At church this morning, I read in the bulletin about a service opportunity: helping freshmen at nearby Webster University move into their dorm rooms. What a great outreach, I thought! The youth minister, who announced the effort from the lectern, noted with some chagrin that no one had signed up yet. I saw a few people approach him during the peace-passing time, though.
Developing or disseminating ideas for ministry opportunities is one of my big interests. I love to discover a new idea, or source for ideas, and then pass them along to others. Usually I share the information in the church curriculum I write for the United Methodist Publishing House. For several years I also worked with and created ministry opportunities in congregations.
Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone” was published in 1995 in The Journal of Democracy, then Putnam expanded his research in his 2001 book of the same name. The title comes from his observation that although bowling is still popular, membership in league bowling has declined in individual years, and this decline of league membership is a handy metaphor for membership in other community groups including churches. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors have also studied American citizenship and civic participation for many years and, like Putnam, have expressed concern in people's community involvement. Eric Mount of Centre College notes: “Voluntary associations, service clubs, churches, bowling leagues, unions, PTAs, neighborhoods, networks, and political parties that constitute people’s communities of conversation and the cells of democratic citizenship have gotten squeezed out by the demands of work and the claims of family."
These trends have definitely affected churches, as Mount indicates. In church settings, creating and supporting an ongoing effort of ministry opportunities is challenging, not only to plan and implement but also to support and maintain over the long haul. There are numerous books that can help pastors and other congregational leaders handle these challenges. I (privately) feel regret when I see church staff and congregational leaders fail to provide ministry opportunities or to give laity permission (to use William Easum's theme) to serve in creative ways.
Just the “little things” can help people enormously in motivating them to service. Do folks get the information they need to serve well? Do they feel that the pastor and/or staff support them? Are the folks made to feel appreciated? Are the ministry opportunities involve a doable amount of time, and can folks move easily among opportunities?
But I don’t want to imply that ministry opportunities is something for which affirmation and validation are the primary things. Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was actually about worship, rather than service opportunities. But his words about worship were apropos for service opportunities as well. He pointed out that worship is first directed toward God. The sermon, the music, where the pastor stands during Eucharist, and other aspects are important but more important is the way we focus our minds, prayers, and hearts upon God during the worship.
That attitude of worship applies to ministry- and service-opportunities as well. If we feel affirmed and communicated-to in our service efforts, that’s great. But even if we’re not, our primary task is still to put our faith into practice as best we can, with God’s help (Romans 12). Serving others is part of our identity as Christians, and hopefully our identity has been formed over the years in such a way that service opportunities come naturally--and not only that, but also that our whole lives have been formed so that all our “going out and coming in” (Ps. 121:8) in different ways testify to God’s reality.
1. For instance, a friend recently sent me this book: Victor N. Claman and David E. Butler, with Jessica A. Boyatt, Acting on Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference: A Guide to Success in Service and Social Action. Boston: Insights Inc., 1994.
2. Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, The Journal of Democracy, January 1995, 65-78; accessible at: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/assoc/bowling.html Also: Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
3. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227
4. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 5.