A View from the Pew: Maybe Our Neighbors Would Rather Serve than be Served

In recent weeks I have begun to wrap my head around the possibility that my approach to church outreach has been backward.

Church folks have long held the notion that in order to reach out to our community in love, we need to serve them. We look to provide services like feeding and clothing, counseling and praying, teaching and tutoring, cleaning up their yards and doing other forms of physical labor, and witnessing and proclaiming the good news of Jesus. And all those are good.

In this post-pandemic reality, though, in which even longstanding church attenders are out of the habit of showing up, I’m having to grapple with the very real possibility that people outside the church are just as excited or even more excited about serving than being the passive recipient of all those activities.

In most cases, I think our motives are pure. We genuinely want to serve others, but I’m starting to see that the dynamic of always being the helper puts us in the position of power in the relationship. By always being the doer, we are never the receiver. And we deny others the opportunity to be doers, too.

Our church has recently been involved in hands-on mission efforts, such as making scarves for orphan children in Ukraine. We have a group in our church who love to knit and crochet, and this is a way they can do what they love for the benefit of others.

We also have a brand new neighborhood that has been developed literally next door to us. We have been giving them welcome gifts and inviting them to community events like our fall festival, special Christmas service,s and roasting s’mores and watching a movie outdoors.

But instead of being recipients, they are asking us if there are ways they can serve with us. The children want to learn to knit or crochet by making items for others. They want to donate food to our local food pantry food drive. They want to give money in support of the neediest in our community. There hasn’t been any resentment at our efforts to show them the love of Christ, they just don’t want to only be recipients.

At first this was counter-intuitive to me, but the more I reflect on it and see it in action, the more it makes sense. We can serve them by offering them a seat alongside us in our service to the world. After all, the bonds of shared work are stronger than a bond created by strictly offering help.

Our church has by no means figured this all out, but in answer to our prayers, we’re discovering new opportunities. This seems to be a lead worth pursuing for us, and it’s in that spirit I share it with you in case you face a similar challenge in your churches.

So give it a try, and let us know how it goes. If you have already latched onto this idea, please share what projects you have invited your neighbors to join. I’m curious to see if this can be replicated across different geography and demographics.

Maybe the call the church is receiving today is to share our work with others. There’s plenty of work to go around.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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