For the North End Community Ministry / food pantry visit or call (616) 454-1097.

We meet for worship at 214 Spencer Street NE. Directions.
Service begins Sundays at 10:00AM.

the giving and receiving of gifts

We’ve all heard of the “80/20” rule. You might not know it has a formal name: the Pareto Principle. This principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. For example, 80% of sales might come from 20% of customers or 80% of profits come from 20% of products. We hear of it in the church as well, often with the claim that 80% of “the work” comes from just 20% of the people.

I think this is untrue, but not because 80% of the volunteer (or “service”) hours don’t come from just 20% of the people. I have no idea whether that is the case or not. I think the Pareto Principle doesn’t apply to the church because 20% of the people can only do 20% of the “work”. The problem is we define “work” in the church incorrectly. We tend to limit it to specific tasks. Painting the auditorium. Leading a City Group. Planning a wedding shower. Serving in the Nursery. We should not think of serving the church primarily in terms of tasks. Rather, serving the church should be thought of as engaging in the life of the church. Twenty-percent of the people can only engage in twenty-percent of the life of the church. The life of the church requires each and every person to participate. Let me explain.

Last Sunday we looked at a rather obscure section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I said in the sermon it is one most of us have probably skimmed over as we’ve read Ephesians 4. It’s not immediately obvious what Paul’s point is or how that point fits into the flow of the letter. It seems Paul’s point is quite simple, which may be the reason for some of the confusion, and his point is this: Jesus is the Sovereign Lord. He makes this point by citing Psalm 68, which is about YHWH God of Israel defeating his enemies and caring for his people. It is because the Lord is victorious that he is able to give gifts to his people.

These gifts are given through his Spirit. Each and every believer has a spiritual gift, a divine enablement to serve the body of Christ in some way. As Peter summarizes them, these gifts are either speaking gifts or serving gifts. One either serves the Lord and his church through words, whether teaching or encouragement or evangelism and such, or one serves the Lord and his church through acts of service, whether mercy or physical, tangible acts or providing a meal. Whether speaking or serving, one is empowered by the Spirit of God, so it is the Holy Spirit who is caring for his people.

What is clear in the context of Ephesians 4 is the spiritual gifts God gives are really and truly the people who are so gifted. That is, the true gifts God gives to his church are his people whom he has gifted. As I said in the sermon, when a gifted person who is given to the church refuses to participate in the life of the church, by refusing to give him or herself as the gift to the church, that person is robbing the church of a needed gift. If you yourself are the gift and you keep to yourself, no one to whom the gift is actually given is able to enjoy the gift.

Over the years we at New City have received a number of folk who have come from churches that have “used up” the gift. Some demand service from their members and wear them out. This often happens through excessive programming where a person is expected to be in the church building whenever the lights are on. In the church God used to save me I learned quickly that when the doors are open I was expected to be there. This meant Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and during the summer, Thursday night as well. I was a teenager at the time! I wasn’t really expected to be there for workdays or to teach Sunday School. This was a small church. In a larger church there would have been even more programming with even more need for volunteers. What is often implicit is the expectation that serving the Lord means long hours keeping the machine rolling.

By God’s grace we’ve had a number of people join us who were “burned out” by the demands of “church life”. They served and poured themselves out in service to others, yet never or rarely received the spiritual gifts of others into their own lives. They were left unfed and unfilled by others. Serving the church with our spiritual gifts should be life-giving, not draining. If serving the church leaves you drained, something is wrong.

I say this knowing full well what Paul himself said in Philippians 2:17, that he is to “be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith”. Paul clearly spent himself in service to the Lord and his church. He was in prison when he wrote this letter. Surely this was draining! His ministry was one of suffering and fatigue, of weariness and pain. Look at the context, however.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:17–18 ESV

Notice that while Paul is being poured out, others are still pouring into him! Paul did not engage in service to the Lord alone. He understood that following Christ and serving Christ is a team sport! In our culture that prizes so-called “rugged individualism”, our default disposition is to get through whatever obstacles come into our path all on our own. We cannot show weakness, cannot ask for help, cannot admit we’re not enough on our own. Whenever Paul traveled, he traveled with his ministry team. Whenever Paul planted a church, he planted with his ministry team. Whenever Paul suffered, he suffered with his ministry team—even if from afar!

The local church was never meant to be a bunch of individuals who follow Jesus on their own, but with a group of others who also follow Jesus on their own. The local church was never meant to be a series of silos, with each member serving in his or her own capacity yet otherwise keeping to him or herself. You cannot actually exercise your spiritual gift properly all alone. Even if your particular spiritual gift is faith, which is often expressed in private prayer, you cannot truly exercise this gift without being involved in the life of the church. If you try to, your prayers will be stunted, for how will you know how to trust the Lord for the things the church needs?

The broader church tends to place too much emphasis on learning one’s particular gift. It is good and even important to know if your gift is encouragement or service or administration or teaching or giving or discernment. If you know, you can more effectively seek opportunities to exercise the gift. What often happens, however, is a person then becomes task-oriented to the point he or she forgets the true gift given to the church: you.

Many of those in our church have come from other churches. Many were faithful to serve, whether teaching in a program or organizing programming or serving behind the scenes in some practical way. When you come to this church what we desire for you more than anything else is for you to experience the presence of God in your life. This happens in community. One of the elders was recently asked why we so emphasize attendance and participation in the worship service. This is because God’s presence and activity is most profoundly experienced in community. It isn’t about padding our stats on a Sunday morning. It isn’t about padding our stats by needing to multiply the number of City Groups we have. We want you to experience the presence and activity of God. This is the sign of the new covenant.

When you actively participate in the gathered assembly, you experience God’s presence. At a minimum this means showing up on time and engaging in the service, whether singing or praying or simply paying attention. When you actively participate in a City Group, you experience God’s presence. This is where you become known, where you can share your struggles and your successes, your pain and your joy. It is where you can admit your weaknesses and know you will be supported by others who also admit their need. When you actively engage in Christian community, whether you share a meal with others in the church or you go hiking or geo-caching or play board games together, you experience God’s presence. When you engage in the life of the church, you are giving yourself to the church and the church is giving itself to you. This is how we serve according to our giftedness, for you are the gift.

The giving and receiving of gifts should not be draining. To be sure, there are times the gift of mercy can overwhelm. The gift of service can be physically demanding. The gift of teaching comes with the rigors of study. The gift of giving comes with an inherent cost. Since this all happens in community, Paul has to command us to bear with one another (Ephesians 4:1). Christian community isn’t always easy! As we spend ourselves in service to one another and as we allow others to spend themselves in service to us, and as we do this while bearing with one another in love, we begin to discover the Lord’s brilliance. This spending of one’s self becomes life-giving. This giving of one’s self in service to the Lord and to his church ceases to be a thing that drains us, for even as we are poured out, others are pouring in.

If you are new to New City and you come weary and worn out, rest. We’re not asking you to fill a role. We’re not asking you to step up and do a thing that needs to be done. If you desire it and if you are able, let’s work together! I find that many come to New City and need to rest a while. It is good to rest. When God created Adam, the first thing Adam did was rest with God on the seventh day. Rest is preparation for work, not a reward for having worked! (Here’s an article about this very idea.) So rest up! Know that rest is preparation, though, and the work to be done is full participation in the life of the church. Let us pour into you, refilling what is missing. Let us encourage you and exhort you and strengthen you and build you up. If you do this, you won’t discover that you’re ready to begin doing the same for others. You will discover you have been doing this for others, for you are the gift.

Yes, there are tasks that need to be done. We have deacons who lead various ministries in the church to ensure these tasks are accomplished. There are many volunteers who help them make these things happen. The life of the church, however, is not a task. It requires each and every person to serve according to his or her giftedness, and this only happens when each one of us participates in the life of the church.