You know the concept of the bystander effect.  That is the sociological term where a person in a group is less likely to get involved in an emergency situation or request for help than someone standing alone.  The research shows that people will watch a crime but not get involved, thinking they are not qualified or out of fear for their own safety.  Not until one of their number acts will anyone else move to get involved.  Usually it takes a direct personal appeal to a single individual (by name or with eye contact – even if randomly chosen) to get them to get involved.

The classic documented case was the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. The killing took place over the course of half an hour: the murderer initially fled the scene, scared off by a neighbor, but returned ten minutes later after realizing that no bystanders had interceded on ‘s behalf.

How does this play out in a church situation?  Especially in a large church, the majority of people are content to be bystanders, because there are enough people to get the job done. It’s also prevalent in a heirarchal denomination, such as Catholic, where the clergy have a vested authority – they are the only ones allowed “behind the rail” – and the congregation is clearly “not clergy.” We see this some also in the professionalized church, with multiple paid staff ministers; they are in charge, and members must go through them to schedule a meeting, request a room, or initiate ministry.

In a small church, there aren’t enough other bystanders and so people tend to be more involved.  Even so, an insecure pastor can restrict involvement by not purposely giving away authority to act, and by not celebrating individual achievement.

In a bystander church, it’s assumed that people need to be asked and appointed for service before they can exercise authority. It is the job of the leader to move a few people to action, to find and encourage emerging leaders.

What happens when one bystander moves from the crowd to leadership and then comes back to encourage others to join at that time?  Will they be seen as one of the bystanders who blazed a path (“I did it, you can too!”)?  Or will they be seen as new leadership/authority, and for anyone else to join in they too need to be first invited and then co-opted into “them” ?

Your role as leader is critical to getting parishoners involved.  If you maintain the us/them separation, in word or deed, you will likely continue to struggle finding volunteers.  But if you learn to recognize folks when they begin to express nascent desire to serve more and encourage them to active leadership, you will develop a culture of involvement.