I have noticed that a lot of us in the church are keen on having people “take responsibility” for themselves and their church experience.
Didn’t enjoy the preaching? Well, it’s your responsibility to get something out of the service. Come on, now.
Disappeared for three weeks and no one noticed or cared? Well, it’s your responsibility to notify the church if there’s an emergency or a problem we should pray about. Do you expect us to keep up with every single need?
Feel lonely, abandoned, or left out? Well, it’s your responsibility to get involved. We only have ten thousand small groups you can join.
I want to point out that these exhortations to take responsibility from believers often come from a good place. It is true that, with the right mindset, you can often glean more from a worship experience than you might otherwise if you simply shut down because you don’t prefer it. It’s also true that churches are sometimes under-staffed and overrun with requests and needs; I know that my church finally put an online system in place so that believers could submit hospital stays and prayer needs quickly and efficiently. And it’s true that it can be frustrating for churches to hear members complain they aren’t involved when those same members pass on any opportunity to be.
What I want to focus on, though, is that very often those exhortations for other believers to “take responsibility” aren’t our way of honestly trying to work out a difficult situation or to solve a problem together. Rather, too often, that question is a sly version of “Why should I…?” Let me show you.
It’s your responsibility to get something out of the service. Why should I care that it doesn’t work for you? It works for me just fine, and if you tried harder, it would work for you too.
It’s your responsibility to notify the church if you disappear. Why should I have to go around calling people when they don’t show up? What they do with their time is their business, not mine, and it’s God they’ll have to answer to in the end. I’m not about to be accused of harassing people.
It’s your responsibility to get involved. Why should I have to hold your hand and constantly make you feel welcome? Go out and make friends. It’s easy. Plenty of opportunities. You just want to complain.
This mindset can be damaging because it creates a paradigm wherein anything a believer needs, doesn’t like, or doesn’t agree with is their fault: they’re not trying hard enough to participate, to glean something from worship, to reach out, to integrate, to be involved. Additionally, it renders the church flawless and does not demand that it put any effort forth: we’re already here, the thinking goes, and isn’t that enough?
No. It isn’t enough. To your “Why should I…?” I must answer, “Because Jesus said so.”
Give to the one who asks you, Jesus says. If someone forces you to go one mile, go two. If someone asks for your shirt, give up your coat. If they slap your cheek, offer the other. Do extra. Give more. Extend yourself beyond what is necessary.
We’ve spent so much time creating amazing churches with world-class children’s ministries and coffee bars and yoga classes that half the time I think we expect people to show up and then just plug smoothly into the whole operation, like automatons. Once they’re “plugged in” we don’t have to do the work any more; the small group takes care of their urgent needs, the Sunday sermon feeds them appropriately, and we can slide them right back into the world again on Monday knowing we’ve done our job. And if they don’t plug in, we immediately assume that the fault is theirs and the burden to fix their problem lies with them, not us.
But Jesus calls us to so much more than that.
Instead of “it’s your responsibility to get something out of the service,” why not “I hate that you feel that way. I’m not sure we can change anything necessarily, but do you think there’s a way you could get more out of the service? What can I do to help?” (Hint: sometimes just listening matters. People like to feel heard, even if they can’t necessarily create the change they want.)
Instead of “it’s your responsibility to notify the church if you want us to reach out to you,” why not “Sometimes we’re overwhelmed with requests and visits and lose people in the shuffle, but we’re sorry we lost you for a while – we’ll make a note to keep up with you more from here on out!” (And then please be sure to actually, you know, keep up with them).
Instead of “it’s your responsibility to get involved,” why not “I know it can be hard to make friends in small groups and church organizations. How about I introduce you to a few folks who can have lunch with you and get to be friends with?”
I’m not saying that everyone will always be satisfied. They won’t be. And I’m certainly not encouraging churches to have gripe-fests where everyone shows up to confess their discontent with every small aspect of everything. Rather, I just think that when people speak up about something – whether it’s that they didn’t feel cared for, or didn’t feel they grew spiritually, or didn’t feel included, or whatever – we should at least demonstrate that we care enough to listen and, if it is within our power, to do what we can to help. Because for every time I hear “you’re responsible for your own church experience,” I hear “we already did everything we’re obligated to do, so if you’re unhappy, that’s on you.”
It’s not a very Christlike attitude.
Jesus calls us beyond obligation and what we are supposed to do. He calls us not to unburden ourselves of the need to act, but rather to pick up the cross and to follow Him. To be patient. To be kind. To be cheerful and loving in constant service.
Oh, and one more thing.
Maybe that guy who says he doesn’t get anything out of the service really is just a stubborn old codger who wouldn’t even like the next best thing to Jesus in the pulpit. Maybe he likes complaining more than he likes learning about Scripture.
Maybe that member who missed three weeks and complained far and wide about how the church didn’t care really is martyring herself. Maybe nothing was ever really that wrong and maybe people just did genuinely get careless and she revels in passive-aggressively making others feel bad even when they shouldn’t.
And maybe that one guy has refused invitations to a million small group and fellowship events, disdains any friendly overtures, and still tells everyone in hearing distance that no matter how he tries he just cannot make friends at this church.
What then? Do you tell it like it is, throw your hands up in the air, and say, “Suit yourself – you’ll get out what you put in” and walk off?
Nope. You love them and serve them just as extravagantly and joyously as you do the members that are one-hundred percent plugged in, who take all the responsibility on themselves to make their presence in the body joyous and fulfilling.
Because it’s not about them. It never was.
It’s about who Jesus called you to be.