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Service as Lifestyle, Not Obligation

After studying workers at two high-tech firms for more than 1,000 hours, Gloria Mark, an “interruption scientist,” reported that knowledge workers today spend an average of just 11 minutes on a project before switching to another. While focusing on a single project, they typically change tasks every three minutes.

You probably know the feeling. We are living through an explosion of access to information and communication technologies. But Mark’s research suggests there’s a downside. Once distracted, workers take an average of 25 minutes to return to their interrupted task. In an eight-hour day, more than a fourth of their work time is consumed by interruptions. Business efficiency experts are beginning to pay attention to how this affects their bottom line. Pastors are noticing the shift, too.

It’s harder to get people to commit to meetings than it was 10 years ago. What’s more, people who’ve committed are less likely to show up. While this can be terribly frustrating for all of us, there are deeper spiritual implications to our culture of distraction. If you pay attention to people who are wrestling with life-altering questions—the sort of hard but fertile soil where ministry usually happens—one of the biggest temptations they face is the voice of distraction. When there’s hard relational or soul work to be done, it can feel so soothing to just watch a YouTube clip or catch up on Facebook. One thing leads to another, and you’re likely to doze off before you log off.

The only hope of calling people out of this trance is to call them to a life of true adventure. We often do that by challenging our congregations with the plight of the poor in Africa or the desperation of lost souls somewhere else. But if we’re to get at the root of our spiritual malaise, we need to call people to pay attention in the places where they are. This is not to discount the real needs that exist elsewhere, but most of us today need to learn how to cultivate our own places before we can be much help to anyone else.

In the past decade, our churches have seen an increase in service ministries that allow people to put hands and feet on the Gospel. Ministries have flourished because they offer churches a concrete way to live out love of neighbor. If you’ve seen the joy that results from a project like that for everyone involved, you can’t help wanting to offer more opportunities like that.

But if you’re a pastor who has emphasized service opportunities, you’ve also had the conversation with that big-hearted person who comes with a look of guilt to tell you they’re sorry they can’t make it to the mission blitz this weekend. Between work and the kids and church commitments and the homeless ministry they started with some friends on Saturdays, they’re not sure how they can fit anything else in. You can see in their eyes the adventure of service isn’t the exciting news it was a year ago. They’re desperate for some encouragement, and everything in you wants to give it to them. But how?

We’ve heard enough of the Gospel to know we need to add some service into our lives—to experience the joy of what it means to live for others. But that service has been an add-on to an already busy life. We’ve tried to squeeze it in between our 50-hour-plus work week and our daily trip to the gym. But, truth be told, Jesus doesn’t ask us to squeeze some service into our busy lives. Jesus invites us to leave everything and become servants.

Recently, a young woman I know who was serious about her faith started asking what it would really mean to live the Sermon on the Mount. When people on the street asked her for money, she was haunted by Jesus’ call to give to whoever asks. But she knew it was more complicated than just tossing some spare change their way. “I should invite these guys home with me,” she thought. But how can a single young woman invite men off the street over for dinner at her apartment?

About that time, she got to know a hospitality house where Christians had an open dinner with neighbors and friends each night. She started going every once in a while and enjoyed the company. Then it occurred to her: “If I lived like this, I could invite the guy on the street home with me.” What had seemed impossible before was now relatively easy. It just meant changing the way she was living her life. It meant changing everything to become a servant.*

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As we invite people to pay attention to their place and re-imagine their way of life, we are inviting them to find their rhythm in God’s eternal time. This rhythm is often out of step with the pace of the world system we live in, where everyone else is racing to get ahead and grab the next new thing.

It is not easy to find this counter-rhythm. Even when we’re doing all the right things with all the right people, we can get caught up in the demonic urgency of systems that never sleep. Whether we’re working to eradicate poverty in our neighborhoods, save the schools in our city or fight AIDS in Africa, we can be tempted to work without rest because we know the work is never done. 

Sabbath, as a practice, has gone dormant in many of our communities. But the tradition of Sabbath offers a sustainable counter-rhythm in a culture of death. Because God rests after the work of creation is done, we know something about why we work: to enjoy the good fruit that is made possible by God’s creative grace in the world. Whatever service work we do, then, we do so we can enjoy the fruit of God’s grace in a given place when we till the earth and keep it as we’re called. 

As any gardener knows, our labor doesn’t guarantee a good harvest. The results are up to God. But God gives us a rhythm of work and Sabbath so we can enjoy the life we’re made for in the places where we are.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability and co-compiler of Common Prayer (JonathanWilsonHartgrove.com). This column originally appeared in the April/May 2011 issue of Neue. You can preview the issue here

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