Spiritually, life is full of ups and downs. I have experienced times of great growth, and then times of stagnation and depression. One vivid memory of mine is during one of the times of great growth. I was so excited about loving and helping others. One day, while coming out of my apartment in San Jose, California, I saw an older woman struggling to get grocery bags out of her car. Without even thinking about it, I jumped into action and helped her carry everything to her apartment. When I was done, I jumped into my car and began to drive to the ministry school I was attending at the time. I began to feel proud of myself. While I sat in traffic I recognized what I had done and how purely selfless it was. My sinfulness began to creep in and I immediately wanted to tell everyone about how wonderful I was that morning. A moment of genuine selflessness was perverted by a deeper pervading narcissism and pride.
Selflessness is such a difficult goal. I understand that in choosing this as my final reflection on the future of the church, I am leaving us with a very difficult task. The temptation will be to try to accomplish selflessness for ultimately selfish reasons. I want to avoid giving the impression that acting selfless is a way in which to bless ourselves ultimately with what we want. I have been a part of so many conversations in the church which went like this:
“Our church attendance is declining, what do we do to fix it?”
“I think we need to get out into the community more and serve people.”
“That is a brilliant idea. Then people will see how great a community we are and our membership will grow again.”
In my experience the ultimate end of most of our “service” is to get people in our seats. Getting people in our pews is almost always code for “more potential givers” which means “increased budget” which means “we can be what we used to be again.” In connection with the theme two weeks ago of authenticity, this kind of thinking is about as inauthentic as we can be. This model of problem-solving is deeply self-serving. People can sniff this out and tell whether the service to them is genuine and selfless, or ultimately for self-serving purposes.
While at seminary, I worked for a church plant in a very depressed neighborhood. Strangely, I felt at home in this ministry because it was closer to the communities I grew up in and around, than the ones I have served most my adult life. For three months one summer, we went door to door in that community doing a survey to find out ways the community needed help so that we could serve them. Every other house was boarded up and many lots had been razed to the ground to control blight. In the empty lots, we would regularly see white picket fences overgrown with weeds and grass. Most of the fences had fallen over and were barely visible through the overgrowth and trash. We decided to take a closer look and found a sign on one of the fences that said something like “White Picket Fence Project” with a name and date. When we asked a long time resident about it, we learned that this was a push by one of the mayors of the city to “clean up our troubled neighborhoods.”
Groups of energetic volunteers came into the community to clean up the blight, and build these fences. The mayor took press photos in front of the gleaming fences. And then, everyone left. The lots weren’t cared for, and the problems of the community weren’t any better than before. All that was left merely years later were dilapidated fences and signs. The resident we spoke to about it was cynical about this kind of “service” to their community. These programs seemed to them to be more self-serving for those who participated or organized them, than for the community. The church plant I was working for was trying to do the exact opposite. They were trying to be a part of the community to help rebuild it from the inside, lifting the people there up with everything they did.
Many churches are doing truly selfless work in their communities, and they should be lauded! Unfortunately, many other churches look at their own plight and get into pity parties where every action they take has a deeper more selfish motive behind it. If we want to truly be selfless we will have to begin to shift our cultures from the inside out.
Here are a couple ideas for how we can do that.
1. Stop caring about growth in numbers.
Is growth in numbers inherently a bad thing? No way! The Book of Acts records various numerical metrics for God’s activity in the communities he was reaching. Focusing on these numbers as our purpose is what gets us into selfish territory. If we have a goal to grow our worship attendance by 15% in the next year, we will measure all things by how our institution is blessed, and not by how the community around us is blessed. If we stop caring about people in our pews, then we won’t look for the rewards of our “selfless” behavior.
Can we do things for others not expecting anything in return? The great temptation is to do something outward facing or serving, but brand it with our church name and worship times. Maybe we can throw a party for the seniors living in the assisted living facility down the street and never even mention the name of our church? Maybe we can make baskets of supplies for teachers in the local school and give the baskets to them with a note that simply says, “Because you invest so much in our children we want to make sure you know our thankfulness,” with no advertisement for who it was from on it.
To be honest, when I edited this article my thought was, “But then how will they know who did it?” If you had this same thought, we are in the same boat. It is so foreign to us to do something purely for someone else, that it is even hard to imagine doing something without the receiving party knowing exactly who was doing it. I truly believe that this kind of selflessness will be a necessary trait of the church of the future, but I have no magic answer on how to make it happen.
2. Spend more time outside our church walls.
I find it incredibly hard to know the needs of people around me when I spend no time with them. I spend so much time in work or in activities with my kids that I barely know my neighbors names. I definitely don’t know how I can be praying for them, or if there is any way I can support them through whatever stage of life they are going through. This is a huge problem. If we spend more time as a church getting to know our neighbors and neighborhoods, we would learn more ways in which we can love people in Jesus’ name.
We could organize times of prayer walks for our church members. Walking around our immediate community, we could thank God for where we see him at work and ask for his help where we know it is needed.
Or, we could set up meetings with community leaders to find out what needs they think the community has. Police chiefs, fire chiefs, mayors, council members, principals, and business owners all have invested themselves into the service of the community. Their experience is a huge store of wisdom about the needs in which we could display our love to others.
3. Be more aware of those around us.
On an individual level, we can begin to build a perceptiveness in our church members to love those whom they encounter daily. Unfortunately, I too often rush from one project to another, and no doubt miss many opportunities that God places in my path to love someone at the moment. I think we can be better as a community to train each other to be less busy and more caring. We can encourage one another and support one another as we seek to serve those needs God places in the path of our daily lives so that we truly live a life of selfless behavior. Even if it is just helping a neighbor get their groceries in the house.
Do you think we can be more selfless in the church? Does the idea of doing things that may cost us time and money but lead to no tangible rewards for our churches bring you anxiety? Did I miss something we can be doing to be more selfless? Leave a comment and let’s discuss it.
Chris Thomas is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dearborn, MI, with a heart for helping others grow in their faith. Born and raised in Northern California, he met his wife Stacy there, and together they have four kids and two dogs who keep them busy. Chris has a Bachelors in Bible and Theology as well as Counseling Psychology from William Jessup University, and a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served in vocational ministry from age 19 in multiple denominations and contexts. Since high school, Chris has run a video production business, now using those skills to create video curriculum for the church. Chris writes about topics where faith, life and culture intersect. He is a huge fan of story and loves to read books or watch shows that spark his imagination. You can see more of Chris’s work at his website pastorchristhomas.com. You can follow him on Twitter at@chrissthomas, on Instagram at @pastorchristhomas, and here on YouTube.