Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend who was feeling guilty after hearing his pastor speak about service. The pastor’s appeal was a good one. As followers of Christ, we are called to look out for others in need and to be generous with our time and resources. The message was from the story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead (Acts 9.36-41).
Part of the story is how Tabitha was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.” A group of adoring widows showed Peter the clothes she made for them. They mourned her death and celebrated her service. Tabitha is a great picture of pouring your life out for others. We should all be serving generously like her.
The trouble for my friend was not that he was being called to “serve like Tabitha,” but that it seemed like serving could only happen during his volunteer time.
Helping in the children’s ministry, making a meal for someone in need, mentoring someone—these are vital ways to serve. But my friend has three children and works at least 60 hours every week (or more). He helps lead a large company that provides a vital service nationally. His family already sacrifices for his work, and the last thing he wants is to make them sacrifice more. Plus, the work he does is meaningful and motivating. He feels he’s making a difference in people lives through what he does. Why should he give up precious family time to “serve like Tabitha”?
Or maybe he’s just being selfish and not following Jesus with his whole heart. Maybe, as he said to me, he is a “bad person.”
When my friend expressed his guilty feelings, I asked him, “What about your job? You’re serving people everyday. Doesn’t that count?” We didn’t talk long, but he seemed surprised, perhaps even a little resistant, to the idea of seeing his “secular” job as something that counts. Very little about his job suggests “ministry,” and his income is such that calling it “sacrifice” probably feels odd as well.
But here’s what I know: his company provides a service to the community, and he goes out of his way to help his employees, to look out for his employer and to serve people well. At times, he even helps new people with their careers.
In other words, my friend may already be serving like Tabitha everyday. God may be blessing him and desiring to meet him and guide him in all he does. But the church seems to be saying otherwise.
As a preacher myself, this is convicting and challenging. What he heard at church that Sunday left the impression that he’s not doing enough. Or at least, that he’s not doing the right things. Serving with our volunteer time is important, and church programs need to be staffed. They’re often the few windows through which people make connections in the church. But some people have more volunteer time than others, and Paul indicates that our 9-5 jobs are also genuine ways to serve the Lord (Ephesians 6:7-8).
So when we imply, even if through our silence, that “true service” only happens at the church or during volunteer time, we run the risk of discouraging people who are already serving faithfully and need encouragement and strength. Even worse, we miss an opportunity to foster creativity on how God might want to use their work to impact people in new ways.
Personally, I can say that conversations like this have challenged me to rethink my sermon illustrations and the ways I talk to people about serving and walking with Christ.