4 Reasons Volunteering Within the Church is Crucial
This is an article I recently published with Lifeway Research. You can see the original post here.
All of us love a good “count me in” story: those accounts—either wholly historical or mostly anecdotal—that capture an individual who steps forward and proclaims, “This is my moment to serve.” Scotland’s William Wallace: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.” The Alamo’s Lt. Col. William Barret Travis: “I shall never surrender or retreat.” District 12’s Katniss Everdeen: “I volunteer as tribute!”
While that last one is fictional, you get the idea: We are inspired by the bravery of those who step away from the crowd, sacrificing personal comfort (and sometimes life and safety) in order to make a difference in the lives of others.
It’s curious, then, that this type of bold inspiration doesn’t always translate into volunteering in the local church. A recent Lifeway Research study reveals striking disparities between expectations and reality when it comes to churchgoers’ views on volunteering. While 84% of respondents said their church encourages every adult to serve in some capacity, only 30% said they have personally served in the past year.
The study encompassed those who serve “inside the walls” on the weekend—volunteering in the church in areas such as guest services, family ministry, or worship—as well as “outside the walls” during the week—serving in places like homeless shelters or pregnancy support centers or tutoring at-risk kids.
As leaders, if we’re honest, these stats are somewhat depressing. And we might try to lay the blame at any number of factors. The 2020 global pandemic threw many believers’ church participation off-balance. Parents are struggling more than ever to divide their time between church, work, school, sports, and other extracurricular activities. And it seems humanity as a whole continues on our navel-gazing spiral: If it’s not entirely convenient and comfortable for us, we just won’t do it.
But as Christ-followers, we have to take a different view of serving our church and our city, because having a heart of service is at its core a discipleship issue. Here are four reasons every believer should pursue a service mindset.
1. The gospel commands it
One of my favorite verses in Scripture is 1 Peter 4:10: “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (CSB). Peter loads a lot into these 22 words. Every believer has a spiritual gift. That gift is to be used for others. We are temporary stewards (managers) of that gift. And when we use our gifts, it’s an outworking of God’s grace.
Peter leaves us defenseless here. We can no more skip over the call to serve others than we can ignore the pursuit of holiness or say no to the Great Commission.
By the way, I love how the two words “use it” can be considered a complete sentence. The question is not whether we have a gift. It’s not even pinpointing what our gift is (hello, spiritual gifts tests). No, the question is: Are we using what we’ve been given?
2. Your discipleship demands it
One of the identities of a disciple of Jesus is that of a servant. To serve is to look more like Jesus. The apostle Paul encourages us to “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:5-7, CSB).
We can’t grow as a follower of Jesus until we follow Jesus in serving. Todd Adkins, director of Lifeway Leadership, says it like this: “You can’t grow into spiritual maturity apart from using your gifts for service in Christ.” Servanthood is a demonstration of obedience, an exercise in faith, and a revolution against selfishness. Serving empties us of our “me-first” tendencies, seeking to outdo others in showing honor (Romans 12:10).
3. Your community needs it
Regardless of whether the community in question is our “inside the walls” community of our congregation or the “outside the walls” community of our city, there are benefits that go far beyond ourselves when we serve. We see evidence of this kind of others-focused service throughout Scripture. God commanded the prophet Jeremiah to “pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive” (Jeremiah 29:7, CSB). In Acts, we’re told “there was great joy in that city” of Samara when Philip used his gifts to serve (Acts 8:8, CSB).
Returning to 1 Peter 4:10, when we use our gifts, we display the “varied grace” of God. I believe that means God has equipped specific believers with specific gifts. And when those believers don’t use those gifts, there is a specific facet of His grace our communities won’t see.
4. Your connection is better for it
If there is a point that gets a little close to selfishness, it’s this one. For years now, our church has conducted a “congregational survey” annually. One consistent data point we’ve discovered is that volunteering is a key metric in whether someone feels fully connected to the church—not consistent worship attendance (though that’s important), not small group participation (though we want that). No, it’s serving—more than any other factor—that determines whether someone feels like they are fully engaged with the life of the church.
That’s one of the reasons we encourage people newer to our congregation to join a ministry team. It’s a fast track to building relationships with other people, and often those relationships lead to a new (or deeper) relationship with Jesus.
The findings from the Lifeway Research study may be depressing. And our own anecdotal evidence from our congregations may back that up. But we don’t have to stay in the spot we find ourselves. We can lead the way for our people to discover the joy of serving others when we use the spiritual gifts we’ve been given.