The Importance of Service in the Local Church

by Dana Li

If you ask casual churchgoers who they view as servants in the church, they will likely point to the most prominent individuals: the pastor, the music team, and the Sunday school teachers. We often take for granted the host of people who are working behind-the-scenes, but chairs don’t magically line up each Sunday, and the PowerPoint slides are not running unsupervised. While there are more visible manifestations of Christian service, such as teachers and worship leaders, there are many hidden and unofficial ways members serve in the church. This even extends to keeping an eye out for newcomers, welcoming and following up with them, to ensure no one falls through the cracks. Some of these quiet acts of service form the foundation of a thriving church, and their impact is enormous. A kind word and follow-up email could be the impetus for someone to come back, plug into a solid biblical church, or even come to know Christ.

In Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul vividly describes the church as the body of Christ, an analogy that highlights principles for how the church should function, and how we should each think of our role within it.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

1 Corinthians 12:14-19

We could spend a lot of time plumbing the riches of this passage, but these are a few key insights I took away:

(1) In the body of Christ, we all have different functions and gifts. While Paul does point out that certain spiritual gifts, such as teaching, contribute more directly to equipping the saints (Eph 4:11-12), he emphasizes that each gift is necessary to the body. No Christian is superior to any other because of their role in the church. Some men may boast more in certain gifts, but Paul asks rhetorically, “if the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” If we were all teachers, who would lead us in singing, or watch the children, or set up the facilities?

(2) God has sovereignly created and ordained each of our gifts. He arranged “each one of them” according to His care and wisdom. There is no place for us to despise our gifts, or envy someone else’s.

(3) Our differences should not lend themselves to division, but rather to unity. The analogy of a body beautifully illustrates how, when functioning correctly, different organs and parts work in harmony together.

When I meditate on a passage like this, I am struck by the shocking reality that Paul calls us, wretched sinners though now redeemed, the body of Christ. And in that body, each of us has a role to play, without which the whole body will suffer. Suddenly, even the most mundane chores in the church are awash with new meaning as we see the high calling of all service done unto the Lord and others.

The Priority and Preciousness of the Local Church
The local church is where teaching, growth, and discipleship happen. It’s also where people are coming to Christ and getting saved. We tend to glorify what happens out in foreign mission fields, and while those certainly deserve our attention and honor, our local church is where most of us are called to serve regularly and faithfully. It is just as critical a place for building up believers and being salt and light at home.

In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives a series of detailed instructions to the church, including how to interact with older and younger men and women, how to care for widows, how to honor our elders, and more. Underlying all these commands is the implication that the church is functioning as it ought to, with its relationships and service to one another. To carry out Paul’s instruction to “care for those who are truly widows” (v. 16) or to consider elders worth of “double honor” (v. 17) necessitate that we have made the local church a priority in our lives.

One great motivation for me in loving and serving the local church is to see its preciousness. It is precious because the church is the bride of Christ, and it is precious because it is composed of redeemed individuals made in the image of God. In Ephesians 5, Paul writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (v. 31-32). Marriage, the most intimate relationship on earth, is a picture of Christ’s relationship to His church. In light of that, how can we claim to love Christ without cherishing the church?

It is a high privilege and calling to serve in our local body, in big or small ways, when we remember the reality of what the church is to our Lord. Furthermore, we are striving to build up fellow believers we will spend eternity with, and that is a worthwhile investment of our time.

The Heart of Service
Christian service is not merely about the outward acts, but the right inward heart. As a sinner, I easily find myself falling prey to a multitude of wrong motivations in serving: to be recognized, to be praised, to fit in with others, and the list can go on. (Even in writing this article, I needed to pray for a spirit of humility, not pride!) These are insidious temptations I regularly need to check my heart against. In Matthew 6:1, Jesus warns, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” We often point to the Pharisees as the poster children of legalistic religion, but we must examine our own hearts and guard against that same hypocrisy.

I believe one of the reasons we crave recognition and approval in our service is because service is hard, and we want other people to know it. Serving in the church isn’t about getting a glamorous shot of myself feeding the poor at a soup kitchen (and proceeding to get “likes” all over social media). I don’t always feel the joy of serving, especially after a grueling week at work. I know I am naturally self-centered, and would rather sit back as a passive consumer than pour myself out for others. But this is precisely when I need the right biblical perspective on the local church to kick in. Am I investing in things of eternal value? Again, meditating on the priority and preciousness of the local church helps me connect seemingly rote tasks with the high calling of building up the body of Christ. By biblical standards, works with eternal worth are not measured by our cultural yardsticks, or the works that are most prominently seen by men. Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.

Holy Ambition & Ordinary Life
We live in a time when ambition to labor for a higher cause and mission-driven initiatives are applauded. Even large corporations need to tout their support for social good. All of this shows that we are wired to live for more than ourselves and strive after some purpose outside of ourselves. Like many in my generation, I also entertain fleeting notions of grandeur: find a cool gig in London or Paris and live abroad, take a few months off to travel the world, or quit Silicon Valley and work in an orphanage in China. I want to “make something of myself” beyond the ordinary life I’ve settled into.

In many ways, the secular worldview has hijacked the concept of ambition. But there is a holy ambition set forth in Scripture that we are to strive after. Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air” (1 Cor 9:24-26). He does not tell us to kick back and relax, but rather to pursue even loftier things than the world calls us to: to run hard to receive an imperishable prize. Though it is a high and holy calling, this kind of pursuit may look radically different from secular ambition. Rather than traveling the world, it may mean visiting a brother or sister going through tough trials. And while serving the Lord may lead some of us to digging wells in third-world countries, many of us may be stacking chairs after church.

More and more, I am learning that it is not settling for less to stay rooted in one community, particularly because of the opportunity to love and serve the local church. If I take the energy I could pour into building a stellar career or checking off a bucket list, how much could I do for the body of Christ? And if all of us cultivate that mentality in the local church, how much more beautifully and effectively would the body function? May we pray for the right heart to serve the Lord and His people, and then find practical ways to live out that holy ambition.

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