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Buffet Church

Imagine your church as a buffet.

A wonderful array of tasty foods. Sweet, savoury, spicy, a feast to tempt all available palates.


Each food on the buffet represents a church activity – Sunday service, prayer meetings, home group, evangelistic events, social action projects, and more. As your people go down the line, some of the foods are selected by everyone. Let’s call them the steak and the salmon, popular with everyone. The Sunday service is steak and salmon. Everyone eats those.


Further down the line, the pastas, rice and potato dishes are also popular. Home groups and prayer meetings, the staple diet of many evangelicals.


Desserts? Look no further than the music team!


Before considering the deficiencies of the analogy, allow me to make an observation about the way leaders sometimes view the buffet.


Many leaders watch their people shuffle past the buffet and wish that more people were selecting the less popular foods. Beetroot, anyone? That’s cleaning up after the meeting. Swede? Taking old ladies home after church. Tapioca pudding? Locking up the building.


I call it the Great Volunteer Push.


All leaders, at some point, find themselves dragged into this activity. Consider all the activities in your church. They require volunteers. When faithful, consistent, reliable Ronald runs out of helpers on the coffee rota, he will eventually turn to you, dear vicar/pastor/minister. Because you know lots of people and well, you’re the boss.


This is how you end up with the 80/20 rule: eighty percent of the work done by twenty percent of the people.


As a leader, it’s enough to have you tearing out your hair. You don’t want to ask Colin and Sandy, the couple who serve in almost every ministry . . . again. But off you go, because they are such a lovely couple. And there’s no one else available. Apparently.


There is so much wrong here, but so much that is recognisable in many churches.


What’s the problem, then, with the analogy? And why do leaders succumb to the Great Volunteer Push?


Leaders who run around looking for volunteers have often accepted the buffet analogy in its entirety. They view their churches as a whole variety of activities for which volunteers are needed. They are frustrated because everyone chooses the steak and salmon – the Sunday service – while never placing the beetroot on their plate. Too many people take, take, take and rarely give. The less popular foods (activities) require the same volunteers over and over again. That leads to stress, burnout and an overworked leader.


What’s the solution? First, if you spend lots of time drumming up volunteers, then that’s a problem. I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in Scripture the admonition to ‘raise volunteers.’ What you will find is a description of the leader’s role as ‘one who equips.’ Equipping is not the same as filling rotas with volunteers. (See blog posts on equipping and releasing here and here.)


Second, it’s a disaster to view a church in terms of its activities. See the buffet? That does NOT describe the work of God in the community you lead. It’s JUST the activities. One of the Living Leadership Associates once said to me, ‘you know, we leaders are control freaks.’ Control freaks view their church as the sum total of its activities. More prayer meetings, more healings, more converts, more coffee served. Add it all up and that’s your church.


But that isn’t your church.


A leader can’t possibly know all the ways that God is working, the myriad wonderful ways that his Spirit leads, guides, forms and grows the people of God. If you tend towards control-freakery, get rid of the buffet analogy. Immediately.


For the rest of us, let’s go back and take a look at what’s on the table. Let’s, for a moment, empathise with the leader who is frustrated, because the frustration isn’t just due to lack of volunteers. It arises because churches often contain people who aren’t growing. They come to church on Sunday and that’s about it. Of course a spiritual life is not measured by outward activity alone, but it’s hard to watch Mrs. Jones or Mr. Robinson wander through life without really developing an intimate relationship with Jesus. A diet of just steak and salmon will make you ill. In fact, a diet of just one food will make anyone ill.


Some of this has to do with church culture. What expectations do you have of your church membership? What do you offer to your members to help them grow in their gifts? Let’s go back to the table.


When you take a new member along the line, how well do you explain all the different foods? Do new members know what’s on offer, or are they left to work that out for themselves? Do you offer a new member’s course? Do you offer a course on how to recognise and develop your gifts, like the Network course? Don’t like courses? Then how do you integrate new people?


If the church is a network of relationships in which we are all equipped for works of service, then how does your church accomplish that? Who is equipping whom? How do new people find their place?


Perhaps the challenge is this. It doesn’t really matter what they’re eating, as long as they’re eating something. They won’t grow unless they become involved. That doesn’t mean drumming up volunteers. It requires careful thinking about how the gifts of your members are developed, appreciated, celebrated and grown. That’s the work of the leader. To equip people for works of service.


It turns out, then, that it’s wonderful to eat from the buffet.


The buffet is not the measure of ALL God’s work in your church. Not at all. But the food on offer provides sustenance. It often creates community, binds us together in love and as we gather in the tasks before us, we experience the joy of growing together. That’s wonderful and life-giving.


So the buffet does matter. Celebrate the buffet.


Just don’t get carried away with the analogy, so that it restricts your thinking. God is at work in your church, in all the varied activities that take place. That’s good. But he’s much bigger than your list of activities.


Of course he is! He’s God. He’s vast, he’s glorious and beyond our control.


As one writer puts it, he’s uncontainable. He’s certainly more than a nice spread replete with savoury dishes and hors d’oeuvres.


So equip your people and surrender your church into God’s hands.


He is more than capable of advancing his kingdom, with or without the buffet. That he chooses to include the buffet is due to his love. After all, those dishes were prepared, cooked, baked, braised, boiled and roasted by him. The sauces are his, the dips, the meats, vegetables and desserts . . . he made them all.


It’s his buffet.


And when we eat from it together in love, everything tastes delicious.

New resource! We are always working on expanding our resources. New this week we have an article on leading single people in your congregation.

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