According to the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, the term “diakonia” (from the Greek verb diakonein, to serve; cf. diakonos, male or female servant) refers to service as a permanent activity of the church throughout its history.
Diakonia, or the “responsible service of the gospel by deeds and by words performed by Christians in response to the needs of people”, is rooted in and modelled on Christ’s service and teachings. The intimate link between the service of God and the service of humankind is said by Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry to be exemplified for the whole church by the ministry of deacons.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, as governments in Western Europe tended to take on more responsibility for social security, some churches left diakonia in the hands of the social services and welfare and saw their diaconal role as one of only “plugging the gaps”.
A number of churches established “boards of social responsibility” or similar bodies to influence government policy and thus practise prophetic diakonia.
Especially in Eastern Europe, Christians were asking what it meant to be a Christian in a socialist and communist state. Others reflected on what it meant to be a Christian and to be a church in a capitalist state.
By the late 1980s, for reasons of both economic ideology and pragmatism, governmental authorities were increasingly asking voluntary agencies to take on the new tasks, precisely at a time when many churches were facing acute funding difficulties and had fewer staff and less financial resources for diakonia.
But government support for church-related diaconal endeavours typically comes with restrictions, conditions and complicated reporting requirements, requiring further professionalisation of diakonia.
Those involved in diakonia, whether as professionals or volunteers, would view service to the neighbour as half of the church’s life, the other half being the worship of God. But in international, national, regional and local church structures diakonia is too often marginalised and decisions are made by those who give priority to the pastoral care of the gathered church.
That’s what the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement says.
In 2012, as the Uniting Church celebrates 20 years of the ministry of deacon, a change could be in the wind.
More attention may be paid to our deacons’ calling: to be a sign of the presence of God in the everyday world; to be especially aware of the places in the community where people are hurt, disadvantaged, oppressed, or marginalised and to be in ministry with them in ways which reflect the special concern of Jesus for them; to recognise, encourage, develop and release those gifts in God’s people which will enable them to share in the ministry of caring, serving, healing, restoring, making peace and advocating justice as they go about their daily lives.
Deacons hold up service, encourage people in their service of God, advocate for justice, care, pioneer service on the fringes, educate, enable, prophesy and build bridges.
Their time has come.
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