I want to sit here and talk about the ways I wish the Church would do better. I want to rattle off the ways I wish people would really step up and make progress. But I also think the most vulnerable and honest way I can talk about this idea of serving the Church is to speak from my own experience.
I moved to Washington, D.C. almost 4 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I started serving as a youth leader with my church. Two years later, I joined a short-term missions team headed to South Africa. The following year, I led a different short-term missions team to Northern Ireland. It was never my intention to be this—involved—but I learned very quickly that through these acts of service, as expressions of gratitude and love, there were some deeply rooted ideas within my own mind that were being uprooted and worked out in real time.
There are times I look at these groups of people I have had the honor of serving alongside, and I think there is no way we would all be friends if it had been left up to us. In what is potentially the most politically-charged city in the country, I have served alongside Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats alike. I have served with white folks and black folks and Latin folks and Asian folks. I have served with the meek and mild and with the opinionated and boisterous. The characteristics aside, when we have all committed ourselves to serving, either abroad or in our own city, we have been unified for the work of Christ in a way that I have not seen elsewhere in my life.
It probably should be said that I am a white girl from the South. I love diversity because it’s such an expression of how big God truly is; but I think I am only just starting to really learn what it requires of me. Everything I have learned has come through this new community and the people I love and serve. I am convinced that, if it were not for the mission we have all committed ourselves to in service, I would never have learned these things. I have learned when we serve the Church with people who are not like us, it challenges and expands our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to bear the title of “Christian.” And as a Christian, being called to unity, I believe that service is one of the most powerful pathways to reconciliation.
I grew up with a very singular idea of what it meant to be Christian and what church was supposed to look like. Sometimes this singularity felt comfortable, and other times, I couldn’t see myself in it at all. But it wasn’t until I got down into the mess of the Church with some beautiful women and men who share my same heart for our community that I was able to truly see what God’s Kingdom should resemble. Some of these people are my parents’ age. Some of them aren’t even 16. But through each of them, my small views of the Church have been broken down and I’ve surrendered everything I thought was normal. That is what reconciliation is after all, right? All of us collectively breaking down our biases through real life experiences and loving one another as fellow humans more than our desire to be in control and secure. That’s the good stuff, right?
Now, if you have been part of the Church community for any length of time, you have likely heard about how we are “one body with many parts and you can’t get rid of any of the parts because then the body doesn’t work.” It’s a great metaphor. I wish there was a Buzzfeed quiz that could tell me which body part I would be. But when do we ever ask the question, “What is the Body even doing?” The Apostle Paul says this in his letter to the Church in Ephesus:
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7-13)
You see, we serve to build up the Church until we all reach unity. Have you ever thought of service that way? Service as a pathway to reconciliation? Reconciliation as a pathway to maturity in Christ? This letter from Paul was meant as an encouragement to the early Church, and it is still meant as an encouragement to the Church today. Jesus gave spiritual gifts to us all so that we could build his Body—which is the Church—which is us. And there is nothing more unifying than serving your neighbor than serving with your neighbor.
I love the Church. I have loved it ever since it welcomed me in at 15 years old—even on its worst days. I don’t want to sit here and say, “Dear Church, do better for us.” No, I’ll say instead, “Dear Church, I’ll do better for you.” Not because I have to work my way into God’s good graces, and not because I feel guilt or a sense of obligation. I will serve the Church because I believe that this is the most powerful road to reconciliation with my neighbors.
I am fortunate enough to live in a city and to attend a church with people who are not like me. I also understand that there are some parts of our country that do not allow that privilege for everyone. But I ask you, Church, to seek to serve alongside people who don’t think, look, or act like you do, who don’t come from where you come from, who make more, or less, money than you, in whatever way you are able. Fair warning, that may look like finding volunteer opportunities outside of your brick and mortar church. After all, Paul told the early Church in Colossae, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17). So Church, find a way—your way—to serve one another. And through that process may we all find our way to live out reconciliation in a physical, authentic, and personal way.
Coleen O’leary is a daughter, sister, and an active member of the National Community Church where she volunteers as a mentor for the NCC Youth ministry. Her desire for reconciliation led her to serve as a leader of a mission trip to Ireland where they focused on the religious divide in Northern Ireland. Above all, she is a reconciler. Coleen can be found on Instagram @coleen_orealy.