Having a heart for serving the community should come at the benefit of significant relationship. When churches do outreach events there’s a habit of serving without actually connecting. It’s kind of like short term mission work, people land in the neighborhood they have little connection with, do some good works, and then go back home feeling good about themselves.
I remember early on in my first church plant holding chili meals for the community. Our church cooked the chili and showed up at the community center ready to feed a handful of folks. We stood behind the tables and served willingly; it was a good opportunity to meet people but we quickly realized something wasn’t right. Our posture needed to change. The ensuing week rather than dish out chili, we pushed the tables against the wall, put out the crockpots, and sat with the community, our community, for dinner.
Seems obvious, but it took us a minute to figure out. The result was a significant change in our purpose for the meals. It wasn’t ‘outreach’ but spending time with the neighborhood getting to know names and stories. Funny enough, we also lost a few interested folks who were only looking for a place to dish food and thought the connection piece was a bit too hard.
Often our programs make it easy to escape tangible relationships with people who are different. No amount of careful or clever outreach can’t replace the simplicity of presence. In order to be connected into the lives of people in your neighborhood we need to think beyond kind works of service, which have its place, but give us a false sense of security that our mission reflects embodied presence.
(I believe Mike Frost’s book, “Incarnate”, is a must read for this subject. In the age of social media disengagement, the very nature of the Christian faith is one that should be founded on the essence of embodiment–that means presence.)