I remember receiving the news. Our church had raised a large sum of money to help provide food to students at the school where we worship. We were going to be able to feed over 200 students every weekend through a "backpack program" we had piloted the year before.
It was incredible to see God bring all the pieces together: permission from the school district, partnership with the school, volunteer energy from the church, and finally, the financial support. It was one of those moments where you clearly see God at work and your faith is strengthened.
As I began sharing the good news with other people, something struck me. No one was more excited about this than me. Don't get me wrong—other people were amazed at what had happened, but they didn't have the same response to it I did.
Well, as a paid staff person in our church, I had poured significant time and energy into developing the initiative. I had researched "backpack" programs around the country. I had prayed for God to open up possibilities for food sources and funding. I knew some of the students at the school who would benefit from the program. I heard the stories straight from the principal's mouth about kids stealing food on Friday's so they'd have something to eat at home on the weekends.
No one had invested more in the development of this than I had, and my faith grew because of it. It got me thinking. If I want to see my people grow, I have to find ways to help them participate. And by participate, I don't just mean just slotting them into existing church ministries. I need to equip them to discern what God is doing around them and encourage them to join God in that work, day in and day out.
Performance vs. participation
Excellence is a top priority for many ministries. We're all too familiar with what's at stake. Do things with excellence (i.e. musical worship, preaching, children's ministry, building space, and small groups) and your church will grow. Don't do things with excellence and people will move to the church down the street with better programs and more polish.
Yet excellence has a dark side. Making excellence a top priority can lead to an understanding of church as little more than a producer of religious goods and services. In this view of church, the organization able to offer the highest quality religious goods and services will attract the most people. Of course many churches have this "works." If you offer a great spiritual product, you get more people.
But what happens to these people once you "get" them? Like the old marketing adage goes, "you keep people how you get them." By emphasizing excellence as the key to successful ministry, we condition people to be critical consumers of the best religious goods and services. We train them to consume; we don't equip them to participate.
Jesus doesn't call us to be consumers of religious goods and services. He invites us to be participants in what God is doing in the world. If we don't participate, we can't grow as followers of Jesus. We don't build any spiritual muscle by passively receiving our faith from professional Christians week in and week out. You can't pay someone to go to the gym and get in shape for you. And you can't outsource your spiritual development to the paid church staff. We all have to participate ourselves in what God is doing. If our churches don't provide the space for people to grow as participants in God's work in the world, then we are stunting their growth and reinforcing faulty notions of what church is about.