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?”