It is a perennial problem for many churches – how do you get people to serve? We are not an organisation that pays people to undertake work on our behalf. From a legal perspective, we are a charity and voluntary organisation. From a spiritual perspective, we are simply a group of people made alive by the Holy Spirit to love Jesus and his people and have joined together as a church in obedience to him. But all of that means we can’t, and shouldn’t, make anybody do anything.
But a room full of sinners who believe their sin has been forgiven still means there is plenty of sin in the room. We so often don’t grasp hold of our God-given responsibilities as we ought. Sometimes we can’t serve as much as we like because there are other legitimate pulls on our time and resources. Much of the time, there are less legitimate reasons why we might not want to serve.
So, how do we help encourage all of our people into the kind of service that Jesus call us into as his people? Here are some suggestions.
Make it a membership expectation
It seems obvious enough, so much so that we perhaps assume it rather than actually saying it. But we really ought to spell out, members are expected to serve. There may be all sorts of caveats about ill-health, infirmity and other things that you put on that. But, at the front door of church membership, do you actually spell out that you expect members to serve? If you run a membership class (and you do, right?) lay out your expectations as a church. Tell people that, if they join, they are joining to serve and lay out some of the opportunities for service that there are. Having done that, ask people at the front end of their membership application where they see themselves serving and maybe direct them towards places you think they could serve.
Create opportunities to serve
If the only place for anybody to serve in your church is in the Sunday School, and nowhere else, you can’t be that surprised if you don’t get all that many people serving. It may not be that people are unwilling to serve but that they can’t see where they would actually serve. Nobody wants to feel superfluous, turning up to stuff just because they feel they should rather than because they’re really needed. And so we must create opportunities for people to actually be able to serve in a way that is useful.
This should, in reality, be easy. Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. If we are finding that we actually seem to have more than enough people for our particular harvest, we are probably doing something wrong. Either we have hoarded resources and people that we don’t need, that we should be sending out to where they are needed or we simply aren’t doing the work that Christ has called us to do adequately. But if there is nowhere for people to serve, they won’t bother serving and will just coast along. To get people serving we must create the opportunities for them to serve or else send them to other places where they can serve.
Make rotas opt-out
Most churches have what you might call, ‘entry-level’ types of service. These are things like making tea and coffee, putting out chairs and that sort of thing. These are the sorts of things that don’t need a lot of training or knowledge, pretty much anybody can be added to a team doing these things. One way to get people into the habit of serving is to create an opt-out system for such things. So, having made it clear that members are expected to serve, let members know that they will be added to rotas. Of course, if they opt out, they can be removed. But most people won’t.
In our community group, for example, we have food together each week and a different person cooks for the group each week. We throw everybody’s name onto a rota and tell people, if they can’t do it for whatever reason, no problem – we’ll take you off, no questions asked. But most people are glad to do it and very few request an opt out. We try to link people up together so that those without money might make the food while another could pay for ingredients. However, you do it, if you make your entry-level points of service opt out rather than opt in, you will immediately increase service. Those who prove themselves faithful in these things can be moved into other areas of service.
Imbue service with value
Just as most people won’t bother joining the church if membership doesn’t really mean anything, so most people won’t bother serving if it doesn’t feel that valuable either. One of the simplest ways to imbue service with value is to limit it to your members. It may seem counterintuitive, but limiting service to your members will imbue it with value as it will be something that is clearly not for all. It is something that needs to be done by particular people for specific reasons that matter.
Another way to give service value is to praise those who do it. Use the stories of those serving in the church as an encouragement to others. make it clear that those serving are valued and the work they are doing is valuable.
Teach the biblical principles of service
It may well be that we tell people in our membership class that they are expected to serve, but if that is the first and last time they hear a biblical case for serving in the body, we can’t be that surprised when people either forget or come to assume it wasn’t really as important as they were initially led to believe. And, of course, we might tell people to serve because its the policy of the church or its just the way we’ve always done things here, but those reasons aren’t all that compelling. Policies can be changed and tradition is rarely a solid reason to carry on doing what we’ve always done for its own sake.
Instead, we need to show people that it’s not just our view or church policy, but something Jesus expects of his people. It’s not ultimately the church calling them to do it, but Christ. If we never teach people that service is biblical and we never challenge them to serve because scripture demands it, then service will appear like nothing more than just your opinion on what would be good for them. But if we are clear that the Lord calls his people to serve and the opportunities in the church are a reflection of Jesus’ commands to his people, we are calling those who claim to love Jesus to evidence it is so by obeying his commandments. It is far more compelling to hear that service is important because Jesus says so than it is to hear my pastor or church seem to think it’s important.