Serving Outside the Church

Last week was our church’s annual SERVE Gala. The staff went all out to let our church volunteers know they’re loved and appreciated, and each of our church’s five campuses singled out a Volunteer of the Year. It was fun, heartfelt, an excellent way to say thank you for all the time and effort members of our congregations invest in our church.

Pete and I were there because we, too, are church volunteers, helping out in a variety of ways. I believe that every churchgoer should serve their church body, according to their gifts and abilities. (Check out Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12.)

But there was something missing, something I rarely see mentioned when it comes time to talk about serving: while helping out at church is important, not all serving should happen in the church.

It’s true that the pastor’s job is “for the equipping of  the saints for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12), not do all the work themselves.  We, the ones sitting in the pews, are meant to serve one another. But we are also to look beyond the walls of the church and serve in our communities. And not all of those volunteer positions are overtly Christian.

For example, I volunteered as a Colorado Master Gardener for 11 years (from 2001 through 2011), writing articles, teaching classes, and answering questions at our county help desk. The program was jointly run by the county and Colorado State University, with no connection with any church—except through me and other volunteers who happened to also be believers. I like to think that I made a difference in that role, not only to people who needed gardening help, but to some of the other master gardeners who may never have chosen to be friends with a Christian in any other context.

It’s often much easier to spend our volunteer hours in the church. For the most part, the people we’re working with believe the same way we do. We’re accepted and appreciated. And we get a welcome pat on the back every year.

Volunteering in a secular situation can be challenging, especially if we want to share Jesus with those around us. It’s also incredibly rewarding. It’s a great way to meet those who would never darken the door of a church. Since people typically volunteer for things they’re passionate about, you already have something significant in common. With a little effort, friendships can grow—not in a contrived manner, but naturally around a mutual interest.

Of course, you don’t always have to be a volunteer—some positions come with a paycheck. But there’s something different when people know you’re doing this because you care, not because you’re being paid. Plus, many of the most interesting jobs require volunteers simply because there aren’t sufficient funds to cover a salary.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the supposed statistic stating that 20% of a church congregation does most of the work, as if that were a bad thing.  First of all, the true number is much higher—43%—but even that isn’t high enough to suit most church leaders. I agree that everyone should be doing something, just as every member of a health family contributes to the chores, I believe that for the most part, the congregation should be volunteering outside the church. Rather than concentrating only on the church, we’re to be salt and light in the world.

Many church leaders (thankfully not ours) view volunteers as a resource to help them reach their vision. On the other hand, I see church leaders as a resource equipping the members of the congregation to be the ones reaching out in ministry, paid or not paid, Christian or secular, and whether or not we are feted at a gala.

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