By Eddie Pipkin

In part two of our five-part blog series kick-off to 2020, we’ll continue to look at the ways in which the development of Discipleship skills are the path to a full life for those who are seeking something more but facing conflicting feelings about the traditional church’s role in helping them get there.  As we noted last week, local congregations too often make Discipleship sound like drudgery and homework (on which we will be graded) rather than the habits, attitudes, and skills that open us up to the freedom of being who God created us to be (with all the blessings and adventures such freedom entails).  In today’s entry, we consider a Life of Service as an avenue to purpose and impact.

It is sometimes popular to say that young people are disengaged from the kinds of volunteering and community involvement that defined their parents’ generation, but this is not true.  They are just not approaching it in the same way.  It is not uncommon to hear millennials portrayed as a group that is self-obsessed (as if the baby boomers weren’t and aren’t), but research indicates that those younger folk care very deeply about making the world a better place.  They just don’t use the local church as the means to that end.

In the article, “Purpose is the Key to Millennial Volunteering and Giving,” Mark Horoszowski unpacks the prevailing mythology:

Millennials are known as being more environmentally and socially conscious than the older generations. So it always comes as a surprise to nonprofit, corporate, and governmental leaders when they see that millennials no longer in school do not give or volunteer as much as the other generations.

But it’s not that millennials give less, it’s that they give differently. Not always more effectively, but more integrated with their lives.

That search for integration is the key.  They are acutely aware of social justice issues, environmental health crises, and the plight of the poor, but they do not necessarily see the local church as the conduit for addressing those issues.  They don’t want their service to be a separate, unconnected thing.  And they don’t want their service to be institutionally focused.  They want to have an impact on the issues that feel relevant to them and their passions, and they want that impact to be direct, not the byproduct of some church-focused agenda.

For church leadership, from a discipleship perspective, it’s a two-headed coin.  On the one hand, as leaders, we need a new flexibility in the options we offer our local congregations for a Life of Service, and we need to make clear that such service is a wonderful pathway to finding deeper spiritual purpose.  Simultaneously, for those who are pursing a relationship with Jesus for different reasons, we need to help them understand that a Life of Service is an essential part of what it means to genuinely follow Christ.

If we miss either of these sides of the coin, we lose the connection. If we have a congregation full of professed Christ-followers who have not authentically embraced a Life of Service, our spiritual growth is neutered, discipleship is incomplete, and our ability to impact the community is stunted.  Likewise, if we have people who are genuinely energized about service, but we constrict the forms that service can take, we turn them off or burn them out.

A relevant article in The Washington Post points out the subtle differences in how younger generations choose a way to serve:

“We’re finding you still have to activate this group to get on board to do something,” said report author Derrick Feldman, president and founder of Achieve. “Yes, technology is an exciting tool. But to move someone to action still requires a messenger, a message and a purpose.”

The report found that 70 percent of millennials spent at least an hour volunteering their time to a cause they cared about, with more than one-third volunteering 11 hours or more. Forty-five percent participated in a company-wide volunteer day. Thirty-two percent used paid time off to volunteer and 16 percent took unpaid time off to volunteer.

Seventy-seven percent of millennials said they’re more likely to volunteer when they can use their specific skills or expertise to benefit a cause.

That last sentence should be an eye-opener for us as leaders.  There is a difference between actualizing someone’s skill set to serve the Kingdom versus squeezing them into our expectations to serve our own expectations or fiefdoms.  (That phrase, “use their specific skills or expertise,” seems very close to the concept of utilizing one’s spiritual gifts – a concept preached frequently from most pulpits but which many, many local congregations struggle mightily to make a reality for even the people who have expressed a desire to live out the concept – this is definitely true if their spiritual gift doesn’t fit conveniently into a narrow range of traditional options.)

People on the inside are begging us to explain this whole idea of plugging in their spiritual gifts to embrace a Life of Service.

People on the outside want to do their part to make the world better (a Life of Service subconsciously craved as a part of their own self-actualization).

A messenger, a message, and a purpose.  That’s where we church leaders come in.  If we want to fully embrace this role and reveal discipleship as the catalyst, we’ll need to change up some of our standard approaches.

We should have a broader range of ideas about what constitutes a Life of Service for a disciple.

We should be entrepreneurial in spirit so as to embrace any passion expressed by any person in our congregation, as long as that passion to serve is in line with our clear vision for the ministry and as long as resources are available to carry it forward.  [See this blog which explores this topic more fully.]

We should embrace community initiatives that are already underway.  There are many civic groups and community-based organizations that are faithfully working to tackle problems large and small.  We should embrace and supplement their work, rather than feeling threatened by it.  There is no reason to reinvent the wheel or duplicate already successful efforts – in fact, it can be counter-productive to do so.  There is much to be said for recruiting Habitat for Humanity work crews or participating in food pantries sponsored by our local schools, etc.

We should encourage and celebrate the service that people do on their own initiative.  It is very important to give people permission to serve in ways that are not directly sponsored by our church (not to make them feel like it “doesn’t count” if not’s something we initiated).  It is critical to celebrate this type of service – give people an opportunity to report it and to tell stories about it.  Such service, integrated into our daily routines, is really at the heart of who we are called to be as disciples.

We should get out of the business of prioritizing institutionally-focused service.

A fund-raiser for a capital campaign for our church building is not really a part of the Life of Service in the way that we usually make it out to be.  I am not arguing that service within our local church is not important – it definitely is – the local church cannot exist without countless volunteer tasks being performed with excellence.  But if we leave the people in our congregation with the premise that such self-serving service is our be-all-and-end-all priority (to take care of the tasks that keep the church doors open), we are missing a big, big part of the ministry to which Jesus has called us.  This is one of the reasons that churches which are not handcuffed to extensive campus infrastructure in some ways have an advantage over more nimble ministries with a smaller physical footprint.

The millennials we have been discussing in his blog understand the need to shelter the homeless, fight for the rights of the oppressed, and help fight addiction, but they don’t necessarily see the value in ushering on Sunday or generating money to replace the carpet (and to the extent that those basic tasks and furnishings are necessary to make ministry happen, it’s up to us to help them see those connections).  The core work of our service should be reaching out rather than turning in.  (Here’s a quick test, by the way, for an event you are hosting on-site that is also some sort of fund raiser, if you’re thinking of calling it a “community” event: how many community partners have you engaged to be a part of your event?  In what ways are you benefiting them, rather than their presence only benefiting you?)

We should act as a focal point for community activitism.

We should make meaningful connections with every school, community-based social service agency, volunteer group, government agency, and charitable organization in our community.

We should participate actively in initiatives sponsored by these groups and organizations whenever it is feasible (and in line with our vision).  We should give them a communications conduit for connecting with our faith community.  We should invite in speakers from these groups and organizations.  We should publicize their events, as opposed to feeling threatened by them.

We should provide the use of facilities to support their events and regular meetings when it is feasible to do so.  We should strive to earn a reputation as a place where community events and activism happens.

We should act as a clearinghouse for community volunteerism, so that anyone from any religious background (or none at all) will think of our website and our campus as places to get connected to make a difference in the greater community.

We should familiarize ourselves with the social challenges facing our greater community and engage in them.

We should free the concept of service from its expressly evangelical connections.

We should offer members of the greater community opportunities to serve alongside us in our ministry initiatives without them feeling expressly like “recruitment” events.

We should partner with other community groups in ways that show we are just wanting to be good citizens (free of agendas).

We should promote and participate in ecumenical efforts, bringing churches of different faiths together in joint projects and shared dialogue.

We should broaden the ways in which service can be connected to deeper spiritual growth.

This statement seems, perhaps, at odds with the previous statement about not making service projects a tool for recruitment, but it is a matter of balance (the conversation we should continually be having when thinking about the ways we directly engage our surrounding communities).  We want to provide opportunities for connections to deeper spiritual engagement for those who are looking for such engagement.  The key is to not force it on people: to give them a clear path to connect more fully while simultaneously clearly communicating that there is no expectation that they will choose that path.

It is also worth thinking about the ways that for some people, service is their primary expression of spiritual growth.  They may be less comfortable with a straight-up Bible study or worship gathering but feel very passionate about hands-on service as their expression of their love for God and their fellow human beings.  Honor that.  Take every opportunity to make service events feel “sacred.”  Offer a short payer if it feels appropriate, or at least a quiet moment to reflect on those being served.  There is a great two-step model for service activities in which the service itself is followed by an optional debrief or shared meal in which people can unpack the experience.

People feel a deep desire to serve others, to express their appreciation for how their lives have been blessed by giving back and paying forward.  Authentic discipleship recognizes this desire and gives it expression.  The local church provides a powerful connecting resource for pursuing this value of service in the company of others of like minds.  Discipleship done well gives us a way to have regular impact and to process the meaning of our efforts.  It gives us a system of support to make those efforts sustainable.  As leaders, we are positioned to help people understand the possibilities of a Life of Service and to help the institutions which we serve knock down the barriers to such service and engage the world freely and with enthusiasm.

What are the ways in which your congregation focuses on a Life of Service as a key element of Discipleship?  Do the people in your faith community know there is an expectation that authentic, sacrificial service is a part of their identity as followers of Christ?  Do the people in your surrounding community see your church as a clearinghouse for service and a focal point for impact and positive change?  Share your stories and challenges below.