12.07.2009

Serving God and Volunteering at Church

The phrase “serve God” is used frequently in religious and spiritual circles.  Through books, sermons, radio shows, conversations, and more we get lots of information on what it means to “serve God.”  In my years of observing, listening to, and often speaking on this topic I believe the concept of serving God is something Christians (both laypeople and clergy) misunderstand.

This will not be an exhaustive post on the topic but rather something that has occurred to me more and more over the years.  I worked at a church for several years as a youth pastor and since the beginning of 2008 have been working full-time in public school.  I attend church and volunteer.  I begin with a statement I learned to be quite true when I worked as a pastor:

Those who are not in ministry really do not know what it is like to be in ministry.  I think the pastors I know would agree with this wholeheartedly.  Almost as a rule the pastors I know personally are among the most hardworking, dedicated men and women I’ve ever met.  They are doing their best to serve God and view their work not just as work but as a calling and privilege.  I won’t go into too much detail about the kind of work and sacrifice being a vocational minister is but suffice it to say – unless you work (or worked) in ministry you really do not know what it is like.

Since I’ve been out  vocational ministry, however, something else has become just as clear to me:

Those who are working in ministry really do not know what it is like to not be working in ministry.

There are of course degrees and variations on this – but I think it is a sound statement. 

A large portion of church activity rests on volunteers, and rightly so.  Pastors are not called to do everything – rather their job is to equip the saints for doing God’s work (Ephesians 4).  Entire books have been written on what the job of a pastor really is, and I’m not going to delve into that here.  But no matter your position on how closely a pastor should resemble a CEO or how available they should be to their congregation, any healthy Biblically-based view of the role of a pastor involves their preparing the laypeople for their ministry and acts of service. 

However.

I also believe it is not the obligation of every Christian to volunteer to serve at their church on a regular basisYou can be a completely healthy, devoted, passionate follower of Jesus and a great member of a church while volunteering only occasionally if at all.

This is almost anathema to the way I thought when I worked in ministry.  I did not understand what the deal was with people who wouldn’t be willing to give up an hour on a Sunday or Wednesday or whatever to serve God by setting up sound equipment or picking up garbage or watching kids or whatever else.  Jesus died on the cross for you and you’re going to dodge when I ask you to come every other Sunday a couple hours early to help get things ready for the church service where the gospel will be preached?  Come on, man!

This is the mindset of one who works in ministry and does not understand what it is like to not work in ministry.  It was my mindset when I was in ministry and I am absolutely not alone.  This is a very common mindset.

Sometimes pastors (and then their congregants) subtly conflate “serve God” with “volunteer at church.”  Because the pastors view their job as their calling, because building the church is what they are giving their life to, there is a tendency to assume this is what everybody’s life is to be given to.  If someone is not volunteering at the church in some capacity then they are not really serving God the way they should be.  They are holding back; they are not fully surrendered to God and are being selfish with their time.    This misunderstanding can lead to all manner of frustration on behalf of pastors and parishioners as they talk past one another. 

There is so much I could write on this topic and its corollaries.  Maybe I will one day.  Instead I will just get to my conclusion before I ramble on any more.

Serving God by volunteering at a church is a great way to serve God, but if it is the only way you are serving God you are not, I would argue, serving God the way He asks in Scripture.  I would go so far as to say that serving God by volunteering at a church should be one of the first things to go when you go through busy seasons of life and something has to be cut out. 

Unfortunately what well-meaning people usually cut out before they cut out “serving God” (when serving God = volunteering at church) are things like spending time with friends who aren’t at church, time with family (extended or immediate), being a part of the greater community, and so on.  But this is where we need passionate Jesus-lovers spending more time and energy serving God.  When someone doesn’t have time to spend with people outside of church because they are too busy volunteering at church, there is a problem.  Not only that, but, if we convince people that serving God=volunteering at church we can give them a false sense of their own Christ-likeness. 

“Am I living the gospel with my family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community?  Heck if I know, but I am putting out cookies on Sunday morning, so I’m serving God with my life!”

Obviously that is a bit of an exaggeration to make the point, but the point stands.  Serving God is much more complex than volunteering to help out at church.  Not only that, but I know times when I assumed a degree of spiritual maturity due to a person’s steadfastness as a volunteer on a team – and I was wrong.  People need to be taught things like:

How do I serve God at work?

How do I serve God in the way I treat my family?

How do I serve God in the way I handle my wealth and possessions?

How do I serve God through being a part of the community?

How do I serve God with my neighbors?

As people learn those things, they need to know it is okay to take the necessary time to put them into practice, even if that means they don’t volunteer at church.

If our goal truly is the spread of the gospel – if our goal is truly the spread of Jesus’ love Jesus’ way – then I cannot reconcile a demand for volunteerism at the expense of community and relational involvement.  And for the majority of people who do not work in ministry, this is the cost of being a regular, committed volunteer at church. 

You have two days off if you work a full-time job.  You spend the other five days working hard away from your family, brushing up against people, maybe going to a Bible study one night a week, and living your life.  If you’re lucky you have a few hours at the end of the day to spend with your family (with whatever energy you have left).  It’s also possible you spend those weekday nights simply taking care of the house/family and getting ready for work the next day.  It is during those days that one should be considering how to serve God.  It is during those days that we earn the opportunity to build relationships with people that we could then spend time with on the weekend (actually building and maintaining a relationship), if we weren’t busy volunteering at church or going to church events. 

But even if a person could volunteer at church and maintain a healthy schedule but chooses not to because they want to spend more time with friends or family or as a part of the community – I see nothing wrong with that.  If they are serious about serving God wherever they are, then that is what they will do.  The job of the church is to encourage them to serve God wherever they spend their time.

If all of our non-work time is spent doing church things or with church people, then we have become residents of the “Christian Bubble” and convinced ourselves it is Godliness when in fact we are insulating ourselves from the very people who need to hear and see the gospel most.  Inviting people to church is not adequate gospel-love-spreading.  It is not evangelism.

Many people waste their time, or are selfish with their time, and it is important for the church to challenge that in Christ-followers.  There is a lot to be gained by volunteering and being part of the team at a church.  I did so before I worked in the ministry and continued to do it after leaving vocational ministry.  I plan on doing so moving forward.  But it is not the measuring stick of a devoted follower of Christ, and we make it one to the detriment of not only those who are seeking to know more about and follow Jesus better but also to the detriment of the broader community that is deprived of the time and energy of these people.

10 comments:

Dave Perdue said...

Good post. Somewhat convicting as I find myself having similar thoughts sometimes.

Eric Szyrko said...

I struggle with this same topic almost every day as a part time staff member at a church. I always encourage volunteers to take time off if they are feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.
Just recently I had a conversation with a volunteer who left a leadership meeting feeling, of all things, discouraged because of the demands of his time.
Somehow I think we might be missing the point.

Jackson said...

Thanks for the comment Eric. I know where you're coming from, I think. I think it's sort of what I mean when I say that pastors/church staff and laypeople often talk past one another. We (speaking as a pastor) tell people not to feel guilty for not volunteering or to take time off - but it is often accompanied by the assumption that you SHOULD be volunteering or that serving God = volunteering. Almost like "once you're not stressed out and too busy anymore you can get back to serving God." I know that's not really the heart behind it or anything but I do think that is what's communicated more often than not, if not explicitly than implicitly, by many churches or people.

I hope that makes some kind of sense.

Aquino Clan said...

Amen and amen Jackson. Seasons of life bring us into different venues. Obedience to Christ comes before all else, even when it doesn't look the way other people think it should. Gods ways are not our ways.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

brian c. berry said...

Jackson. I'm behind on my blog reading, so a day lat and a dollar short on this. But I have 3 thoughts.

1. I agree, serving God and volunteering at church are not the same thing. I think we should encourage people to "serve God" in every area. I think you're right, the church has poorly defined this in the same way that "worship" has been limited to whatever is done with music.

2. I disagree. I think volunteering is a responsibility for the believer. I think my biggest problem with not volunteering in any capacity with one's local church is the assumption that the place is there to serve me. Many who refuse to or are "too busy" to volunteer, also expect other volunteers to volunteer and watch their kids or lead their bible study, etc.. so they can sit in service or be wherever. I've even heard some say that "time is money" so they give "x" dollars and that's worth "x" hours instead. Somehow, the church must operate like a family, not a service organization. In that framework, not everyone cooks the meal, but everyone does their part. I don't think that means everyone should serve in children's ministry, but I do think it means everyone serves. Not legalistically like here's your service hour, now check off this box and you're done. But more like, this is my family, and I give my time and money to see it succeed.

3. In the secular context, I coach soccer. 2 teams a year. Everyone- coaches, refs, field stripers, etc... literally everyone is a volunteer. But you would not believe the e-mails and anger expressed from "non-serving" people to "the managers". so many think that the $75 they paid for their kid to have a uniform, trophy, and a field to practice on justifies their demand that everyone else serve them. Seriously, getting a parent to step up and do just about anything beyond sit on the sidelines is almost impossible. I think we live in a society that is saturated with selfish- serve me people. It affects soccer, it affects the church.

ok... there's my 10 cents. 2 cents plus 8 cents junk. :)

brian

Keeva said...

As Brian C Berry stated... i too have a split opinion and find myself agreeing
and disagreeing with basically the same points he made in his first and 2nd paragraphs. I would go even further to say that because the church is suppose to be the most powerful vehicle in our lives,
showing the way to God
keeping us focused on what is true and pure,
praying with us and rooting for us when we get a bit discouraged etc.
if these are the things we reap from being a part of the church why would'nt God allow us to make room in our lives to give back and support what we belive in and have recieved from? Why would'nt that be pleasing to him to so that his house can be fitly joined together and fully equipped?

What if the others who volunteer often where NOT availible (for those of us who have failed to help out) when we were weak and had just joined? just as the scripture is true that ...what we sow we shall reap.... the same principle should be follwed vice versa... what we recieve or learn or experience or reap, or are imparted with..... we should then go back into rotation and become disciples sowing into others lives thru the power of what the church has to offer. ..

yes and as well as expressing that christlike spirit in our homes, jobs, schools and so forth. In saying that ...we must also realize that Most people who dont have time or are not otherwise involved as servants in the local church and have never been....... most likely, may not know how to glofirfy God in their everyday living in the workplace or at school and in the marraige because they have also failed to find the time to invest in themselves and really slow down enough to learn what it means to improve these areas according the scriptural standards. Thus, many will remain ineffective outside the church anyways. Result the enemy keeps them distracted and never releases them to share their testimony and join the brethern as a joint effort in unity alongside each other etc. etc.

I agree with Brian. volunteering in the local church IS the responsibility for us as belivers. Thus, If there is a vacany in the church or a need that a true believer is aware of that needs attention and he or she knows about it... it is on the contrast... irresponsible to think that you are exempt from filling that need and that someone ELSE should handle it. tHATS NOT TEAMWORK. It is for us to put our hands to the plow and not be distracted to have to say no everytime (or to the extreme of saying yes all the time to the point of neglecting all other areas where God can be glorified thru us).

Either extreme is unhealthy for either non-recipeint on either side.. (the church and the outer work of the church). We have to step up and find ways to experience serving God thru both avenues.
If it means sacrificing some family time or whatever, when your family sees something is important to you and you are helping people thru your church you Are ministreing to them... just with that example. No?

people can bring their family to church and find something that can be rewarding and that everyone can do on the project at the church and make it family time once in a while.

I am not implying that we should get "locked into the bubble" and keep our dealings exclusively within the four walls of the church not by any means. Family shoud not be neglected but neither should God's house but it will if everybody starts jusitfying that they are not cut out to volunteer and serve in any capacity, at any time, during the year. To me that is unacceptable if you are a member of the church family.

There is always a way to intergrate it all for the glory of God and with balance so that nothing should go lacking but every component in our lives can benefit from the Christ in us.

Adam said...

Agreed brother.

I think some more issues arise when you define "church" though. Church for most people is where you meet on a Saturday/Sunday morning in a temple, sing a couple of religious songs & then listen to a lecture based more or less on the bible. Try find any of this in the NT!

Church in Greek means ekklesia "the called out ones" - all those who belong to Jesus. "Churches" are just organisations more or less in the Kingdom of God (I would say less more than more...). The early church functioned as one large "community of believers" it was organic and Christianity was interwined with every part of life: home, workplaces, temples of other religions, the marketplace, etc.

I think we need to return to this!

Jeanne said...

This post helped me think things through... thank you. I am a single mom who has been feeling very guilty about my lack of volunteering at my church. One of the concepts you made deserves more emphasis, I believe. That's the concept of "seasons". Single motherhood is a season in my life, which I know will pass all too quickly. There are seasons when we are able to give more, and other seasons we need to be not too proud to receive. Thanks again for this encouragement.

Jackson said...

Thanks Jeanne, glad I could be of some encouragement. If you want to read more of what I have to say (it is of debatable value) check out my new blog at http://www.jacksonperdue.com - I don't update this one anymore. Regardless, though, I'm glad you got some encouragement from this.