The Life Changing Magic of Volunteering at Church

Matt and I are safely in Jerusalem, lying back in a travel weary fog, trying to orient ourselves to the glorious view outside out window. Because I don’t have my head quite caught up, I’m giving you all this lovely piece by Jessica Snell. She is brilliant and lovely and all the ways to read her are at the end. Enjoy!

Last week, a strange thing happened: our family went to church…and that’s it. That’s all we did: we arrived, we worshiped, and we went home.

It was strange because, in the past five years that we’ve been members of our little church plant, we are almost always on the schedule to do something at church. My husband is setting up chairs for the after-church potluck, I’m setting the table for communion, my son is helping as an usher, my daughter is singing in the choir. Even our youngest two children help carry things that need to be carried, because part of being a church plant (for us) is renting our worship space, and so everything we use in the service has to be carted down from storage every week.

It is the most active we have ever been in church. It is the hardest we’ve ever worked in church. It is the most time we’ve ever given to a church.

And it is the most at home I have ever felt in a church—and I am the daughter of two missionaries, and the granddaughter of two pastors.

Volunteering at church will change your life, but I’m not writing this as a how-to article. I am writing it as a testimony. What I have found in these last five years of service is precious, and I want to share it with other Christians who might be looking for what I was looking for: a way to really feel at home in the church, a way to really get to know their fellow believers. A way to belong.

And here at the start, I should say: this isn’t pay-for-play. You can’t really earnbelonging in a church, any more than you can earn your own salvation. It’s a gift—it’s all, always and forever, a gift. There is room in the church for those who need to be served as well as those who serve. If disability or age or situation keep you from volunteering, that’s okay. In families, we care for those who need care. Families take care of the old, the sick, the young—and those who are in convalescence for wounds of both body and soul. I have been that convalescent person in church—the person who was giving her all just by managing to get there on some of the Sundays—and I imagine I will be that person again, because age and illness and accident come for us all.

But though you cannot earn your place in a family or in a home, when you are well, and when the church is your home, you can act like a healthy child of that house—a child with rights and with responsibilities. A child who belongs. And if you act like what you actually are, you might find that, more and more, you become that very thing.

With that said, here are some things I have learned in these past five years at our little church plant.

Finding the Work that Suits

It’s a glorious thing when a Christian finds the work that really fits him or her in the church—when the gifted musician finds his place leading worship, or the brilliant theologian finds her place crafting a Bible study, or the compassionate caregiver finds her place rocking babies in the church nursery. And I’d urge you to keep your eyes open, andlook for the place where your talents can be best used in God’s church—it’s a wonderful thing to find that.

But, in the meantime, just serve somewhere. The psalmist was right when he said it was better to even be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to be at rest elsewhere. It’s better to be taking out the trash in the house of the Lord too. (Or changing diapers. Or doing the dishes.) First, because you love the Lord and His people, and want to serve them. Second, because even if the work is not your “best” work, it is still good work, and it needs to be done. Third, because it is only by beginning to work that you will ever find your best work.

The best kinds of work never come to the idle; they come to the occupied.

Attendance

This is just a small-but-practical point: it is easier to make yourself go to church if people are expecting you to show up.

I know this is not a motivation any of us should need. We should be glad when our alarm clocks say to us, Let us go to the house of the Lord.

But God also gave us shrewdness, and it is shrewd to set yourself up to do the right thing—to put your feet on right paths, when you know that you are prone to wander (Lord, we feel it).

When you are a person who is inclined to find every reason not to go to church—when you feel like giving yourself a pat on the back if you make it every other week—get thee a volunteer role.

It is easier to go when you know that they need you.

God grant that you—and I—grow out of needing this prompt someday. God grant we become saints who long, nay faint! for the courts of the Lord.

But honestly, that is most likely to happen if we are currently saints who show up at the courts of the Lord often enough to become mature enough to love it there.

So volunteer for something you need to show up for. It’ll be good for you. (It’s been for me!)

Loving the Lord’s People

Working with people is the best way to get to know them. I have had more friendships grow out of shared work than out of any other thing. It’s hard to stand on ceremony when you’re getting your hands dirty together; it’s easy to make the kind of jokes that make you like each other when you’re fixing the fifteenth thing that’s gone wrong that day.

Work with the Lord’s people, and you will find that you like them—and know them—better than before.

Ownership (and Grace)

And speaking of liking God’s people, there’s another marvelous thing that happens when you’re putting work into the maintenance of a local church: you come to have a lot of sympathy for everyone else who is also there working.

It is easy to criticize when you’re not involved.

And, sure, it’s easy to criticize when you’re involved, too—but it’s harder to criticize with scorn. Even when you disagree, you know how hard the other people involved are working. And so you respect them. That means you still might disagree—but you’ll find you’re disagreeing with more love, and more grace.

The other thing that happens is that you disagree and offer to help fix things, rather than disagreeing and expecting someone else to solve the problem.

This is especially true if you’ve been volunteering long enough to have made your own mistakes, and to have had the experience of being grateful to the people who helped you fix those mistakes.

Burnout 

Be honest if you are burned out. It’s okay to step out of a volunteer role when the time is right. No one will hate you for it; they will simply be grateful for the time that you were able to give.

Step out when you need to. Step back in when you can. Be honest about both things.

As I said, the past five years are the most active my family has ever been in church—and we’re just laity. (You should see how hard our pastor and his wife work!) It’s still not more than a few hours out of our week, if that.

But it has made all the difference in the world to how at home we feel in church, how much we care, and how much we love.

Love has a contemplative side, and love has an active side. Both are necessary.

Again, this is not about earning your place. Jesus has earned all of us a place here in His church—everything we have is something we have been given by Him.

This is just about opening your hands and taking what you have been given.

The church is your church. Be a part of it. Be even more a part of it. Dive in. There is richness here. There is life here.

It’s yours. Take it.

Jessica Snell is the contributing editor of Let Us Keep the Feast, a book about celebrating the Christian church year at home. Her work has appeared in Christ and Pop Culture, Daily Science FictionThe Lent Project, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @theJessicaSnell.

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