The first step is to survive the coordinated attacks from the children. An ex-nihilo stain suddenly appears on my daughter’s dress. An episode from my son responding to his sister’s “help.” A well-placed plastic Lego planted strategically at the bottom of the steps. And of course, a soiled-through diaper just as we head for the door.
Safely in the car, we prepare to play our part of our church’s ministry for that Sunday’s gathering. I have no formal duties this week — I am not preaching or welcoming or giving the prayer of thanksgiving — but I ready myself and my family for ministry nonetheless.
A worship song plays. Swerving along the main road cratered as the moon, we arrive at the chosen traffic light signaling time to pray for the service. The music pauses, and a hush falls on the car.
Father, please be with us as we worship you in spirit and in truth. Bless the pastor to preach your word with power. Give us ears to hear and obey your word. Have mercy on your beloved people. Let us see Christ. If any do not truly know you, save them. And Lord, prepare us now to be a blessing to your people.
After we park, we turn our energies to greeting the saints and getting all of our kids into the pew.
As the service begins, we focus on the lyrics being sung, asking God to warm our hearts and the hearts of those around us. My two oldest, imitating their parents, throw up their hands. We praise him with our whole person. Lord, accept our songs in your Son. Forgive our coldness and distractions.
As worship continues, my wife and I see some new faces, some faces we have not seen in a while, some faces we have been praying for. We note people we want to make sure to talk to after the service.
The preacher soon mounts the pulpit. O Lord, give him love for your glory, love for your people, love for your word. Bless him to preach as one speaking your oracles. Speak to us through this man.
After the preaching, after the final song and benediction are given, we look around — a big part of our ministry begins. Who would you have us speak with, encourage, welcome to the church, pray for, confront? How do you plan to use us to bless those around us in the pews this week?
Does My Church Need Me?
Here is the main point, the truth that can revolutionize your walk with the Lord and your experience of the local church: If you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, you have something to contribute to your local church every Sunday morning.
Do you believe that? Do you come not only to receive — which you should — but to also bless?
“If you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, you have something to contribute to your local church every Sunday morning.”
This has been hard for “normal” Christians to believe ever since the beginning. In the early church, members looked around the house churches in Corinth and saw different usefulness in the Lord, different giftings. Some seemed more essential, and others more dispensable.
Responding to such thinking, Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . .” (1 Corinthians 12:21–22).
In too many churches today, the feet, hands, and ears say of themselves, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” (1 Corinthians 12:16) — because we do not preach, teach, or host small group — we are not needed. Hands show up on Sundays, listless, merely to listen to the mouth speak. They rest in the audience, treating the local church as a theater that welcomes spectators to watch more prominent saints do actual ministry.
You are not leading worship. You are not formally greeting, nor praying in the service, nor giving communion. You aren’t ushering, or serving in the nursery, or leading a women’s ministry. What part do you really play? Everything, you think, would run just as smoothly without you.
I hope, normal Christian, that this liberates you from inactivity and relative anonymity on Sunday mornings: God has a vital part for you to play every time your local church gathers.
Ministry of the Pew
May I introduce you to what others have called the ministry of the pew? Ministry that you — normal Christian — perform every Lord’s day. Such is the ministry of the Not-Up-Fronts, the army sitting facing the pulpit.
“Some of the best ministry in healthy churches happens by those who never hold a microphone.”
For years I did not have any notion of this. I might bring people to church, to my pastor’s ministry. But over time I discovered that the pastor’s ministry does not replace mine; it refines mine. It makes our ministry better, more effective. Your pastor equips you for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ into mature manhood (Ephesians 4:12–13). This ministry finds some expression on Sunday mornings as you serve, you prepare, and you exercise your own gifts and acts of love within your local body. Much of the best ministry in healthy churches happens by those who never hold a microphone.
So what can this ministry look like? The possibilities are endless, but here are a few principles to get you started.
1. Arrive Early, Stay Late
Consider how the author of Hebrews describes the alternative to not gathering together on Sundays:
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
The opposite of neglecting to meet together is not just technically going to church — sneaking in the back and bolting at the last amen. Failing to meet entails not just a failure of proximity but a failure of encouragement. The writer assumes that meeting together will to lead to stirring each other up to love and good works. And not just the pastor stirring us up. You stirring me, and I stirring you. Or, in shorthand, we encourage one another as we see the Day draw near.
How can we do this if we avoid speaking with God’s people? How can we encourage one another if we come late and leave early? And consider creating space for after-service fellowship to carry over into lunch. It wasn’t too long ago when many churches considered the “Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10) as the Lord’s day. All day. Time around the saints is imperative for pew ministry.
2. Pray for a Burden for Someone
But do not just stay and linger around the church water fountain.
Lookout for the member you have not talked much with. Lookout for the new face, caught mid-pew, no one to talk with. Pray for the Lord to give you a burden for someone in the congregation — and then take courage and go speak with them.
What if it is awkward? Consider your Savior. The Son of God took on human flesh, allowed it to be flogged, broken, tortured, as his soul drank down the bitterest parts of his Father’s wrath as he considered our interests above his own. We are to share his mind. Can we not risk going introduce ourselves to others, or missing part of that football game, to have a real conversation with someone?
One thing I’ve had to learn is to not avoid eye-contact with people for fear of a conversation. Love looks people in the eye and invites dialogue. Prepare for such conversations. Arrive with a verse to share with someone. Arrive with the intention to leave with one person’s prayer request. Do not leave until you have met someone new. A dear saint at our church bakes banana bread and hands out a loaf every Sunday to one new guest. Get creative.
3. Risk Having Real Conversations
Once you’ve started to talk with someone new or a member you don’t know well, or someone you know already but mean to encourage, take risks in conversation. Instead of only discussing afternoon plans, how the weather has been lately, whether they have been enjoying work, steer the conversation into deeper waters.
I find in most conversations the point comes when I wonder, Are we really going to talk? Will we take things deeper, closer to the heart?
Will we talk at all about the sermon? Will we share how we can be praying each other’s families? Will we speak at all about our glorious Christ? Or maybe we need to risk asking why we haven’t seen them around much recently.
A way I try and take steps away from the shallows is to answer questions more honestly myself. How am I doing? I can tell them pretty good and thank them for asking. Or I can confess that I have been tired and irritable with my kids lately. If applicable, how have they grown in patience over their time parenting?
In conversation, deep usually calls to deep. Share with discretion, but invite depth. Show more of your heart, your victories, your struggles. It often frees others to do the same. I have found it usually only takes someone to jump in first.
Bring Your Baked Beans
This vision of pew ministry, as brief as it is here, takes intentionality. Takes effort. Takes prayer. Takes risk and sacrificing the easier road of: come, sing, listen, leave. The rewards more than compensate. Some of my most precious friendships sailed through the slim channel of decision: Will I ask for the Lord’s help? Will I stick around? Will I go over and talk to him? Will I go deeper? I’ve found that on the other side has been an ocean never enjoyed by the unwilling.
If you are Christ’s, you have an indispensable role every gathering. Refuse to squeeze church in. Refuse to be anonymous. Refuse to bring nothing to this spiritual potluck simply because you are not bringing the main dish. Bring your baked beans, your Sicilian Brussel sprouts, your honey-lemon asparagus. You never know how God might use what you bring to satisfy or sustain or even save a soul this Sunday.