succeed and go to college, or perhaps because they don’t want to fail and risk not being able to go to college.”

True enough. Any other reason?

“They like it?”

Exactly! Maybe they do it because it brings them pleasure. Maybe they do it because the work itself is satisfying, because it offers them the chance not only to practice and learn, but because the practice and learning offer something good they can’t find anywhere else but in the work itself.[2]

Steven Pressfield notes one of the central truths of the Bhagavad Gita:

The laborer is entitled only to her labor, not to its fruits.

In other words, what you do should be its own reward. You have to learn to love what you do for its own sake, not for what it can bring you in the way of reward or applause (or in the church’s case—young families, a bigger operating budget, inflated membership roles, etc.).

Please understand, I’m not saying that the fruit of your labor is necessarily bad. I’m just saying that seeking first the fruit makes your labor only instrumentally good. That is to say, you do what you do—homework, your job, macrame, or ministry—only because you get something in exchange for it, something out of it. You need to do what you’ve been called to do, whether or not you ever realize any benefit from it.

“Why?”

Because you need to spend your time, your resources, your passion, your life on something, the value of which is intrinsic to it. One of the sad realities of Capitalism is that it teaches us to determine the value of a thing instrumentally—by what it’s worth on the open market. (This is why science and math, for instance, suck all the oxygen out of the academic atmosphere. Humanities—art, literature, music, philosophy, religion—are notoriously difficult to monetize.)

What Do We Get Out of It?

So, here’s the thing: Churches have a bad habit of asking this question first.

The answer to the question, “Why should we invest in this ministry?” if it is to be intrinsically and not instrumentally good is: “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Regardless of whether we ever realize any benefit from the costly investments of time and resources required by ministry, we do what we do because God wants it done. We take pleasure in the labor, not in its fruits.

Cost-benefit analysis, whether it’s a good way to assess the value of investing in Facebook stock, isn’t necessarily the best way to appraise the value of a soup kitchen, or a latch-key program, or an AIDS ministry.

Then again, anyone who follows a man executed by the state in the name of preserving good order should be trained to question the pursuit of purely instrumental goods.


  1. This is going to be grossly simplified, so don’t don’t email me.  ↩
  2. I will concede that this may very well be only a theoretical, if not a practical option.  ↩