28 September 2010

Simply to Work, or Because of a Need?

There is an assumed, unspoken idea that Pastors need to get people more involved in "Church" - where "Church" refers not specifically to worship and bible study, but to activities and volunteer opportunities. The idea is that if you have more and more people volunteering and showing up to Church over the course of the week, that this is ultimately good. Get them doing something.


I don't mean this is a pejorative way, but simply as a call to reconsider our thinking. Why? Why do we do this?

Let me explain what got me thinking about this. A friend of mine told me that he was asked to do some work with college aged youth at his church. This is brilliant - if he were attending my Church, I'd try to put him to work too. He's a diligent, intelligent, devout man, and would be a great example to folks he interacted with. Great! So I asked him, "What are they going to have you do?" His response: they don't know yet.


Now, the simple Germanic Planner in me is revolted by this. Why wasn't there brainstorming done, why wasn't there at least a rough outline of what was going to be done? So I asked if he was going do x or y, things I knew were going on at the Church. Nope - they've got that covered, and it goes well, but they'll want to put him to work with something else that is as of yet to be determined.

Again, this isn't me being critical - because if he were here at my congregation, I'd want to FIND something to put him to work doing. But why?

If there is no need for someone to do something, why do we think we need to find something for them to do (okay, for this guy, I'd like to ship him off to the Seminary, but that's another point entirely)? Do we approach volunteering in the Church on a basis of a need to accomplish some goal of service, or is it a matter of simply putting people to work?

I think that we end up assuming that a person volunteering for something will make them better members of the Congregation, will enrich their spiritual life. That's the assumption - that if you show up to Church during the week, you will be a better person for it.

I don't know if that is true. I have plenty of people who are active in the service life of this congregation, who do their elected or volunteer roles faithfully... and I can't remember the last time I've seen them on a Sunday. I don't think simply having someone work with X makes them more spiritually focused.

And perhaps there is another downside to this. How are we approaching the very idea of "work" within the Church? Is it a matter of we as Christians showing love as love is needed, wherever and whenever - or is it more a matter of almost a backdoor "works-are-what-makes-the-Christian" sort of approach? Do we have people thinking that they have done their time at Church... that Church is about the service I give and do rather than receiving Christ's love and then reflecting that love to others?

So what about it? Why do we try so hard to get people to do things? Is it self-serving (if they work, maybe they'll give more offering -- which is actually probably backwards)? Is it backdoor Pietism where there are Christians and then the "Good Christians" who help out at Church? Is it just trying to get people to attend service without simply saying, "You should be attending service"? And have we lost a focus on the works of the Church truly being works of mercy and service to those in our midst and those without?


Michael Schutz said...

Interesting reflection, and good questions. I tend to think that we (I'm a DPS in LCC) do generally have good intentions - that working "in the church" is a good opportunity for people to use their gifts. But that can go awry quickly, as you illustrate. I think we do need to continually examine our motives, while at the same time not going too far and saying that we should give no opportunity to serve because we might have some mixed-motives.

I think you're right that we can easily and mistakenly equate "serving" with growing in Christian maturity. At the same time, I wonder if part of it isn't also working from a mistaken notion of vocation. We feel the need to have a lot of "stuff" going on at the church - youth nights, potlucks, many boards and committees, etc. And somehow being involved in these things is elevated over serving in other spheres, as if these church programs are the best (or even only?) way to serve God in our Christian lives.

I find it odd that we Lutherans slip into this so easily, since we (should) have a good understanding of vocation. Why not celebrate the fact that we don't have regular youth nights, but we have moms and dads investing in their teenagers? Why not celebrate the fact that our people aren't available to be at the church four nights a week for five different board meetings because they're raising their children, serving with community organizations, meeting with school PTAs, etc.?

I would say there's always need for a certain amount of serving within the church, and those are valid needs and valid uses of people's gifts and time. But we can quickly elevate those things to be something they're not. That would be one of my evaluations of "what we do" in a congregation. Are we actually hindering our people's sanctification by asking them to work, either by contributing to a "back-door works righteousness" or unintentionally teaching them wrong things about vocation?

Good food for thought. Thanks.

Rev. David A. Kind said...

I remember the beloved Dr. David Scaer telling us in class one day "Gentlemen, get the good works out of the church"

I think there is much wisdom in this. Too often the local congregation can become the focus of lots of volunteer energy that doesn't really accomplish much of anything and takes people away from the places where their works are actually needed and beneficial to their neighbors. We must always remember that busy-ness does not always equal success or growth.