Now, you’ll get no argument from me that churches are primarily Word Ministry based. Practically, para-church organizations are better equipped to serve communities. But every church should have a couple of gateway programs that do community outreach as part of their discipleship program.
A couple of years ago, the church I attend started a community service program called Send Seventy, modeled after Jesus sending the disciples out in pairs. Send Seventy was designed to get people out into their neighborhoods to serve. It platformed out of our Life Group ministry- so that people could go together and support one another as they tried something new. Hopefully, three things would happen:
Together, people could overcome their trepidation to try something new.
Once they tried it, service would become something they wanted to do, rather than a burden or just another thing on the to-do list. (Enter sanctifying Holy Spirit:)
They’d be motivated to find a place that fit them and continue serving.
Gateway programs like this are important in combatting community service lethargy. Many people, myself included, shy away from service because its new and intimidating not to know anyone or what to do- we’re uncomfortable. A gateway service program called Salt and Light is run by our church at a local homeless shelter ministry. It’s led and supported by a regular and dedicated leadership team from the church, but with plenty of room for people to get out of their pews and try it out.
Church community service programs should be designed to introduce people to service so that they can find their own service home and routines in their own contexts, neighborhoods and comfort zones.
Did Send Seventy work? Well, it worked for me. I’ve shared my struggles with serving and new routines and busy-ness. But after a few tries (and few bad fits), I found a place in my neighborhood where I feel comfortable, know the people and can serve regularly.
Should I serve inside the church or should I serve outside the church? Yes…
This is how as an interrogator, I learned the hard way not to ask compound questions. Did you rob the bank on Monday or did you rob the bank on Tuesday? Yes. So which is it?
If you serve inside the church walls… does that mean you are off the hook outside the walls?
Christians are called to both serve both one another AND the needy, i.e. “the widow, the orphan and the foreigner among you.” When we serve one another inside the walls we are serving by extension the ministry of God’s Word. When we serve outside the walls we are serving the ministry of God’s Work. Both Word and Works are necessary.
There is the danger of thinking that if we usher or work in children’s ministry, that we are absolved of working in the community. As a pastor, spending all my free time inside the walls, I even tried to convince myself that I was off the hook. Nice try.
We only hurt ourselves when we forgo community work because God ordains that kind of service as one of the ways that He changes our heart (i.e. sanctifies us). In short, I hate going, but once I’m there I feel like it was great idea (that’s simple heart change). And while he’s changing our heart, other hearts are changing as we model (and yes even speak about) the gospel.
We are called to be God’s agents in world repair- the Jewish term is Tikkun Olam. I especially love Isaiah for his Two Cities Theme: the city of man vs. the city of God- it’s currently a poor crime ridden ghetto filled with people who abuse each other. But in the end we see its transformation into a Holy City. Even though its not here yet, we are to be part of that transforming process- now.
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its ability to pull off an eighty page menu. Churches, not so much…
Cheesecake Factory Church
The Cheesecake Factory is known for its ability to pull off an eighty page menu. Churches, not so much. In church world, something for everyone sounds great but usually fails at disciple-making. A church with too many menu items becomes stretched and spread too thin. Or, as Frodo Baggins would say “butter scrapped over too much bread.” You wind up with a dozen or so ministries with a dozen or so people in each- it dilutes resources- people, energy, time and money. Ministry fatigue results. So I prefer the Steakhouse model instead, pick a few things you can do well and stick with it.
What ministries in your church are good at disciple making? Where can you get the most bang for your buck? Small Groups are a “big bang” discipleship program. Connectivity, care and share, in depth bible study, gospel application, meaningful group prayer, leadership development, and even eating the occasional cheesecake together. If your only going to get people one time every week or two outside of church, this is a good one.
If you have many programs that accomplish all of these things well, then great! But we should always be evaluating and asking- how are they making disciples? If you’re only hanging out/socializing, that’s great- maybe you’re only studying the Bible together, not bad either, or serving, or praying, etc. But where are you doing all these things at once?
Check out this message on John 17:17-24 – its as close as I’ve been able to come to fully and biblically articulating the (drive by) theology behind my position: The Beauty of Gospel Community
Most people are reluctant to go to group prayer meetings precisely because they’ve been to group prayer meetings. Count me among the recalcitrant. Group prayer time used to send me into despair. I once suggested privately to my wife that we should pass a Yahtzee timer around. Not very loving or patient on my part. Hopefully, I’ve grown since. But my problem wasn’t the prayer, it was the prep. The backstories dominated the time. All too often, they began, “It all started back in fifth grade.” Cue famous painting “The Scream.” But two years ago, a couple of our Life Groups began to combine once a month for dedicated prayer time. Wary of past time sinks, we laid a few ground rules:
Get started right away. After a short 2-3 minute introduction by an informal leader- with a few community and church themed things we should be considering, we got started, right away.
No backstories. If the details are important, they are important enough to reveal them in the prayer.
Make a list of things to pray for BEFORE you arrive.
Pick a passage of scripture to pray for- concerned about the will of God? Worried you won’t have anything to pray? Plenty of material here. God’s Word is God’s will.
Embrace the silence. The Holy Spirit is still moving.
Then simply pray until everyone is prayed out. You’ll know when. Our early meetings lasted 15 minutes and eventually stretched to 45. It felt like two. Prayer is like distance running- you have to get in shape.
Getting right to prayer was the answer. There is still a place for backstories- albeit more appropriately in Life Group setting where the express purpose is to share life experiences. But give it a try. Get a couple of groups together, once a month, and if you’re nervous, have one of the pastors take the lead until you get the hang of it.
God and Jesus were spiritually and supernaturally connected before the world began. When Jesus gives us his glory- we have access to the same kind of supernatural community. Gospel community unifies, sanctifies and glorifies. We can only be unified in God and Jesus to the extent that we are unified in one another. We can’t neglect the work and commitment it takes to study, worship, and have fellowship together.