I have been asked to write a regular column for Evangelicals Now. The latest article (my original, unedited version) is below.
Evangelical churches are busy places, aren’t they? There is so much to do. There are, of course, all the usual rotas that one might be on: music, Sunday School, tea and coffee, welcome, etc. Then there are all the opportunities for mission and discipleship. Add to that the endless calls for training on every point of minutiae that ever takes places and, before long, you can find yourself swamped with stuff to do.
There are two typical schools of thought on these things. On the one hand, you have the ‘everyone at all’ school. These are the guys who insist that everyone ought to be at everything. If there are things to do, you should be doing them. If the church is doing anything, you must be there. No ifs, no buts. If there is some serving to be done and you aren’t tied up with several other things, you are going to serve.
On the other hand, you get the ‘only if you want to’ school. These are the guys who say that nothing is required of you. If you don’t want to come to something, then don’t. If you don’t feel like serving, just sack it off. If there is a need, your desire is more important and if your heart isn’t in it, let’s just let that thing go by the wayside. Unless you are serving from a right heart – that is determined by an undying wish to fulfil that particular role in service to the Lord – you shouldn’t really be serving at all and, certainly, nobody is going to make you.
Both views carry some dangers. The first runs the risk of legalism. Everybody must be at everything because it is deemed a measure of your salvation. It almost doesn’t matter how little you want to do it, or what other calls on your time there may be (even if those things are biblical), unless you are at everything and serving in all things, you will be judged accordingly.
But the other view carries a no less significant danger. In a bid to avoid being legalistic, it tends towards the individualistic instead. If you aren’t feeling it, just don’t do it. It treats the idea of duty as a dirty word altogether. It places the feelings and heart of the individual above the wider needs of the church. It tends away from the view that believers are to prefer the needs of others above their own and, instead, insists my personal feelings on what I ‘feel led’ to do take a front seat.
Despite what some want to claim, there is a place for duty. I’m yet to meet the parent who delight in wiping the dirty bottoms of their children. But I’m also yet to meet the parent who loves their child who won’t do it. We don’t answer those who roll their eyes and think, ‘I’d really rather not change that nappy right now’ by saying they should probably just leave the baby in its mess because they aren’t feeling it. The answer is to acknowledge that few people relish the job of itself because, of itself, it isn’t very pleasant but, because we love our children, we do it regardless. Likewise, there are some church things that just aren’t that enjoyable of themselves. But if we love the Lord and his people, we might well choose to do them anyway. Duty is not necessarily a dirty word.
Nevertheless, we can take the idea that duty matters too far. Whilst there are times we will do things because we love the Lord – even if we don’t relish the thing itself – if that is characteristic of our entire church life, something has gone awry. If this is our basic view, it may be that we are loading people with burdens that they cannot bear. It will almost certainly be the case that we are insisting that people do things that the Lord doesn’t demand of them. They may be good things for them to attend or do, it may be wise for people to do them and there might be good reasons we want to encourage them into them. But if they are not things the Lord demands, we shouldn’t demand them on his behalf.
The answer lies in the differing responses of the different parties. It is incumbent on church members to ask, ‘where are the needs?’ It is good for them to have a position that essentially says, though I may not be desperate to serve in that area, I will do so because it serves my brothers and sisters. But this must be coupled to a position from the church leadership that they will not force anyone to do what the Lord doesn’t specifically demand of them. They may make encourage people into things, or make suggestions, but they ought not to cajole and insist. Indeed, as the church members take a posture of where can I meet the present needs of the church, the church leaders ought to be taking a position of care that seeks not to overload any one member and keep a watchful eye on those who – out of love for Christ and his people – may be lovingly and dutifully pushing themselves too far.