Want to alienate the very people you are trying to serve? Here is the best way to do that: make them “pray” to receive Christ before they are allowed to participate in the service project. Do you really think this never happens? I’ve seen it with my own eyes – more times than I care to tell. And not just by Christians, but with other religions as well (obviously they would be mandating adherence to their religion). I think the only way people get away with it is if the population is so desperate for service that they will agree to just say something that has no personal meaning in order to get the service. And if we are serving from a pure servant’s heart, we want to avoid this like the plague!
This particular way to ensure failure is LOADED with issues, so let’s highlight a few:
- Conversion will not be genuine.
- It starts the “game” of converting to this religion to get that service, then going the next time to another religious-based provider to get another service and so on. This destroys authentic relationships in the community as everyone competes for the same participants and the community pits one institution against others.
- It artificially inflates our own sense of achievement as we “count” new souls “saved.”
I know what you are thinking – no one would REALLY mandate a conversion to Christianity as part of the service project.
But, let me tell you how this really happens. Take a medical clinic for example: the doctors are running behind so the “traffic flow” director shifts waiting patients into the “spiritual counseling” area where they hear the gospel. Because so many other religions only provide services to their members, the patient erroneously believes that unless they confess Christ they will not be able to see the doctor. So, they confess Christ, fake a tear or two and move on to see the doctor, remaining unchanged in the heart. This story is not meant to belittle the usefulness of medical clinics to bring the gospel message to those who don’t know Jesus, but rather to highlight how we can create this dynamic unintentionally. I’ve seen other instances when this was not as subtle and the spiritual counseling portion was planned to happen first, for whatever reason, before the patient saw a provider.
Let me give you a real life example: I’ve been in the “doctor’s chair” in a medical clinic (in which spiritual counseling happened AFTER seeing a provider, but before they went to the pharmacy) when a Muslim older male patient sat down and announced to me that he was a Muslim. I then proclaimed, “well, I am a Christian and I am fine that you are a Muslim. Is it OK if I am your doctor today?” Then I told him that I was happy to handle his medical concerns, even if he didn’t confess Christ as his Lord. He was visibly relieved then began to tell me his symptoms. I diagnosed him with lung cancer that day after we arranged for a chest x-ray at a local radiological facility and a lung biopsy later. We then connected him with further diagnostic and longer-term treatment options. He had no idea he had lung cancer – he thought he had tuberculosis or a lingering pneumonia (and had undergone treatment for both). Eventually that patient did come to know Jesus, but not because we mandated it as part of the clinic visit. You see, the Islamic clinics in his city only treated those who attended particular mosques. When we were willing to treat him as a patient – and then to continue our care through follow-ups – it spoke volumes to him as a person.
This post is the balance to Top Ten Ways to Ensure Project Failure #6 – be quiet as a church mouse about Jesus. We must be willing to tell people about Jesus, but we need to be very sensitive to the local culture in how we do this. Community service projects are one of the BEST platforms for the gospel of Jesus, but the gospel’s delivery cannot be one-size fits all. What works in one place will cause damage in another. And what works with one population group might bring project failure if tried with another.
So how do we weave the gospel into our community service project well? We have to start with a few questions and dialogue with local church leaders:
- What are the prevailing customs locally regarding the type of project we are considering? What do other groups do or not do? Are there other religious-based services and are these restricted to members only?
- What is the local perception of Christian-operated service projects and how can this project improve that perception, no matter what it is?
- What is the best way to share the gospel in this culture? How should we involve local church leaders in the planning process and the project’s implementation?
- How can we avoid the pitfall of appearing to mandate a conversion to Christianity, while also being faithful to share the gospel and give the opportunity for true relationship with Christ?
The bottom line on this issue is that we need to be bold, but respectful and aware of local cultural issues, in our presentation of the gospel. When we can do that, we improve our service project’s likelihood of success and that people will be reached with the message of Jesus.