“Don’t Serve Outside Our Church”

It’s becoming clear to the churched and unchurched alike. Serving others is valid and righteous only if it is done inside the confines of the congregation.

Increasingly, churches have become protective of their members and regular attendees. They frequently encourage them to volunteer and serve—in the official functions of the congregation. But not elsewhere.

  • After the recent Colorado floods, coordinated community-wide work days were organized to help the victims of the disaster. But some church leaders refused to cooperate or encourage their members to serve. One said, “Why would we want our people out there working if our church isn’t the main sponsor?”
  • A pastor recently said he’d never make his congregation aware of opportunities to serve with Habitat for Humanity or other community agencies. “We need our people serving here,” he said. “We can’t afford them spending their time out there.”
  • A child-mentoring organization links congregations with local public schools. But they have more schools than churches that are willing to partner. “Why would we do that?” a pastor asked. “I don’t think those kids or their parents would ever come to our church, or give to our church.”
  • One church noticed that some members were pursuing their passions and creating new non-profit organizations to serve in the community. Church leaders formed a new policy discouraging such activity and denying the church’s support. “Those spin-offs don’t help our church’s brand,” a leader told me. “If we don’t control it and put our church’s name on it, we don’t want our people involved.”

This myopic practice is killing the mission of the church—especially among the young. Millennials, who are eager to serve, simply do not get the church’s possessiveness when it comes to volunteers. It’s a major turn-off that is contributing to the Millennials’ flight from the church altogether.

Clutching volunteers also corrodes the public’s perception of the meaning of “church”—as a self-serving institution, in a building, that meets at a certain time during the week.

This behavior is anesthetizing our people from being salt and light in the real world. They’re assuming that the only acceptable expression of their faith happens at church. Once they leave the parking lot, they can forget about following Jesus—until they plop in the pew next week.

I like what Leadership Network’s Reggie McNeal says in our upcoming documentary, “When God Left the Building.” He said, “The big issue for the church is not how to do church better. We’ve been doing church better and better and better with the result of an increasing disaffection. The real question for the American church is how to BE the church better. How do you be church where people already are? How do you take church to the people instead of just expecting people to come to church?”

32 Responses to ““Don’t Serve Outside Our Church””

  1. Reply October 23, 2013 at 5:21 am

    Wow! That’s exactly what iv found at some churches. Hogging volunteers as if the church is a self-serving institution. Guess we just gota forgive this as human fault from those church leaders, what can ya do?

  2. I know that when churches do get involved outside, the underlying purpose is often the hope of some return of new people. It’s like a chance to advertise or an investment.

  3. A Kingdom mentality is what Jesus offers us as individuals and certainly the organization we call the church. Home run, again, Thom!

  4. Some years Lyle Schaller divided churches into high demand churches and low demand churches. High demand churches want nearly all of a person/family’s life to revolve around the church. As a result, these churches start schools, childcare centers, gyms, bookstores, coffee shops, and their own mission projects. Members are discouraged from serving in public office and to engage in public life as little as possible. Low demand churches are just the opposite, and ironically, they have been the builders of society – using their faith to influence and develop our society. High demand churches now see society as a lost cause, thus, they have withdrawn from it into a parochial world they can control. Unfortunately, it boils down to a “God bless Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice, us four and no more” theology which I personally find contrary to the love of Christ in his response to “Who is my neighbor?”

    • Exactly John!!! ‘Who is my neighbour’ says it all. I am a Christian and just in the process of finding a church. I am unemployed but still give to charity when I can and believe that the better part of Christianity is about helping other people, whoever they are and whatever they believe. We are not born Christians just because we grow up in a Christian community or a country where Christianity is the nominal religion, we become Christians when we accept Jesus into our hearts and become obedient to His will. Some churchgoers sound more like Pharisees than those who should merely love their neighbour as themselves.

  5. It is most difficult to be self-motivated to DO outside ministry. It takes a person who understands and loves Jesus so much that it just overflows onto others. This is my challenge. I want to be more for Christ but often at the end of the day I am tired or busy with the “rest of the day” to give to others. I have great excuses, but at the end of time I am afraid I will learn how much time, talent and treasures I just squandered away. :-(

  6. I’ve seen this attitude more and more lately, and it really, really, really bugs me.

    No church “owns” me, and I’m a pastor’s wife — and I can and should serve wherever and whenever God leads me, whether in our church or outside it.

    We’ve also seen this attitude result in a severe decline in the support of foreign missions. I believe God is not pleased.

    • I agree totally! I was warned about the assumptions of congregations relative to my responsibilities within the church while my husband attended seminary. We are currently looking at a church a few hours away. I am an artist and my husband knows this is my ministry for God. If I don’t sense God’s leading in a particular ministry, I’m not going to force it.

  7. Thom, I have personally experienced this as a parishioner and while on staff of another large church.

    A big part of the problem is in how we even define ministry, as seen in Mark’s reply. We’ve indoctrinated people to think of doing Gods work as what we do at night and on the weekends. Then the church fights to control those leftovers of our time, often using guilt as a motivator. No wonder people feel drained of faith.

  8. That is ridiculous! Jesus came to seek and to save. He gave us the Great Commission to GO. The people of the Church do serve in the community. What kind of Churches would we have if no one bothered to help those in need. Wrong priorities. Will pray for them!

  9. I was in a church where this was the prevailing thought, particularly the last bullet item regarding creating new ministries that came about as an organic movement rather than moving through the bureaucratic system. And the ministry was a good one, doing much good in the community by providing clothing and other needed items to the poor. But the powers that be, although they didn’t stop the ministry, they grumbled and groused about it, resenting the fact that people wanted to designate part of their giving to the ministry. Now having served in leadership, I understand all about allocating funds. But when one’s primary reasoning for being against a ministry is basically one of jealousy, covetousness and resentment, we need to check our hearts. One elder actually said in response to allocating funds to this ministry (which had already proven to be widely popular and successful): “God didn’t call us to save the world.” Oookay, maybe not, but we are His hands and feet on the earth.

    • Ultimately, is Christianity about love or control? Is it about seeking Jesus’ precious will, or worldly power? The Good Samaritan is the best story for Christians and non-Christians to understand decent motives from the heart, churched or not.

  10. I’m not sure I’m following any of this conversation!…We have become a sister church of a church in Boulder. Our youth went there for 2 days during fall break, our congregation had a volunteer Engineer that is working with them so they do not have the same problems should (God forbid) this happen again. As John Wesley stated “The World is my Parrish.” We are called to serve the world – to use our gifts, talents, skills and whole self to help our neighbor. When we talk about serving, we talk about where God may be calling them to serve inside and outside our building. Where are they serving now? What are their community involvements? Is it something our church can help you with?
    We recently did a community food drive along side their companies, high schools, etc and collected over 110,000lbs of food! The world is our Parrish – we are called to the world – not to our building!

  11. Wow. That makes me sad. One thing I love about my church is how involved and passionate they are about helping within the community. They’ve gotten really involved with flood relief, have a partnership with the schools for mentoring, did a backpack drive for another charitable organization, and so on. I love that they’re okay with serving even when it’s not stamped with “LifeBridge” or even with Jesus at all (like the backpack drive). And outside of the local community, they encourage us to be involved globally – they had Compassion here this week and encouraged us to sponsor kids, without seeing it as competition for our giving.

    And I’ve NEVER gotten the impression that we’re discouraged from serving on our own in other organizations that they haven’t partnered with. I think if my church was the way you described I’d be church hunting.

  12. And I have seen the counter, where a church embraces what their people are doing and supports it, indirectly or directly, which helps the program and makes people feel good about what their church is doing (even when they may not be the ones doing it ;)

  13. Yes, because people are supposed to conveniently show up in the church building if they want to know Jesus. Spend all of your outreach money on the lobby and landscaping, because where you make an impression on your community. No going out to get to know any unbelievers and build trust relationships. Live in that Christian ghetto!

  14. I have a feeling this is why we have so many para church ministries. In fact when you assess things, you will probably find that the para church ministries are doing more in the world and for the world than the church is and makes you ask “who is the church.” Having been involved in four para church ministries, I find that we are 24/7 christians and ministries, even to the point of being on the street at night reaching out to prostitutes and drug addicts.

    I know of another one where the founder’s ministry time was overnight, reaching out to the homeless. No church supported him but he knew he had to do it and as a result he has founded and established two churches from his ministry. His support was mainly from individuals who believed in what he was doing.

  15. To me, there are three legs to the ‘Outreach’ stool. 1) Kingdom building – outreach that is designed to help people come to know Christ. 2) Community building – outreach that is designed to help and enrich our community. 3) Church building – outreach that is designed to grow the local church.

    A healthy outreach plan should have a balance of all three.

  16. But if we reach out to the poor, they won’t have any tithe to give us anyway. So why bother? (to be read with sarcasm)

  17. I am a Pastor and my church is only 25 people but we are growing by leaps and bounds every time we move beyond our walls to serve others in the name of Jesus. Spiritual grow that is. We witness with our lips and prove it with our actions. We have said in our assemblies that we will do what it takes to make Christ known. We will minister to one another & will outreach to others. We are not looking to grow our church but to do what we can do for Jesus. Adrian Rogers said it is not up to me to fill the pew it is up to me to fill the pulpit. It just so happens our pulpit is located at a soup Kit, or HFH house or etc…

  18. Sounds to me like a textbook case of micromanagement with some control mixed in. Fear of losing control is also present.

  19. When will there be a church for the unchurched? Why don’t churches, congregations and denominations invite non Christians and people who really couldn’t care less one way or the other or those just curious to come in? Even if only a few people turned up, wouldn’t that be a start? Put a few sandwiches and some tea and cakes on, and you’ll get all the freeloaders in!!!! I am being serious though about openly inviting people in.

  20. I agree with Thom, but as a volunteer church leader and youth leader I am seeing more and more people not coming to the church community and going to the many other communities like sports, other organizations and events. It is very hard to compete for the attention, hearts and money of the people and when they don’t show up I feel like quitting and joining them and abandoning the church. Now I know that was not Gods plan. And we need money to keep the church building open and staffed.

  21. Once again Tom I feel like your articles have been reading my mind… It is so true about our churches but I believe it is changing…. Great read… Keep them coming

  22. Perhaps we (churches collectively) haven’t done a good job in training the body of Christ how to do both at the same time – volunteer in other organizations and “be Jesus” to the world. I have many friends who volunteer as coaches and firefighters, in soup kitchens, the local food pantry and clothes closets. I always wonder if those they are ministering to witness “Jesus” serving them. Or are the volunteers busy talking to each other and dishing food out at the same time and not taking an interest in those they serve?

  23. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. When churches are more concerned with serving the “world” there is very little, if any, time, attention or money left to love and nurture the church flock. When did God’s family become the “social safety net” for everyone in the world?

    I’m NOT saying Christians shouldn’t care or be concerned with problems in the world, but unless or until the church has loved sacrificially on ALL members of our own church family do we earn the right to serve outside the body.

    I believe charity starts at home….that “home” being the church family you have been called to worship together with. How many hurting, broken people do you sit next to each and every week during worship that you have NEVER reached out to?

    Many people become Christians because they realize they are broken and hurting and are looking for refuge FROM the world. When Christians are so concerned with serving the “world” they are turning their backs on their own church family who may have needs just as significant and numerous as the “world.”

    Everyone (at least in the US) get so caught up in “serving their neighbor” they miss the “neighbor” sitting right next to them in the pew.

  24. You must be talking about “religious” churches. I don’t find this true of most bible believing churches.

  25. Patricia Parulekar Reply August 27, 2015 at 9:36 am

    I have started going to a Lutheran Church because the I met the Pastor. A choir that encourages people of diverse cultures and religions, that learns and performs the music of those cultures has lessons out of his Church. My nieces were members of that choir. At the Christmas concert I was struck by his message: he was talking about a Hannukah dinner at a friend’s (a Rabbi) home, and how he enjoyed the meal and the ceremony. He finished his talk with, “I love this country, it’s a place where we can celebrate and respect all paths to God.”

    I am Hindu. I drag my multi-religion family and friends to his church. I tell my friends about this wonderful Pastor and his welcoming congregation. The Pastor does not try to convert. Just welcomes. He is very active in our city and many lives, not just those of his congregation benefit from his existence.

    He gives without expectation of return.

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