A Bad Appeal for a Good Cause

Churches sometimes succumb to the temptation to appeal to our less-worthy motives in order to get us to do what we ought. In our age of individualistic, therapeutic, consumeristic selfishness–not that every age isn’t selfish, but this is the kind of selfishness that afflicts us most–churches often present the various needs they have for volunteers in terms of “opportunities.”

So each Sunday morning we hear of “opportunities” in youth work, or the soup kitchen, or the Sunday School, or an Alpha program. And each Sunday morning we then ask ourselves, if only for a moment’s consideration, “Do I want to do that? Will this be good for me? Is it indeed a valuable opportunity? No? Then forget it.”

Yes, Christian service is always a valuable opportunity for me: to use my spiritual gifts, to develop a serving spirit, to enjoy the company of fellow Christians, and so on. But Christian service is supposed to be also about honouring God and loving my neighbour. It’s about an obligation to meet others’ needs, not just benefit myself with one happy opportunity after another.

And when my church calls, it calls me as a member of a living organism, as someone already part of a unit who is supposed to be called on when need arises and who is supposed to respond with alacrity.

Churches, and other Christian organizations, therefore must not back away from declaring needs and calling constituents to meet those needs. That’s the respect adults pay each other. “This may not appeal much to you, but too bad: It’s a genuine, important need, and somebody has to step up. You’re a conscientious member of this church, a church that follows a Master who washed his disciples’ feet, so we’re asking: Will you?”

The Christian life is about responsibility to others, not just opportunity for myself. It is not, despite my individualistic, therapeutic, and consumerist inclinations, all about me.

It’s about us.

0 Responses to “A Bad Appeal for a Good Cause”

  1. mac

    I really appreciate the focus on language. I remember watching a wonderful Christian performance and afterwords having the donation request called an ‘opportunity or investment’, the connotation being that I would receive some benefit down the road. I could not have disagreed more. Giving to Kingdom work is obligatory whether it is our time, talent, or treasure (and perhaps all three).

  2. DC

    Thanks, Prof. Stackhouse, for this.
    I resonate with it as a church staff worker. What do you think of the language of “invitation” rather than “opportunity?” In my thinking, “invitation” speaks a language of hospitality. It still leaves a sense of responsibility (to accept or deny the invitation), but also avoids some of the guilt-induced church participation that can also be detrimental. That’s why I’ve tried to use language of hospitality (invitation) rather than individualism (opportunity).

  3. John Stackhouse

    I appreciate DC’s language of hospitality, a crucial mode of Christian living. But I’m not sure it quite goes far enough in the direction I’m advocating.

    I don’t “invite” my children to obey me when something crucial is at stake. My dean or college president doesn’t “invite” us faculty members to teach or conduct research or serve on administrative committees–those are terms of employment and our bosses are entitled to require them. Physicians don’t leave “invitations” for nurses, physiotherapists, and other health care associates: they leave orders.

    So is the church like a family? Like a school? Like a hospital? Yes, it is. Not in every way, of course, but perhaps in suggestive ways in this respect. Those in authority are not only free to ask for help, to invite us, but they are to summon us to help, for the mutual good of the members of the body and for the furtherance of the body’s mission.

    I’m not advocating a kind of ruthless, unqualified authoritarianism. I don’t want my own pastors telling me that I must teach 3rd-grade Sunday School or come early to church to hand out bulletins or work overnight in our homeless shelter simply because these jobs need doing and my pastors are too lazy or stupid to match jobs to individual gifts and situations.

    At the same time, however, I believe my pastors properly can come to me and say, “John, you’re not doing anything to help our congregation and its work. Yet you are a member of this church. So here are five things that need doing, and our assessment of you is that you can do one or more of at least three of them. Pray about it for a little while, and then we’ll come back and sign you up for at least one.”

    If this scenario sounds a little invasive, if not heavy-handed, then I do wonder what authority our church leaders are supposed to have over us, if any at all, to call out and coordinate the gifts of the Body.

    In a time of sweeping individualism, which is sometimes met by the opposite extreme of authoritarianism, we need leadership and “followership” covenants of mutual respect and, yes, obligation.

    So instead of offering opportunities or even issuing invitations, I’m suggesting we work more closely together to come up with, yes, assignments.

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