I once befriended a pastor who told me a story of how he desperately wanted to get the people in his new church plant into small groups. He wanted the group leaders to be well-equipped, so he embarked on a stringent process of training. After 5 intense months, only 2 new groups were prepared to launch.
In the meantime, much of the passion for leading and joining groups fizzled.
Thankfully he didn’t make the same mistake when training people to serve in areas of outreach. One of his mentors told him, “listen man, training and equipping is important. But stop trying to control everything by over-planning and over-preparing. This time, just go do it and take your people with you.”
And so he did.
He took his people with him to love and serve, meeting a practical need in their city, working side-by-side with them.
And it was beautiful.
The lesson he learned? “There was a whole new group of people waiting to get involved. They were just waiting to do something OUTSIDE the walls of the church.
“Sure,” he said, “some of the typical 20% who do 80% of the church work showed up to do outreach, but a different group of folks joined in who hadn’t previously been involved in anything other than attending Sunday services.”
This wasn’t surprising to me. I’d seen it before in my church. At my church, people were required to complete a series of classes before being allowed to serve in certain areas. This makes sense: it can be unwise to allow just anyone to come in a lead a small group, or to serve with the children’s ministry. But in a desire to get people to better understand the values of our church, suddenly classes were required for serving in nearly every capacity.
When we stepped back and reevaluated, we realized we were hindering people from connecting in meaningful ways of service, both inside and outside the church.
Interactive Learning = Learn and Do
Imagine the message that is sent to our congregations when we emphasize and encourage strategic ways to serve the poor. We don’t abandon classes and teaching, but we strategically include these opportunities within the flow of instruction. I think of it as: learn and do.
The most effective experiences I’ve had in this regard have been when a message being preached mentioned specific ways to walk out the scripture or subject of that sermon. A very practical application – perhaps something like, ‘as we read the teachings of Jesus on offering a cup of cold water in His name, we’ve been asking what that looks like for our church here and now. So on Thursday night there is room for 20 of us to go and serve in a very practical way (name something specific). Anyone is welcome and invited to go. Who is in?’
Then on the designated day or night, the leader reminds the assembled disciples of why we are going and perhaps any (abbreviated) training needed specific to the task. We keep the talking short, pray, and head out to do it together.
Learn and do.
It can be applied even more strategically in classes, small groups and Bible studies. We can take ‘field-trips’ together and engage with people outside of our church walls.
Our actions – like serving the poor in intentional ways – send a strong message to others about what we truly value. Since we value all the words and teachings of Jesus, we will want to look for ways to walk that out. When we serve the poor and invite anyone and everyone to jump in and serve with us, we demonstrate that discipleship is active.
A couple of helpful things to remember as we invite people to serve alongside us:
1) The leader who talks about the opportunity needs to participate in the opportunity. Don’t just talk about serving the poor, but be actively involved in serving – lead by example.
2) Serve the poor together, as a group. While we want to encourage each individual to practice this in their daily life, there are numerous benefits to serving as a group. For the ones who are serving, it reminds them that they are not alone and the weight of a problem or issue is not theirs to bear on their own. For the ones being served, they get to see the body of Christ in action – and are less likely to mistake an individual’s actions as, “wow, Joe is just a great guy.” When we do it together, we paint a picture of the love of God, flowing through His community.
3) Keep your ears open, listening for ways to connect the dots. As we serve alongside one another, opportunities to connect, to ask questions, and to offer insight and biblical perspective will arise. Being in the trenches and modeling service makes an impact in ways we can’t necessarily plan for, and might not see, but it happens.
4) Look for people who don’t typically volunteer to serve. The 20% of people who do 80% of the work might be the same folks who participate in serving the poor, but quite often others will emerge who aren’t usually involved.
On a number of occasions there were newcomers to our church who had not yet made a commitment to Christ who would join us in serving locally. A desire to serve was sparked by something in their heart, and they would jump in, and in serving elbow-to-elbow with followers of Jesus, some of them did come to faith.
So while teaching and learning is important, and while some areas of serving in ministry require intense training, serving the poor is something that anyone can do, and it reaps benefits and growth for both the one serving and the ones being served.
What is the next opportunity you can identify to invite anyone and everyone to join you in serving the poor in your community?
Doug is the Director of Church Engagement for Reconciled World. From an early age, he had a heart for cultures around the globe and has had opportunities to learn and minister in a wide variety of international settings. He now regularly speaks at churches and retreats on a wide variety of topics, and is an enthusiastic fan of the Minnesota Vikings and Twins.