HOW TO BE A CHURCH VOLUNTEER AND A CHRISTIAN AT THE SAME TIME
Giving our spare time to the Church can be as much a challenge as it is a blessing. Careful attention to certain priorities can smooth the path.
Behaving like a Christian is a surprisingly easy thing provided there is no-one around us. Unfortunately the world is complicated by the presence of other people with an annoying tendency to sin. Once we step into a form of public Christian leadership we are tested by this in new ways. The first step in handling this is to accept that we are sinners too in need of the grace of God. I want to describe seven ways in which our faith should inform the role we have assumed.
The first is that we have been called to this position. We talk a lot about calling in the Church and yet it feels for many that this is something which happens to other people, who must somehow have a majestic and informed awareness of the Holy Spirit’s leading they are deprived of. Our appointment may have been inspired by this sense, but it may just as easily have come about in a very human deal with all the attendant compromises that involves.
When God moves in human affairs he has to get his hands dirty too by using confused, ambitious and fearful people in the pursuit of his mission. We have been called to this role.
No-one else is sitting in our place today. God has put us there – even if we blame the vicar or minister for sweet-talking up our skills. We are the one he is going to use. Remember this if we ever become discouraged. And remind God of it too because he has a delightful habit of delivering us when we are in need.
The second thing we are called to is to offer encouragement to the church. There is a fearful deficit of encouragement in the world today. We are become more preoccupied with ourselves, more cynical and instrumental in how we relate one to another, especially in places of work. People ache for encouragement and it is so easy to offer. All it takes is a few words of thanks or praise, an indication you have seen effort being made, a smile which shows someone has been noticed. A warm Christian community is built on these tiny graces because when aggregated they form a dense net of security and comfort.
The third way in which our faith might inform our work is by prayer. An observation like this is so blindingly obvious that we can miss its role. We are often so slow in turning to God for the help we need, resorting to him like a lifebelt, only when the ship is sinking. Many people think that Christian leaders are privileged in being able to live a life of prayer, as if we are starting the day with a round of golf and drinks in the clubhouse. In fact there are specific risks inherent in the prayer life of a Christian leader. With the needs of ministry in front of us we tend to co-opt God into our work, rather than seeing that it is he who has co-opted us. One consequence is that our relationship with him gets flattened into dealing with issues and we begin to lose the freshness and sense of wonder that comes from knowing the love of God. There should be concentric circles in our relationship with God as Christian volunteers. The inner circle is the work he has called us to. The outer and bigger circle is the relationship he has called us to. The risk is that these become one and the same circle, reducing God to the status of a work colleague. God is worth our praise and one beneficial outcome of worship is that it helps us to develop resilience in dealing with the work he has given us.
A fourth way in which our faith might inform our voluntary work is in careful attention to relationships. Our calling is in a sense remarkably simple as Christians: we are called to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. The Gospel is relational and we should foster good and fruitful relationships in the church and community. A fundamental component of this is the relationship we have with our vicar or minister. He or she needs us. We also need them. Pay good attention to this friendship and do not allow anything bad to fester. We are also called to love the fellowship around us too. We should be careful to distinguish loving someone from liking them. It is impossible, indeed probably not desirable, to like everyone. I can guarantee we can think of at least one person we do not like at church. There may be several. If we don’t like anyone at church we may be a psychopath and need clinical help, but I’ll leave that for others to sort out! Loving is deeper than liking and does not necessarily include it. It means doing the right thing by someone. It is an act of will more than an emotion of the heart. I have digressed on this because I know we spend a disproportionate amount of our time dwelling on the one bad experience we have rather than on the score of good experiences that surrounded it. St. Paul pertinently said in Philippians 4: whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing…think about these things. It is a discipline to fill our minds with good things rather than the junk that comes more easily, but it bears reward.
This leads me to the fifth component of faith as a volunteer leader, which is that we should not develop a habit of tolerating ‘stuff’: the indulgent or craven acceptance of nasty and spiteful talk; loose gossip; judgmentalism; bullying; underhand methods; lies. It is to our shame that we have tolerated so much un-Christian behaviour in our churches. The New Testament says we should be more assertive in tackling sin, starting with ourselves. If we have integrity in dealing with sin in ourselves it gives us permission to deal with the sins that are sometimes ostentatiously on display around us. As volunteer leaders we have a vital role to play. If sin is tolerated by those who lead, it grows rapidly, like a weed in the spring rain. We are called to witness to the light; it is hard to do that when there are shadows of darkness in the church.
The sixth observation I would make concerns the need to fashion our lives on the Gospel of Christ. We tend to think we witness to the Gospel most by what we say. The truth is that we witness more by how we act. Over ninety percent of communication in life is non-verbal, so we are radiating clues about what we hold dear all the time. We are to be the good news. I think if you ask most Christians in public leadership they would say that one of the biggest challenges is to live in a way that is consistent with following Christ. We know only too painfully the failings that haunt us. Thank God then it isn’t down to us to renew ourselves. It is the work of the Holy Spirit who recreates us from within, changing us by degrees into the likeness of Christ. Our job is to co-operate willingly with this process, keeping our hearts open to God and our minds to self-awareness. We do not always get it right, but if we get it right more times than we get it wrong we are influencing those around us for good. We seriously underestimate the power of our conduct on those surrounding us. God has formed us to be in community and we unconsciously imitate those we admire or look up to.
The seventh and final comment I would make about being a Christian and a church volunteer is that we must always be ourselves. No-one else can be the volunteer we are called to be because God has made each one of us unique. We should resist the tired temptation to be like the previous holder of our role. God is doing a new thing through us. We should use our personality, our gifts and interests to enrich and sustain us. And – if I may put it this way – we should get a life! Seriously. And if we feel we have a life thank you very much then make sure we keep it. The veteran Labour politician Denis Healey said that all politicians should develop what he called ‘a hinterland’: interests outside politics that would create a more rounded personality that isn’t wrapped up in the nerdy detail of their profession like John Motson obsessing over football statistics. Since he said that, of course, career politicians have become the norm. We may feel this does not apply to us and that we’ve got personal interests outside our commitments to church life that nourish and entertain us. Some of us may feel inexorable pressure that tries to squeeze the life out of those interests so we can devote more time to our church duties. We should resist this. If we don’t, our ministry may become impoverished, even bitter. If we nurture our passions, they will burnish our ministry, giving it an appealing lustre.
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