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Philemon and Thomas the Tank Engine

I have a son who will be two years old in a couple of weeks. As you can see from the picture, he loves trains…especially Thomas. (BTW, did you know that Thomas made his debut in 1946 in a story called (wait for it) “Thomas the Tank Engine“? Yeah, me neither. I really had no idea that Thomas turned 64 this year!)

There is one thing that I find very peculiar about Thomas and all the trains of Sodor. The great, all-important value for the trains is to be “useful.” In the 1950 book, after rescuing James, another engine, after a breakdown, Thomas was referred to as a “really useful engine.” Since then, the idea of being useful has surfaced in almost every Thomas book and TV episode.

Here’s why I bring that up. The character who serves as the occasion for Paul’s letter is Onesimus. Verse 10-11 reads, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” What is lost in English here is Paul’s deliberate play on words. Onesimus’ name literally means “useful” or “profitable.”

Before, Onesimus was just a thieving, runaway slave. In fact, that’s about the very definition of “useless.” But now, as a believer in Christ, his value is not as a slave but as a brother and partner in the Lord. He is now, for the first time in his life, living up to his name.

Useful. Interesting term. Certainly not one that exists in my normal vocabulary. Seems kinda like a quaint, old expression. Question is, what does it mean to be useful? Like Onesimus, we were slaves to sin. Now, in Christ, we can be useful. But what does that even really mean? Your thoughts?


Volunteer Motivations & the implications for church leadership

The church lives and dies not on the paid staff, but on the service of God’s people. Much research has been done in recent years looking at the motivations for why people volunteer. Church leaders would greatly benefit from considering these reasons and as they seek to encourage and motivate God’s people in their Christian service.

In 2004, Martinez and McMullin wrote an article entitled, “Factors Affecting Decisions to Volunteer in Non-governmental Organizations” that was published by Environment and Behavior. In their study, they uncovered 5 major reasons why people volunteer or don’t volunteer.

  • Efficacy“I want to make a difference” – People volunteer because they long to make an impact on the world and on the people around them. As leaders in the church, we are uniquely positioned to play to people’s desire to make a difference. What great impact or more lasting legacy could someone leave than to grow the kingdom of God on earth? Show the volunteers in your ministry the impact their service is making.
  • Competing Commitments“I’m so busy” – People get pulled in a million directions. When they consider your invitation to service, they are going to ask themselves how it fits in with everything else they have going on. You may have to tailor your volunteer positions to match the reality of what someone can offer you.
  • Social Networks“Is so-so going/involved?” – People get involved for the relationships. Either someone they know (family or friend) is already involved or they are looking to meet people. As the body of Christ, the community of believers, relationships are especially important. Be sure to foster relationships among your volunteers.
  • Lifestyle Changes“We’re having a baby!” – Changes in people’s lives will bring volunteers into your ministry and carry them away. Research shows that people are most open to hearing the gospel at points of transition in life – marriage, divorce, having a child, starting a new job or losing a job. Each of those transition points and lifestyle changes also are opportunities to engage new people in service and threats that could pull your existing volunteers away.
  • Personal Growth“What’s in it for me?” – For us as Christians, this is the dreaded question. We think it is selfish when people worry about what’s in it for them. But that’s not the point here. We’ve already seen that people are busy and have limited time to serve. Part of the criteria they will use to evaluate volunteering opportunities is how they will grow personally. People are looking for environments that will encourage them to grow and mature as individuals. As pastors, this is our task of discipleship. People should be growing in grace and maturing in Christ through their service. It is our task to make sure this is happening.

As Christian leaders, we are prone to thinking people volunteer because they are supposed to or because they have to. Sure, the biblical mandate upon all of us is to follow the example of Christ, who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We are commanded to serve. But even with that as the motive, people pick their where they will service based on the some primary factors. May we, as Christian leaders, be students of our people that we will recognize what factor drives them and how we can encourage them in their kingdom service.

Interact: Which of these factors is the biggest concern for you when considering a volunteer opportunity?