How can we help?
As a local pastor in a small community, this is a question that runs through my mind a dozen times a week. For most believers, this is an impulse whenever we see a tragedy, problem, or issue in our cities and beyond. Some churches have vast resources and excel at identifying and meeting these needs. Others are paralyzed by a scarcity of funds, free hands, and know-how. Like the disciples, we stare dumbfounded at the unreasonableness of our Lord, “You give them something to eat.” But we have only five loaves here and two fish! (Matthew 14:16-17).
Those of us who would see our churches become more service-oriented cling to the hope that perhaps—just perhaps—Christ Jesus might manage to feed five thousand with what little we have to offer.
From the start, it’s important for churches to sort out the purpose behind their service. Some service ministries are primarily recruitment tools bent on drawing new members into the church. Other service ministries end up primarily catering to the needs of church members, extending only a superficial invitation to the community at large. Others aim to boost the church’s reputation. The difficulty many churches cannot seem to overcome is the simplicity that defines Christian service.
The purpose of service is to serve.
Seek the Welfare of the City
In his first letter, the Apostle Peter addresses us with a strange moniker: “To those who are elect exiles…” (1 Peter 1:1). Peter is styling himself as a New Testament Jeremiah, sending a letter of encouragement to the exiles scattered abroad. Peter’s point is that we ought to live in the places where the gospel has found us in the same way Jeremiah instructed the exiles to Babylon: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
This is the pulse behind Christian service in our cities. By the Spirit, we have been filled with a burning passion for the welfare, the shalom, the peace, the wholeness of the city where we live as elect exiles. We pray to the Father on her behalf. We are not self-serving, but life-giving like our Savior. We trust in the power of the Spirit who has “turned the world upside down” in city after city (Acts 17:6).
Find the Need
As we think about mobilizing a local church for service, members have to be determined to give the community not what the church wants to give but what the community actually needs. For example, churches are often enthusiastic to throw baby showers, donate diapers, and buy baby clothes for a local pregnancy resource center, but few are interested in giving the money centers actually need to sustain the staff who minister to clients.
In his book Ministries of Mercy, Tim Keller suggests canvassing neighborhoods with a simple survey to ask locals what they perceive to be the needs of the area. School district offices, police departments, and social services are great places to visit with basic questions. Keep informed about local developments, considering how they might become pinch-points for single mothers, children, homeless, and other vulnerable members of the community.
Be careful about inquiring into the problems and needs of your community. Your heart will be the first casualty of conviction: If you discover that members of your community actually need you to stoop down and wash their feet, are you prepared to do it?
The needs will feel insurmountable. They should. They are.
Partner for the Kingdom
Rather than despair, this is where churches need to realize they do not have to go it alone. Churches and pastors burn themselves out trying to reinvent the wheel. If we can leave behind the need for credit or the desire to profit by means of our service, faithful parachurch ministries can provide places for Christians from likeminded churches to partner together to provide essential services to their community.
Whether national or local, good parachurch ministries like Speak For The Unborn see themselves as a conduit for service, not a replacement for the church. They provide structures, opportunities, and open doors for believers who simply want to serve. In our local community, we’ve made use of Child Evangelism Fellowship to minister to elementary students, FCA to connect with international students at Newberry College, and LifeBridge to minister to broken families. These ministries have the staff who can walk you through the waivers, resources, and training that can feel like impossible hurdles to service.
Moreover, creative churches will find ways to serve by entering into community organizations like local rec soccer leagues, schools and PTOs, foster care programs, and volunteer fire departments. Many churches spend so much time trying to invent new ministries when what is really needed in their city are Christians faithfully seeking to improve and bless the services that already exist. Each of these places of service only bear more fruitful opportunities as we build relationships and come to understand our community and its needs more deeply.
This selfless service will inevitably drain the resources and energy of your church. In those moments of exhaustion, try to recall to mind the impossible feeding that happened on that weary evening in the wilderness. Worn to the bone after weeks of tireless ministry, five thousand strangers crashed what was supposed to be a weekend of rest and recovery. But, as each piece of fish and bread passed from the hands of Jesus to his disciples, he was showing us all, you are only asked to give what you have first received.