A Christian psychologist once told me the church was a big enabler. Imagine my surprise. After all, the word “enabler” has a negative connotation with someone who, through action or inaction, permits another to indulge a destructive behavior. I now understand what he meant. Though the church is the place of miraculous encounters with God, it often looks the other way as some congregants run themselves ragged serving God by serving the church.
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of a handful of Christians and a church-planting professional to discuss the possibility of starting a church in a nearby neighborhood. One attendee, the mother of small children, asked the leader how to avoid the burdensome scenario of only a few people doing all the work behind the scenes of a new church. The leader said unfortunately it’s almost unavoidable. I thought, oh boy, slap me hard and sign me up . . . when pigs fly!
From my perspective in the pew, the current church model of a few of the same overworked people doing all the work to keep a church running for everyone else is unsustainable, if not outright immoral. Why? The forty hour week has become a dinosaur as people work longer hours to make ends meet. For most families, maintaining a basic middle-class lifestyle requires both parents to work. Spouses of pastors increasingly have careers outside the church. Many parents fill evenings, weekends, and summers with a host of activities for their children. Boomers find themselves postponing retirement and caring for aging parents as life expectancy improves. All of this means fewer available volunteer hours for church leaders to tap for running the church. Don’t get me wrong, I somewhat admire the insatiable work ethic of volunteers who keep churches chugging along. And as an American I’m keenly aware that any new venture requires extra effort. I just think it risky and unhealthy as the cares of modern life increasingly encroach on the time of those led to serve through volunteerism in the church. Learning, growing, and connection with Christ take time and contemplation, difficult to do in the rushed throes of busyness.
Modern congregations expect dynamic preaching, professional quality music, vibrant ministries for children and teens, and other cutting-edge ministries. Maybe the time is right for us on this side of the altar to adjust our expectations about church. Maybe we don’t need as many programs as we think. Maybe church leaders should focus more on building a healthy pool of volunteers or developing broader choices for volunteers. I don’t know. I don’t have an easy answer. I just know we ignore this problem at our peril.
Unfortunately, many churches will continue asking a handful of congregants to add more duties to their schedule. From what I gather, Jesus didn’t ask Peter to help Him build a world-changing church while Peter kept his day job as a commercial fisherman. If Peter did both, he likely didn’t do both in perpetuity. We could learn much from the recruiting methodology of Jesus. I am not suggesting Christ expects every Christian to quit their day job to teach Sunday school, but often something in our life must be released in order to serve God. If we ask people to fill church needs, we should clarify that we are asking many of them to take something else off their plate. And lest you think I’m ignoring congregant personal responsibility . . . yes, we in the pews can often help by simply saying no.