Take a look at Romans 12 or 1 Corinthians 12. The church is an organism. It’s living—a body. It’s a group of people entangled with one another trying build something. The group—put together by the living God—invests their personal situations with Kingdom work and then uses their leftover hours to do something together that they could not each do on their own.
And this is the fundamental challenge: unifying a group of parts, each with a mind of its own.
It makes the church awkward, more like a temperamental ostrich than the latest MIT robot. But when these individuals work together as one organism, healthy and sure, the church carries quite the load, creates breathtaking works of art, and perhaps most importantly touches the heart of an aching world.
This is why the church needs to be an army of volunteers and, where needed, of paid staff to care for and empower the body and its parts. Staff therefore should not do the work of the church; nor should they try to replace it with a robot, an automated set of experiences, which happen to pay staff salary and keep a building safe, warm, clean, and dry.
If your paid staff do all the front-line work—even though it may be easier to accomplish the task this way—they are robbing your local community of the real power of God’s church. If you are a church member, and are not on the front lines somewhere, you are getting robbed.
There’s no doubt that church is a living thing with a sense of purpose, something with a soul of sorts. Try to malnourish it. It will clamour. Try to yell at it; it yells back. I mean not the individuals, but the larger systems. It needs tending and can be subjected sadly to abuse. Take away its sense of purpose and it stops growing. I think this is why Paul uses family language to talk to his churches, “we dealt with each of you as a father does with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2.11-12). The church is made up of people, creatures in their individuality, drawn together to create a living force. Alive, it offers each member access to their life’s true meaning.
The first rule in this all is recognizing that this creature exists.
But when the church stands and tries to walk and become the body of Christ, it is both powerful and awkward. There are times when it leaps over high hurdles. And times when it punches itself in the face. There are times when it lifts victims up from under rubble and times when it refuses to stand up itself. But when the church puts down its hostilities, usually in times of crisis, it accomplishes more than we could ever expect; it makes a song that soothes a grieving heart; it takes up impossible burdens and lifts them over mountains; it makes evil flee in terror. I’ve seen it in action.
It’s a wonder when church staff try to take this on themselves.
Church needs to be a bunch of people, who are face to face with other people, teaching children, or providing music, or food for other volunteers or food for new people, or leading home groups. We need diligently-engaged people, with a wide array of gifts— serving, teaching, preaching, encouraging, giving, leading, prophesying, showing mercy—all being sacrificially given over for the up-building of the body. Our ministry is with people and for people, and we need as many people at work as possible to accomplish our mission.
A group of two or seven or a hundred staff cannot come close to accomplish what the church can do, of any size.
The role of staff is to tend, feed, show affection, shelter, and remind the church of its mission. Staff screen volunteers, communicate schedules, research curriculum, troubleshoot, make connections, encourage, resource, listen, and pray. Staff are zookeepers of the finest quality. And this takes more time than you might imagine. It’s worth investing in staff at every level to help tend the church.
But the people that get put on the front lines, they need to be volunteers. The second rule of letting church do its thing is that staff should not try and do its job for it.
This is challenging, because of the limitations of time and capacity. With volunteers we have to share the load more broadly, not putting too much on one set of shoulders, learn to trust people with responsibility, expect to develop a culture of grace when people can’t come though, move slower, let other people be heroes, think smaller scale and yet expect the power of the body to carry us further.
Sure this can be a more frustrating way to do things, but none of what I just described is bad. Actually, this way of doing church, not surprisingly, does wonders to form selfless love.
Perhaps because staff need to keep a job, they are afraid to let responsibilities fall and jobs go undone. But the result of a staff taking over devastates a staff and frustrates a church; staff cannot carry alone the burden meant for the church. Even if people like the feeling of their pastor as a hero, very few people like to be the servant of a hero. It makes the church fume.
Therefore, rather than getting lost in programming, or automated systems, or pre-recorded sermons, or spending too much on fancy technology, what we need most is to create space for the many to put their blood, sweat, and tears into the work. We need to share the load of ministry, and really share it, entrusting volunteers with actual responsibility.
Dear people, love your staff. They are there to help you. You cannot survive without them. But if they do they work for you, you need to cut them off. Let them know if they need to back off and let you do your thing. If one member finds himself in a season of fatigue, may others in the church carry them. But if you, as a member of the body of Christ, know down deep that you can carry more, step in. Volunteer. Find the need—and there is always need—and lift a load. It the nature of the beast, and what a beautiful bird she is.