Not Drowning, Just Waving: Seven Thoughts on Serving in Your Local Church Without Going Under

1. The truth, in the first place, is the other way around. Without serving you will sink as a Christian. To wash one another’s feet, to share the gospel, to care for the poor, to take responsibility for building up the body of Christ—that is the Christian life. If you don’t want a life shaped by service, there are other religions. This one is about serving.

2. Because the first comment is true, we sometimes believe that, unless I’m drowning, I’m not really serving. That is not true. It is true we are to pour out our lives for others. And it is true that that will be costly. But if you are drowning in your service — if you feel constantly overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, angry, susceptible to elaborate revenge fantasies and so on — don’t take that as a sign that you must be doing something right. It could be a sign that you have taken on too much.

3. As you seek to serve, my advice is to put needs before gifts. That is, don’t think (at least in the first instance), “What am I good at?” Rather ask, “What are the needs?” Which is a variation on “who is my neighbour?” That is what Christ did. He didn’t think of his gifts, but of our needs. Jesus didn’t die on the cross because he was really good at it, but because we needed it.

4. Of course, your gifts are not irrelevant. God has made you you, and in some way or other your youness is God’s supply for our needs (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). God has attended to our needs by means of your gifts. As you serve, you will no doubt discover that you are good at serving in certain areas. It is the path of wisdom to foster and extend yourself in those areas of service in which you are gifted.

5. Every yes is a no. When you say, “Yes, I will be at that soup kitchen” you are also saying “No, I won’t be visiting mum in hospital.” If you say, “Yes I will spend every night with church people and in church programmes” you are saying “no” to bearing witness to Jesus among your work friends and social network. So consider the “no” in your “yes”. “Yes, I will stay up all night talking to this person” might also mean, “no, I will not be a pleasant person to live with tomorrow.”

Of course, the person to whom you say no won’t always know your circumstances. The people at the soup kitchen don’t know your mum is sick. The pastor desperately trying to get the new programme off the ground doesn’t know that all your meaningful relationships with unbelievers are withering on the vine. Don’t worry about it — God knows, and he loves you to death. Play, as they say, to the gallery of One.

6. It seems to me that your local church should be a place you serve, but not the only sphere of your service. The building up of the body of Christ is a task to which we are all called as Christians (1 Corinthians 12). But of course our service extends beyond that. Indeed, in a very real sense the purpose of church (as in, the event of church, the church gathered) is to act (as my friend describes it) as Basecamp. It is where we go to spur one another on in our service. The older liturgies preserved something of this. The service does not begin with the words “come in here to love and serve the Lord” but ends with the minister saying: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

7. You are not God. You will get tired. You will make mistakes. You cannot be in two places at once. You cannot read people’s minds. Embrace your creatureliness. You can’t do everything. Your job is to worship God, not to be God. There are three members of the Trinity; there are no job vacancies for a fourth position. Learn to be a creature. To be finite. Repeat after me: “I can’t do everything; I can’t please everyone.” And then go and pour your life out in the service of others with all the joy and self-forgetfulness of those who know themselves to be radically and profoundly loved.