Grace, Law & Why We Help Out at Church

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As a father of two young daughters, it always irks me when people see me in public with my own children and ask, “Oh! Are you babysitting today?”

Uh . . . no. I’m their father. Spending time with my children is not babysitting. It’s also not some chore to be relegated to my wife so I can busy myself with “more important” things. It’s my vocation as a parent. I love it. I love them.

Perhaps that’s part of why I appreciate Erin Wathen’s recent article: Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers. Here Wathen draws a comparison between the faulty idea of parents-as-babysitters and church-members-as-volunteers.

I know I’m not the only one who cringes when someone sees me, without kids in tow, and asks if my husband is “babysitting.” Well, no. I mean, yes, he is at home with the kids tonight. But I do not think you can effectively say “babysitting” when it is your own dang kid. I’d say we could just call that parenting.

I feel the same when people talk about “volunteering” at church. And yes, I know it’s just a word. But it’s the wrong word, for a lot of reasons.

She goes on to explore what it means to be a “volunteer.” To volunteer, she argues, is to show up as an outside resource to help others in need. “In other words,” she says, “it’s what you do at a place that is important to you—but not at a place that belongs to you.”

She concludes:

You cannot volunteer at your own church, in the same way you cannot babysit your own kid. Because the church belongs to you in the same way your family does. It’s your own place, your own people. So of course you help take care of it. Of course you do yard work and make coffee and teach the kids and sing in the choir and whatever all else it is you do for the home and the people that you love.

Wathen is onto something important here.

As a pastor, I am hyper-conscious of how anxiously “busy” people are these days, and the last thing I think God desires for any of us is to a.) heap more anxious busy-ness on ourselves in the name of the Church or b.) heap shame on those whom we consider not busy enough. Both are nothing but pure law. Ours is meant to be a life of grace.

So what if Wathen is right? What if giving yourself to the needs of the Church is less about doing stuff because someone told you you should, and more about joyfully embracing your identity as a “member” in the fullest sense of that word? . . . not just a member of a club called “church,” but a vital, vibrant member of the Body of Christ? To return to the family metaphor, changing all those diapers and doing all that laundry all these years has carried a whole different meaning for me as a father, knowing that I do it as a member of my family. If I were just a volunteer in my household—just the babysitter—my resentment toward those diapers would have driven me to the brink, and I would have given up helping with the laundry long ago. (Actually, I could still do better with the laundry, but that’s a different story.)

So, once again—surprise, surprise—it all comes back to grace. It comes back to teaching parishioners and our fellow Christians that this faith of ours is about something much bigger, much deeper, much freer, and much more transformative than we usually give it credit for. It’s about belonging. It’s about discipleship. It’s about servanthood. But above all, it’s about grace.

We can choose to live under the law of parental babysitting and church volunteerism. Or we can choose to live under the grace of being vibrant members of the Body of Christ together, with all the give-and-take that entails.

Either way, there’s always going to be stuff to do. Grace doesn’t make it easier. It just makes it worth it.