What does it mean to “serve the church”?

serveIn a small group my husband and I were visiting, the topic of “serving the church” came up. Tim and I both began thinking about the people the Lord had brought into our lives, listening to their stories, talking to them about the goodness of God, helping them with day-to-day needs, and reaching out to them in the down and dirty places of life.

But discussion in the group took a different direction.  They began talking about being parking lot attendants, ushers, and instrument-players. None of those things are bad, in fact they may be good, but Tim and I both realized that the people in the group were thinking of the church only as an organizational structure on a certain piece of property, and that in their minds “serving the church” had to be defined in those parameters.

I’m not sure why I was surprised, but I was.  For the people I know, much of “serving the church” takes place outside the scope of the physical, organizational building and meeting called “church.”

I know the people of that small group would have agreed that taking a meal to someone in the church for whom a meal list has been created is “serving the church.” But isn’t it every bit as much serving the church to take a meal to a Christian who isn’t on the church’s radar? It is serving the church to help people who go to another church or don’t go to church. It can even be serving the church to go hiking with your children.

I met with someone recently for whom “serving the church” almost destroyed their family because it had become a tool of spiritual abuse. In churches that manipulate and control, a person’s spiritual maturity is measured by his “faithfulness” or “loyalty,” which is defined as “serving the church,” which is defined as advancing the organization that meets on a certain physical piece of property, with a certain important person at the helm. “Leadership” in a good husband can become being taught to simply deliver orders to the family, since he is seldom home, being so busy “serving the church,” which if he doesn’t do will become a source of shame and guilt.

In some church organizations, a person’s spiritual merits are determined by such things, and his qualifications as a future leader may hang in the balance of his performance.

But that’s not the way of Christ. His Church is His people, scattered all over creation, meeting in various bodies (or sometimes, sadly, not).  For us to “serve His Church,” His Church, the Church of our Lord Jesus, we are delighting to “do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith,” as Galatians 6:10 says, wherever they may be. Some of us are called to wash feet, some to rescue lambs, some to feed the poor, some to expound the truth of the Word of God. There are myriads of possibilities, as many as there are needs and ideas for ways to fulfill them. (Volunteering for scheduled church events on the church property can certainly be included, but wouldn’t be considered essential.) The overriding characteristic that brings all these types of service together is Love.

If we’re helping others with the eternal in view, we’re serving God, which is “serving the Church.” If we do it with joy from the power of the Spirit, God is pleased, not because we need to earn points with Him, but because helping others is a natural outpouring of the love and power He has poured into us, and He loves to see the fruit of His work.

And there are no merits any of us need to be judged on except the merits of our Savior.

This is a way of freedom. This is a way of joy.

4 thoughts on “What does it mean to “serve the church”?

  1. This is great. I have a question though – I notice you kept putting “serve the church” in quotes. Where does this command originally come from? Isn’t it something the men inside the four walls made up to keep their organizations running? Or is there a scriptural command to “serve the church” that I’m not aware of? I’m wondering why we are even trying to define a man made command in the first place, if that makes sense?

  2. > In churches that manipulate and control, a person’s spiritual maturity is measured by his “faithfulness” or “loyalty,” which is defined as “serving the church,” which is defined as advancing the organization that meets on a certain physical piece of property, with a certain important person at the helm.<

    Well put. Thanks for helping your readers connect the dots on how the church too often measures "biblical faithfulness." Honestly, in a way I sympathize with people running institutional churches. Everybody wants metrics, but undocumented acts of loving service that don't benefit the organization can't be measured. New member rolls, community outreach projects (documented with cameras and blog posts) and the like are a much more comfortable fit for the IC.

    Borrowing from the "if a tree falls in the forest" conundrum, is it really ministry if no one observes it?

    Sigh.

  3. ST, the post was prompted because of talking with the person who had been religiously abused and also because of the small group discussion. After I wrote it, though, I looked up the term and found out it was a man-made term. Maybe I could write an addendum, something along the lines of how we’re just supposed to serve people. But a thought worth considering, I think, is the response of those outside the church in the book of Acts, who said about the Christians (the church), “Behold, how they love one another.” This means those in the church were loving each other in an observable way that I think we could conclude was some form of “service.” But I believe that “service” was focused acts of kindness and love from individual to individual rather than from individual to institution.

  4. Vicki S., I assume “IC” means “institutional church”? You made me laugh with your “tree falls” analogy. I assume the person who is being ministered to will observe it! And even if they don’t, if it’s ministry done in secret, of course God observes it, but His pleasure in it comes not because it’s one more tick on our “merit card,” but because it is the good fruit being born out naturally of a life lived out of the vine, and what husbandman wouldn’t be pleased with that?

    I think a lot of us are seeing that much of the institutional church is getting really far afield from what God sees as His church and what He desires of His church.

I welcome your thoughts