The day we suspended youth camp was a disheartening one. Absolutely necessary but equally disheartening. At the back of my mind, I was thinking of how to break the news to the youth committee made up of students. Not only did they initially request for the youth camp to be extended by one more day only for it to be turned down due to logistical issues, now I had to tell them that youth camp was going to be cancelled. If that was not bad enough, the annual highlight of overseas church camp was also suspended. For anyone working with youths, you can only imagine the disappointment or sian-ness (boredom, frustration) they must have felt. After all, one of the ‘main’ tasks of the youth committee was to plan such events. Furthermore, each term of service in the youth committee only lasted a year in order for other batch of youths to join. It certainly seemed like a terrible year to join the youth committee! For those with a desire to serve, what could be more demoralising than this?
As I was thinking of how to break the news to them, it dawned on me that perhaps what was needed was a rethinking of the word ‘service’. This thought sharpened further during a conversation with some university students when a question was posed “Is it ok not to serve in church?” This question while appearing basic and obvious, in fact called for a deeper understanding of what service meant and also a proper theological understanding of vocation both in and outside church. While it may be quite easy to adopt a dismissive attitude towards either youths or young adults as having a consumerist attitude hence posing such questions, it is equally possible that such a question stems from a different understanding of what service and ministry actually mean. Granted of course that there are indeed a (vast) number of people with consumerist attitudes towards church, there are also young adults who genuinely struggle with how to make sense of what they feel is their calling to be in the marketplace while at the same time facing the relentless requests from church members asking them to serve in particular ministries.
I don’t think I have the space to write an essay on what I understand Christian mission and vocation to be and neither can I write about my views of the church since to be honest, it’s still something that I’m thinking about. But perhaps something may be said of the word ‘service’.
I suspect that for many of us, COVID-19 has challenged our presuppositions concerning church and religious services (what is essential and what isn’t). But it ought also to make us rethink what service actually means. Based on observation, due to the growth and relative success of churches, Christian service has taken on the form of joining something. This is quite evident in Christian circles where you often introduce yourself not only by mentioning your name but also the ministry that you are serving in. The effect that this has on us is interesting to say the least. Without quite realising it, we end up thinking of service as something we must join in order to do. This leaves us with a ‘double entry’ into the service of Christ’s body, the Church. The first entry is baptism where the catechumens actually become part of the body of Christ. But then in our everyday language of service, we end creating a second entry – entry into a ministry to serve. If there was a pictorial representation, it might look something like this:
The result of speaking about service in such a manner is that we end up equating service with joining something on top of the Church – service is to be found in the joining of certain ministries seen as in the boxes. The other result of such a model is that we inevitably create another category of Christians who are basically non-serving Christians because they cannot be found in any of the ‘boxes’ within the church.
It’s not too difficult to see why such a view is problematic. For instance, it would mean that the moment someone leaves one of the ‘boxes’, he or she is assumed to have stopped serving. So service ends up being a task that can be completed or terminated. But the most glaring problem arises when we on the one hand, adopting this model, want to take the language of St Paul seriously when he says that each one of us are given gifts to build the church (Rom 12:4-8, 1 Cor 12:28, Eph 4:16), while on the other hand have ministries suspended due to COVID-19. With the model given above, it certainly seems as though Christians are no longer serving or are no longer using their gifts since they can’t be identified with a particular ministry.
Of course, I don’t for a second think that the majority of Christians if asked, would equate serving with joining a formal ministry. And neither do I see these ministries as inherently bad. The point highlighted above only seeks to show how we may have implicitly and unintentionally bought into this system of thought – myself included. The reality of this hit me the hardest when ministries started to get suspended and for a brief moment I began to wonder “What’s there left to serve in?” Without quite realising it, I found myself at a loss of how to serve without these ministries. What was originally intended to function as a platform to facilitate serving had become service itself such that without it, service seemed to have vanished.
But if that is not the way to understand service, how then should we understand it? I’m not sure I have all the answers. But as I reflect, at its baseline, it seems to me that service at the very least involves being part of the life of the church. It means taking an interest in the body of Christ and loving the people of God. It means being part of that sanctification process where God works in us enabling us to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13). It means being there for others and through the participation of the liturgy ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’ (Col 3:16). It means interceding and persevering in supplication for all the saints (Eph 6:18). Service in this sense doesn’t really stop even when formal structures of ministries actually end. Service also doesn’t begin by joining something on top of the church. Service begins upon entry into the body of Christ through baptism whether or not you’re actually in one these ‘boxes’.
This probably isn’t an exhaustive understanding of service but at least to me, it helps to encourage youths who are so looking forward to serve only to have camps cancelled. If you’re a youth, come together with your peers and think hard. COVID-19 hasn’t stopped you from serving. It has only removed a clear and obvious platform that you’ve been used to. But there are other things you can do. Drop a text, find out how your peers are doing, pray for them, lament together with your peers that what we have is far from ideal without close personal human interaction, zoom/skype and catch up with them. Mobilise your fellow peers to get on zoom and meet with your mentors. Trust me, it’s going to be so encouraging to your mentors for you guys to initiate the meeting. If you get on zoom, and your mentors look tired, don’t worry. It’s not you (I really hope so).
This understanding of service also helps to address the question posed by university students “Is it ok to not serve in church?” If serving in church means joining a ministry like the model in the picture, then personally I find it hard to say that every member needs to join a ministry. But if service is understood as the participation of church life through the liturgy, through fellowship, through encouragement, through prayer, then surely it is not ok that you’re not serving. While we must certainly expand our vision of Christian mission and vocation beyond the walls of church, to properly recognise the place of Christian contribution and service in the marketplace for the common good, this cannot possibly exclude participation in the life of the church. So go out and do your thing while you’re in the marketplace. But remember to return to your family for “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19)