Whatever Happened to Service?

Have you ever gone into a fast food place and noticed the person who was about to prepare your food really didn’t want to be there?  The same attitude can end up in church.

I Hate My Job

My wife and I visited a Dairy Queen one day while we were out running errands, and I ordered a combo meal. The girl at the counter, who was all of 19 years old, looked stunned, as though I had done something totally unexpected by not ordering ice cream.  She shouted over her shoulder, “Hey Larry!”  Larry shuffled around the corner, dressed for yard work.  She said, “You gotta fire up the grill.”  Larry was nonplussed, and said to her, “I don’t know how to do that.”  She said, “Aw come on, just follow the checklist.”  He sighed like a man supremely inconvenienced.  That’s when I cancelled the order and we walked out.

Why did this happen, and why does this behavior afflict the food service industry, if not the service industry in general?  Setting aside character issues and low pay, it’s because this type of work is seen as dead-end, meaningless, inconsequential, and thankless.  If you receive any feedback at all, it’s because you got an order wrong.  Once this attitude is locked upstairs in the brain, it affects everything around it, like the people who walk out of your restaurant.

The vision tag for Dairy Queen is “Fan food, not fast food.”  It developed out of a dream that started in 1940 with the three original founders, who probably cashed-in all their savings and called in all their favors so Dairy Queen could be a reality.  It worked, and the chain went everywhere, but eventually it ended up in Larry’s hands here in Columbus, where something went terribly wrong.  That day we didn’t get fast food, or fan food, or any food at all.

There’s a lesson in this for us, because the church was also born out of a dream where the Founder poured everything He had into making it a reality.  Since that time, we’ve spread all over the globe.  But the church is no longer directly in the hands of the Apostles or the Fathers or the martyrs.  It has come down to us.  We’re it.  How are we doing?  That’s a scary question.

I joined a large group of believers some years back, and there was a standing joke among them that you should never tell anybody in the church that you’ve got a pick-up truck or that you can type.  It was funny, but I wondered if the truth spoken in that jest advocated for avoiding service as much as possible.

I noticed that smart folks were better at getting out of service commitments, since they could think on their feet and come up with excuses difficult to overcome.  Meanwhile, the simpletons were less adept, and always got roped into digging ministry ditches.  It didn’t seem right.

The whole thing bothered my judgmental self until one day when the shoe was on the other foot.  I was a ministry intern, about to call it quits after a long, exhausting day.  I was in the rear alcove of the church building, pulling on my jacket when I heard a voice.  It was the man responsible for the entire facility.  I could hear him in another part of the building, having a conversation with someone else.  I couldn’t see either one of them, but I heard that voice coming in my direction, saying, “I’ll grab somebody.”

I escaped out the back door.

This embarrassing response drove home a point to me. When God comes looking for a commitment of energy, I would rather offer something else.  Like just coming to church, which is a commitment of presence.  Or living the Christian life, which is a commitment of integrity.  Both of those are good and needed, but service is something of a different order.  It requires putting arms and legs to use, which is frequently exhausting and tedious.

At those times we need to remember that God values our service on the same level as our worship.

When God Visited a Busy Man

Consider the encounter between the angel and Zachariah in Luke chapter 1:8-18.  The angel tells this elderly man that he will have a son named John, who will prepare the people of Israel for the appearance of the Savior of the world.  This is the earliest notice of the coming of Christ, even predating the visitation to Mary!

The angel came while Zechariah was serving (v.8).  When God saw fit to commence the New Testament, He didn’t go looking for players that were benched, but those who were on the field.

In the few verses beyond this point, flashes and glimmers show up, like facets on a diamond—small items that God values.

First, Zechariah was “serving as priest before God.”  Those last two words might seem an unnecessary extravagance of language, because isn’t all service before God?  But they capture something about the man’s attitude.  Service can turn into a grind, like when your spouse or kids ask you to do something for them, and when you begin to do it, they hover.  Tiring of their presence, finally you tell them, “Please go find something to do.  Can’t you see I’m trying to show how much I love you?  Now, get lost!”  Sometimes Christian service can take this form.  I just want to get this thing done and off my plate, and I don’t need the extra bother of spiritual mumbo jumbo to go with it—thanks God, I’ll take it from here.  First century Judaism had dried up into this husk, not sometimes, but full time.  Zechariah though, had found a way to keep his service before God, that is, in God’s presence.

From this point, things get far more practical.  Zachariah served before God, but not like the lone ranger who simply does random good deeds when opportunities arose. He served “when his division was on duty.”   Centuries before (as recorded in 1 Chronicles), King David had organized the entire system of service in Israel—the Levites, the priests, the musicians, gatekeepers, treasurers, and everyone else—into teams.   Zachariah served with his team, not when it was individually convenient for him.   His service was part of a group endeavor.  Yes, there was a scheduled rotation—hard to imagine for those of us who abhor long-term energy commitments as unspiritual.

But wait.  If the scheduled team concept bothers you, it gets worse.  This service was considered as a “duty.”  Evangelicals invest that word “duty” with negative connotations, like being heartless, numb, and mindless.  We protest too much.  Luke uses the word here in the sense of responsibility—you know, showing up when you’re supposed to, honoring commitments, doing your best.

And there’s another “bad” word in verse 9.  Zechariah served with his team that was on duty according to the custom of the priesthood.  “Custom” smells like tradition.  For some of us, that is a noxious odor, especially those who think it important to be led every moment by the Holy Spirit into a kind of unpredictable variety.  For instance, I once heard about a Christian group that turned its Sunday morning meeting into a ping-pong room. Attendees were told to leave their Bibles at the door because the Bible was religious, and as we assure everyone, we hate religion (It’s all about the relationship!).  We can go to some ridiculous lengths to prove we’re Spirit-led.

But the service arrangement here in Luke originated with the Holy Spirit through David.  “Custom” simply refers to a regularity of feature and appearance.  It needn’t mean a life-squelching practice. In our context it includes the same old, same old of having chairs set up every week, turning lights on, vacuuming, cleaning toilets, and making sure musical accompaniment doesn’t go from a six-piece band one Sunday to a guy blowing badly on a harmonica the next.  A custom-less church might seem cool in a bohemian sort of way, but then so did Pet Rocks.  The novelty definitely wears off.  Besides, given time, custom-less approaches always harden into customs of their own, anyway.

I’ve borrowed a number of Old Covenant features as talking points here, although plenty of specifics no longer apply to us.  For one thing, there is no longer an exclusive priesthood, where some folks serve and some don’t.  And in the New Covenant, there’s no requirement for making pilgrimages to faraway locations like Jerusalem.  We’re not expected to worship with physical materials such as incense and altars, and animal sacrifices.

For all the differences though, many things remain the same.  There is still a priesthood (all believers), teams doing ministry, and responsibility.  There are customs and regularities in the New Testament such as the believers coming together on a regular basis, the word being taught, and numerous smaller levels of organization for getting things done.

God values service in the New Covenant even more than in the Old.  Take a look at how Jesus is described in Revelation chapter 1.

and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Not only did His blood free us from sins, it gave us a place as priests in God’s kingdom.  From the Father’s vantage point, it cost his Son’s blood to purchase for you the honor of service.  When we serve therefore, we do so upon the sacrifice of Jesus, and with great delight, God validates our service.

The Dangers of Avoiding Service

While rooting through my basement, I discovered a flashlight so new it looked as though it had just been taken out of the plastic.  I tried to switch it on and it didn’t work, so I figured it had no batteries.  I unscrewed the cap and two batteries fell out.  Apparently they were brand new when they were put in, but now they were covered with corrosion.  They weren’t misused, but unused.  That’s what happens when batteries sit in a warm, dark place for years.    And it happens to us who have been regenerated, graced, and gifted for service, when we don’t serve.  We end up victims of our own idleness.

It’s easy to say, “Okay, Lord, use me,” but subconsciously add, “As long as it’s exciting, important, and noticeable.”  Or, “Lord, use me in the specific area of my choice, but if you don’t, then forget the whole thing.”

Try this on for size instead:  “Lord, use me somewhere in your regular ministry effort. I want to be on the field, even if I don’t get to be the quarterback.”




  1. I could write a whole post on service, and might. There’s a lack of willingness and also a terrible over use of those willing. That’s with job or church. Personally I’ve been used in both because I have a servant’s heart. It’s nearly impossible for me to say no.

    1. I hear you. We really need to develop the kind of heart that not only serves, but does it in a way that is an expression of the grace we’ve received (not grossly beyond), and yet still stretches just enough to become enlarged over time (without burning out). It’s a real balance that requires being able to communicate a loving “no” to others sometimes, while helping them understand your situation.

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