The problem with asking people to serve before they belong

How you come in will be how you go on

I’m sure you’ve heard this or something similar said about evangelism. If we rely on big events and entertainment to attract people to the Gospel, then we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s what it takes to hold them going forward. Your church will find that it is forever trying to make its services as glossy and sleek as possible not just to draw in seekers but to keep its members coming.

So, what then if we rely on getting people involved and giving them jobs to do before they become Christians? I was prompted to reflect on this again having read Steve Kneale’s article on serving before belonging. Steve writes there about giving people jobs to do before they become members. That would include people who are not yet Christians but would also include Christians who have moved from other churches and indeed those who have professed faith but haven’t yet been baptised and joined the church.

We all know of someone who knows someone who became a Christian after being asked to play in the worship band or help in Sunday School, just as we also know of someone who knows someone who became a Christian after marrying a believer.  But does that really work, are the occasional stories of faith enough to make it part of our strategy and what are the consequences for that believer?

In the following discussion from Steve’s article it was mentioned that some “pioneer ministries” are seeking to plant churches based on getting people to serve first. It’s built on the premise that 21st Century people like to align with a cause before they belong.  I’m not sure that this particular truism is as rooted in evidence as we might like but even assuming that is the case, it doesn’t man we should go along with the culture.

Here are my two issues with this approach. First of all, if we are saying that you can get involved in a cause, that we want you to help us in campaigning for the environment or feeding the hungry then we cannot claim that this is something distinctively Christian.  The reality is that non-Christians care about the poor, want to feed the hungry and to do something about climate change. Those are not uniquely Christian causes. The fact that they can do those things without Gospel change tells us something crucial.  Indeed, they are going to quickly cotton on to this and work out that they can go and support those causes without being pestered by God botherers whilst they do so. Or, we take the next logical step of realising that to keep them coming we will need to stop bothering them with the thing that is going to cause them to stumble and turn away – The Cross.  Therein is the problem with so much soft-sell evangelism. It seems that it is never quite the right time to tell someone that they are a sinner who needs forgiveness, justification, a saviour.

Secondly, it is worth thinking about the household imagery of church-life. In New Testament times, households had fathers, mothers, sons and daughters but they also had servants or slaves. Servants were brought into the household to fulfil tasks but they didn’t truly belong to the family, they were not sons. The New Testament model of church leadership does include servants. However, notice this. First, in Acts 6 those appointed to serve were to be filled with the Holy Spirit speaking of their adoption into God’s family, secondly deacons in 1 Timothy 3 are those who have been tested and who meet similar qualifications to elders -they are part of the family first. Third, the example of Christ in Philippians 2 is of the Son who humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant.  In  the household of God, servants are not contracted or bought in, they are members of the family who choose to serve God and others.

The theological underpinning for this is grace.  We want people to discover that they can belong to God’s family not through any good in themselves, not through their best efforts to please God and please others. We want them to know that they are loved and welcomed not that they are useful to us.   This means that we want them to know that God has loved them and sent his son to die for them so that they can be adopted into his family. We want them to know that eternal life is a free gift.

The alternative is that we try to draw people in by giving them jobs to do.  This becomes addictive. We have to keep finding things for them to do to keep them.  We are left wondering whether or not they’ve really come to know that they are adopted children or whether they will always see themselves as servants.

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