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Monday, May 16, 2005

Serving the church: Belief in God or belief in self?

I'm looking for a new job. Since I can't do anything without thinking about its theological implications, I've also been thinking a lot about vocation, serving the church, and what it means to be a productive member of society.

Churches run on people. Volunteers are the coal that keep the train of programs, services, and support groups chugging. Glance through this week's Business Week, and you'll see it's truer now more than ever before.

These churches do a good enough job indicting themselves with this kind of behavior--I'm not going to blast them too badly for getting millions of dollars worth of work for free.

I'm much more discouraged by the common methods for amassing armies of volunteers. Whether its the old favorite guilt-trip, or the newer strategy of strong-arming people with their own 'unrealized potential,' churches tend to get volunteers by putting the talents and personalities of their members at the center.

Good with computers? You should come fix the church's for free! Edit video for a living? Why don't you put together our hour-long video tour for new members? And if you've got a good personality and find it easy to talk to people, look out. You're about to be thrust out in front of every church-growth initiative imaginable.

Anyone who comes off well in front of a crowd is untapped potential for the modern church. The biggest megachurch worship services are the most elaborate volunteer talent shows you've ever seen.

That might be okay if the talents weren't always getting in the way of the worship. After all, organ music is nice, and a well-trained choir is a beautiful addition to the liturgy.

But to get the kind of performance out of people that the modern church demands, you've got to convince them that their talent--given to the latest church program, not their family or career--is vital to the proclamation of the Truth. This inexoriably marries our talents, demeanor, and stage presence to our faith in Christ--a precarious position to say the least.

Is there anything inherently wrong with church computer networks, video suites, and church-growth initiatives? That's debatable. But there's definitely something un-scriptural about the central roll personality, self-esteem, talent and ego are taking in the church.

Let's compare. When God wants to get something done, he picks a real loser.

Need to free your chosen nation from bondage in Egypt? God picks a renegade shepherd with a bad lisp. Even with a full bag of miracles, Moses can't handle the job alone, and God has to send smooth-talking Aaron along with him. And even Aaron drops the ball, with that whole Bring-Your-Own-Golden-Calf frat party in the desert.

David starts out well enough with the Goliath takedown. But after Bathshebagate and a family feud straight off of Jerry Springer, things end on a generally sour note.

Fast-forward to Paul. If he's not whining about body of death this, sufferings of Christ that, he's wandering into the church in Corinth in weakness, fear and trembling. His understudy, Timothy, isn't much better. A bad stomach and a real penchant for misery don't exactly put him in the same league as Rick WarrenTM.

And let's not forget Christ. Homeless, ugly, and cruising into town on an ass, the people kill Him the first chance they get.

It's a good thing we don't have guys like Him running the church. We need people with skills.

John the Baptist takes an approach foreign to so many church efforts to get people 'involved.' When asked to explain Christ to his disciples, there are no lights or sirens, no smoke machines or even warm handshakes. Instead, he says "He must increase, but I must decrease."

When Paul calls to Timothy to serve, it sounds similar:
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.
Central to Timothy's budding ministry is not his natural ability, his winning smile, or his warm chuckle. It's a confession of Christ. We see the same throughout the New Testament: Rejected Jews, tax collectors, and grubby fisherman--the real oddballs in a world of slick Roman politicians and wise Pharisees--carrying the Gospel of Christ to the four corners of the world.

The work of Christ is not done in the power of persuasiveness, winning friends and influencing people the whole world round. It's done by the power of the Holy Spirit in the preached Word, coming out of the faltering lips of the most unlikely people.

This central role personality has taken in the church isn't bad only because it's non-scriptural, but also because it's destructive. All of those people, sought out by the church because of their gifts of eloquence, people management, or creativity will one day look inside themselves and see nothing but a black pit. And it will shake them to their core.

I know this because it happened to me. After years of being told that I was perfect for church ministry because of my niceness, sincerity, charisma, and whatever else, I discovered I wasn't really any of those things. And whatever I was, it wasn't any good at all. I saw my sin played out in my conversations, habits, and innermost thoughts.

What was I?

A poor, miserable sinner. And hearing it was like having my eyes opened for the first time.

There's a terrible distance between serving the church out of belief in yourself, and serving out of belief in Christ. The former is sand, the latter is the solid rock.

My pastor asked me if I could help out at church the other day. He didn't tell me he wanted me to help because I was a snappy dresser, had cool hair, or could play a mean G-chord. He just asked "Hey, got some time?" I couldn't have been happier to oblige.