What is it about the human condition that makes us look around the people we come into contact with day to day and compare ourselves to them? It is something we have to work really hard not to do, which means the comparison culture inevitably infiltrates our church communities too.
I'm sure we've all had those moments: times when we've see others in a role that we wish we had and felt slightly jealous. Perhaps we even feel entitled to that role – or think in our minds that we could do a much better job than the person currently doing it.
Or perhaps we end up in the mindset that thinks we have to contribute to the service each week – by bringing another word or reading another portion of scripture out. Why do we do that? A desperate need within us to connect with God, or a deep-seated desire to look more holy than those around us?
I think we need to ask ourselves those difficult questions regularly about our motivations for serving within our church communities. None of us is immune to selfish ambition and desires, but it is much easier to nip them in the bud early rather than letting ourselves get carried away with them.
Indeed, in Philippians 2 we are told: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" (v3-4).
Jesus had some really harsh words to say about those people who put on a show of holiness in church: "Everything they do is for men to see" (Matthew 23:5) and "Woe to you ... you hypocrites!", which he repeats in verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27 and 29. With that amount of repetition I think we can see Jesus really wanted to get his message across!
Speaking about the teachers of the law, it was the difference between their public show of purity and piety and their everyday lives that angered Jesus the most. Indeed, He instructed His disciples and the crowds "you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach" (v3).
Harsh words or the simple, honest truth?
God explained to Samuel that, "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). When we realise that he has a different set of priorities from us shouldn't we fix our attention on the state of our own hearts, and what can help them be more 'healthy', rather than trying to look good in front of those in our church community?
Society is based on competition: right from the start of our schooling we are encouraged to get to the top and win at sports competitions. All those who come become 'winners' are celebrated in front of everyone else. What does that teach our children other than that they need to be first? And our workplaces are so often based on competition and achievement rather than nurturing too.
Jesus' message was so counter-cultural, and I think it remains just as counter-cultural for us today: "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:11-12).
One of the stories about a well known worship leader that really impacted me was how he faithfully cleaned toilets and set out and packed away chairs rather than playing up front on a Sunday morning when he first served at the church. His mentor was teaching him that it isn't about the visible roles, it's about the heart behind whatever you are doing to serve. His mentor taught him an invaluable lesson by getting him to do that before he started serving up front.
I love the fact that our church community has this servant heart as one of its core values. When people join the church, while we invite people to let us know what areas they feel able to serve in, we ask everyone to start on our welcome team. It gives them a chance to meet people as they are welcoming them on the door, and it gives our leaders a chance to see how they deal with being part of a team that perhaps wasn't their top choice.
I find myself smiling about how God has a sense of humour: to support my husband, who is a pastor, I sit toward the front of the church congregation on a Sunday, and I often lead worship too. But I am shy by nature so it has taken a lot of coaxing over the years for me to accept that God has gifted me in certain ways and that to serve my church family involves me using those in a more visible way.
But, while I may naturally be an introvert, I know that I am not immune to those feelings of competitiveness. I feel it in my work as a freelance writer and editor – as I watch those with similar backgrounds to me getting opportunities I long for while I don't. And, if I'm honest, such feelings do sometimes creep into my life in church too. It is all too easy as a leader to slip into the mindset that you are beneath certain things, or are allowed certain privileges because of your position. But how wrong and warped both of these ideas are!
For anyone feeling like they wish they were in a more prominent position, remember what Jesus said – that those who want to be greater must become servants. With leadership comes responsibility – to serve those you are leading.
To stop myself from slipping into wrong thinking I like to occasionally do things that I am not on a rota to do. Our church meets in a boy's grammar school at the moment on a Sunday morning. I cannot begin to describe to you what the toilets can be like when we arrive to set up. If I go to use one and the welcome team hasn't had a chance to clean them yet, I like to grab the gloves and toilet cleaners and scrub them myself. I do so because I think it does my heart good. I was once 'caught' doing that by another member of the church who looked really shocked and said, "I didn't think we would do that". I smiled to myself afterwards, and thanked God for the opportunity to model something of his values.
Rather than competing for the jobs that we wish we could have, or somehow feel 'entitled' to have within our church communities, wouldn't it be better to look for, and ask our leaders, where the greatest need is currently and learn to serve wholeheartedly there?