In God’s worldview, which is more important: people or programs?
There been a debate in the American church recently over whether God is primarily concerned with saving individual souls or redeeming the cosmos. In her blog post ‘Do people in the pews still matter?’ Rachel Miller asks, “What happens when pastors start looking at their congregation as a means to an end instead of a flock to shepherd?”
Here’s a real-life answer.
Recently I had the opportunity to see three churches encourage their congregations to increase their volunteer efforts. The differences were striking. The three approaches illustrate that this debate over “saving individual souls or redeeming the cosmos” produces very different understandings of the role of church leadership and congregations.
PLEASE NOTE: I assume all three churches acted from a sincere desire to please God. I am not criticizing the genuineness of their belief nor judging the success of their efforts. I am merely reflecting on the consequences of theology and how what we believe changes how we act.
Church #1: “We know best.”
Church #1 offered an online survey under the heading “Where Do You Desire to Serve?” This 10-minute survey listed the opportunities to volunteer within the church and asked participants to check both where they currently serve and where they would like to serve. The announcements explained that the survey will be “tremendously valuable to all ministry leaders at the church”; that “we will use all of these responses in the coming year as we sustain and develop ministry”; and that information collected “will be used for the purpose of coordinating volunteers to meet needs that arise at our church and in our community.” The survey was launched during a sermon series on financial stewardship, emphasizing that we serve not just by giving financially but also through using our time and talents.
Notice Church #1 asks participants to provide their information to central planners and then wait to be contacted. In this approach, the role of church leadership is to organize and galvanize its congregation and to plug participants into its various positions.
Church #2: “We’re here to help.”
Church #2 offered an online survey as well, which was launched during a sermon series on understanding spiritual gifts. The survey was a 30-40 minute spiritual gifts test followed by a 5-minute survey of places to serve at the church. The church asked for a twice per month commitment for three months. At the end of that time if you didn’t find a “fit”, they promised to help you find another place to serve that would fit your gifts better, whether that place was inside or outside this particular church. The announcements explained: ” You are about to start on a very exciting path toward determining your unique, God-given spiritual gifts! There are three parts to unwrapping your gifts: Part A: Completing the Spiritual Gifts Assessment; Part B: Considering your passions; Part C: Discovering the volunteer opportunity that allows you to use your gifts and highlight your passion.”
Church #2 has adopted a more equipping role, shifting responsibility and choice into the hands of the participant. Their central planners advertise themselves as helping you find your fit.
Church #3: “You know best.”
Church #3 had no survey, instead they offered ongoing training classes and mentoring. Training was not tied to any given season or sermon series, but was regularly offered throughout the year. Training ranged from general (how to lead a small group) to specific (counseling those in financial crisis). Led and organized by people already serving in that area, the length and depth of training varied with the subject and could involve a range of activities from workshops to mentoring. Neither attending the introductory session nor completing the training obligated the participant to serve in that area.
Church #3 removed the need for central planners entirely. The trainers were volunteers already serving in the field. No one in the church office compiled lists or surveys. They equipped by teaching the Word on Sundays and in small groups, and applying it through training, mentoring and service the rest of the week. Participants were encouraged to begin serving side by side in a community of believers and offered the tools and experience to grow in that service. For church #3, the greatest emphasis was on the care of souls.
What doe we learn from this?
If church leaders believe people in the pews are the means to fulfill the end goal of a cosmic redemption, then, of course, their job is to recruit bodies for the cause.
If church leaders believe God is redeeming the world by saving individuals souls in the midst of it, then their job is save and equip individual souls.
All three churches offered programs that served both members and non-members. All three acted based on how they believed God is working in the world and how best to respond to it. But depending on their worldview, they fell in very different places on the spectrum of whether they emphasized building programs or the quiet care of souls.
All theology is practical. What do you think? In God’s worldview, which is more important: people or programs?