I became a Christian in 1994 during my 3rd year of university while studying Engineering and Materials in England. Back then, as a young Christian, I knew that Jesus had died for me, my sins were forgiven and I had a relationship with the God of the universe. But I didn’t really see what church had to do with any of that. I would go along, listen to the music and messages, but immediately after the service I would be one of the first to leave.
Over time, God in His goodness helped me to understand from His Word that while He saves us individually (in the sense that I have to make a personal decision to accept and live with Jesus as my Lord and Saviour), He has saved me to belong to His body, the church. As a Christian I am a member of Christ’s body. I have a part to play. He has prepared in advance good deeds for me to do. I’m to be eager to serve my brothers and sisters in Christ.
But where could I start? I couldn’t sing, nor could I play a musical instrument, and as a new Christian, I had few skills in teaching the Bible. Eventually I saw an announcement in the church bulletin and volunteered to serve in the OHP ministry (yes, OHP stands for overhead projector, a device we had back in the Old Days). The service leader would select the songs and we would have to look for the lyrics in a library full of transparent plastic sheets that were then uplit and projected onto a large screen. We would have to skilfully flip the transparencies during the service. We would have to know verse from chorus. Timing was crucial so as to minimise distraction to the congregation. Eventually, technology advanced and our church bought an LCD projector, so things became easier.
But serving in the OHP ministry got me thinking. What if some of us weren’t dexterous enough or were unable to handle the stress of being stared at when the wrong lyrics went up? What about all those who can’t sing or play a musical instrument? Furthermore, even if everyone could serve, there wouldn’t be enough places in the music team, OHP and PA team for every member to serve. Apart from the ‘formal’ ministries and rosters, wasn’t there something any and every member could do?
Guess what, there is! One day I read an article written by Colin Marshall in Christian magazine The Briefing. Cell group members might recall seeing Colin Marshall interviewed in one of the videos for Six Steps to Loving Your Church. In his article he gives suggestions for every member to be serving in church. All the suggestions are things that we can do at our own initiative. We don’t need to sign up for a formal ministry. All that is needed is just to observe what happens around us and respond to people’s needs.
Here, then, are some ways that all of us can be serving one another before, during and after the service. ¹ All I can say is, I wish I’d known sooner — this can totally change the way you and others experience churchgoing:
Did you know that the pastor and service leaders should not be the only ones preparing for church? We can all prepare by praying for the preacher, the musicians, the service leader, the Bible readers and the newcomers. We prepare by studying the Bible passages so that we maximise this learning opportunity by being alert to the issues and questions in the passages being taught. (Here at LP, where our Bible Studies are in sync with our sermons, this is yet another good reason to prepare your Bible Study for cell group!) Such preparation also has other benefits. We are better equipped to discuss the passage with others if we have looked at it beforehand. It is also a great encouragement to the preacher to know that the congregation is eager to understand the Bible and willing to put in some effort. Preaching is hard work, both for the preacher and the listeners. An intelligent question, comment or observation upon the sermon is an enormous motivating factor for the preacher who, week by week, has to try and engage the congregation’s minds and hearts in the Word of God. Those who sit in the pew can make a great contribution to those teaching from the pulpit.
Meeting visitors & newcomers
We enjoy meeting our friends at church, but we need to develop a nose for new people. We need to sit with them and help them feel comfortable in this strange place by introducing ourselves and explaining what is going on. We should greet the non-Christian friends of other members and introduce our friends to others. It’s all about genuine hospitality. The way we welcome and look after people when they visit our homes should be a model for the household of God. And genuine, relaxed hospitality will slowly evaporate some of the prejudices held by outsiders.
All of this requires that we arrive not on time or late, but early. That may be the greatest miracle of all.
People in the pews have an enormous impact on those who are teaching and leading. Communication is always a two way process. Energetic listening through taking notes, making eye contact with the preacher, sitting at the front, laughing at jokes (even old ones), will spur on the preacher. It is very hard to preach enthusiastically to a sleepy, distracted, fidgety group. Our active listening will also infect others with enthusiasm for learning, just as our fidgeting will discourage them. Unbelievers will also pick up that these ideas are worth listening to if they see rows of regulars eagerly soaking up the Bible.
Similarly, those in the pew can be a great help to the singing and leading of music. It is everyone’s responsibility to share in the corporate singing of the congregation. The music may be well chosen and played but if it is poorly sung it is disheartening. Our enthusiasm and gusto in singing the great anthems of the faith is of great help to those around us and those leading the music, even if we can barely hold a tune. Just pretend you’re under the shower.
Each member in the pew also has an important part to play in the smooth running of the meeting. The devil will use anything to distract people from hearing the Word of God. We mustn’t rely on ‘those on duty’ to fix things. If the air-conditioning is too cold, let someone know. If the microphones are not right, signal to the speaker so the problem can be fixed before they continue on without being heard.
Keep attending to newcomers’ needs. If they can’t find their way around the Bible or the service outline, or they don’t have a Bible, or they need to find the crèche, help them yourself. It is your meeting, not the pastor’s. Be observant and outward-looking.
Discuss God’s Word
We have just heard the Word of God and we spend all of lunch fellowship talking about the latest movie. Many of us are just uncomfortable starting up ‘spiritual’ conversations, but if you get the ball rolling, others will pick it up. During your preparation and the sermon, think up some comments or issues to raise with others. Asking “What did you think of the sermon?” will usually put your neighbour into a coma, but making a specific comment like “I didn’t know Abel was a prophet. What makes someone a prophet?”, may generate a fruitful conversation. Even if the conversations don’t always get off the ground, your enthusiasm for learning the Bible will be contagious and non-Christians will see that church is not dull and boring but fascinating and life-changing.
Pray with others
Use the lunch fellowship time to meet others and find out their concerns and pray quietly with them. This will look a bit weird to newcomers who see pairs of bowed heads all around the building, but they will know that we love each other and trust God’s providence.
Newcomers tend to leave fairly quickly so we have to move fast by identifying the visitor in our pew and talking to them as soon as the service ends. Here at LP, it’s easy enough: invite them to have lunch with you in the canteen! Make sure they are welcomed properly by you and your friends, maybe introduce them to the pastor and help them see how they can fit in to the congregation. You may have to postpone catching your friends until after the newcomers have been cared for.
Once you catch this vision of church, you are always one of the last to leave because the opportunities to serve don’t end until the last person leaves. Gone are the days of fitting church in between breakfast and lunch. Ministry of the pew takes time, but makes a difference to you and everyone else and requires no super-special skills. Imagine what LP would look like with everyone eagerly looking out for everyone else! I hope you’ll never again be left wondering, “What on earth can I do?”
¹These are excerpts that I have edited in some places to suit our context. To read the entire original article please go to http://matthiasmedia.com/briefing/1994/03/factotum-1-the-ministry-of-the-pew/