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.
I also believe it is not the obligation of every Christian to volunteer to serve at their church on a regular basis. You 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.