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I’ve been on a journey to find out how I can serve in the community WITH my three small-ish kids: ages 9, 7 and 5.  The older two can serve at many different local nonprofits, but these don’t welcome my 5 year old.  And trust me, she needs to learn the lessons of serving others as the diva, youngest child of the family.  I thought I would share what I have found and a few really easy, but creative ideas in case your local nonprofits aren’t flexible with kids.

 

Each community is different, so you would need to check on the requirements locally.  But, here are some types of nonprofits that might accept younger children for volunteer service with their parents:

–       Humane Society (walking the dogs, petting cats)

–       Food pantry (bagging or serving families coming in)

–       Homeless shelters that accept families with kids (socializing with the children)

–       Church-based projects, like fall festivals or holiday parties, clothing drives, food drives, clean-up days

–       School-based projects similar in nature to those at the churches

 

When all else fails, we just have to get REALLY creative to teach the littlest ones in our families about the value of serving the community and the personal rewards we gain when we serve.  I thought of some creative ideas and have implemented a few with my kids.   Enjoy serving the community!

  1. Collect canned goods for the local food pantry.  Call them first to see what they need so they don’t end up with 20 cases of diced tomatoes when they really needed some tuna.  Take your wagon around the neighborhood or ask other parents at the kids’ activities to help.  Bring the list and a brochure or picture of the food pantry.  This time of the year, food pantries are stretched seriously thin as family budgets devote more to heat and fuel costs, eating into funds available for food.
  2. Call your kids’ school and find out if a family is in need of help with Christmas gifts or warm coats for their kids.  Get a list and help the kids ask neighbors and friends to help with an item or funds.  Involve the kids, but keep the family’s identity unknown to them.  We’ve done this at church almost every year for the last ten years and the kids love to go shopping for someone their own age.  If there are no families in need at school or church, the Salvation Army offers angels every year.  See their website for details (www.salvationarmyusa.org) or at JC Penney’s website.
  3. Collect spare change in an old paint or coffee can and donate to an overseas orphanage.  I stole this one from The Joseph School(thejosephschool.org), an orphan-education program in Haiti.  We are doing this now and you would be amazed at how much spare change we have managed to collect in a few short months.  Take the can around at work or help the kids go door-to-door at Halloween with the can and you’ll be even more shocked.  Change in a paint can could total more than $100.

    Paint Can to collect coins

  4. Go to the park on a Saturday, but bring a few big trash bags and clean up trash first, then play.  Keep recycling separate!  My kids are recycling freaks and I bet yours are too.  My littlest is really good at spotting small pieces of plastic hidden in grass.  To keep them focused on the task, I stay with the trash bag in the middle of the field and send them out to find 5 items each time.  Then we move general locations.  If you do this along a walking trail, have them come back every 3 items so that they don’t inadvertently drop the trash they have already picked up.  Make it even more fun by making up a list of trash types for each kid to find, sort of like a scavenger hunt, and check them off as they find them.
  5. Find an older neighbor who might have trouble raking their leaves – and offer your family’s services for free.  Bring the trash bags, rakes and any other needed equipment, then put the leaves in the designated areas for pick-up by local services.  You can even make this a multi-family or mom-daughter / father-son event for a few friends.  Kids love playing in the leaves, so be sure to budget plenty of time for raking and re-raking the piles a few times!  Small kids can be the ones who stand in the bags and compress the leaves down further.  Bigger kids can rake and bag.  Bring a loaf of bread or a casserole as an additional blessing.
  6. Call the kids’ school to see what easy projects need to be done there – this might include light gardening, trash pick-up, sweeping sidewalks, or raking leaves.  Recruit a few families to participate and make it a fun weekend afternoon for the kids with a picnic lunch or snack at their own school playground as the reward.  The kids will think it is really fun to be at the school on the weekend and they will see the results of their work the next week.

 

If you have more ideas, let us know with a comment!

I really am not sure which is worse from a practical standpoint, ignoring local resources or ignoring the people in the community.  Probably ignoring the people from a Biblical standpoint, as God always wants us to value people greater than things.  But practically speaking, #4 and #3 are really more like a tie for third.  Just like ignoring local resources and potentially putting local businesses into difficult situations (like you bringing in something they sell and giving it out for free), ignoring the opinions and ideas of the people you are trying to serve can really end up back-firing big time.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.  The names and locations are fictional to protect any possible guilty, naive and innocent groups that might have done something similar. Say there was a group in Adelaide, Australia that was serving “HIV orphans” in Thailand.  They didn’t speak the language, but had found someone who they thought seemed trustworthy to serve as the local representative for them in a novel orphanage concept.  They sent money and teams to work with this individual and the orphans they had gathered, but didn’t attempt to meet or interact with other leaders in the community.  Years passed and the Australians found out that their representative was stealing from them, that the “orphans” weren’t really lacking parents but had been trafficked by their local representative, and that the community and its leaders questioned their work and their motives.  They had made a colossal error without realizing it, even thinking they were doing a great job.  It took an intervention from several community leaders who came into the situation to provide wisdom and cover for the Aussies.
If this situation were true, this group might have been in serious trouble with the local authorities (who may have thought they were child sex traffickers!) because they had not taken the time to develop better relations with the community they were serving.  If they had, they could’ve found out the reputation of their local representative and heard about what was really happening with their funds.  We could only hope for a good end to the fictional story because of their heart to serve true orphans.

So, how can we avoid this mistake?

  1. Actively pursue peer-leader relationships with multiple community leaders where you are serving.  Make sure you have a relationship with people from several churches or religious institutions, other nonprofits working in the area, political leaders and other influential community leaders – if only just to check in from time to time and find out what they think of your work and to ask other open-ended questions.
  2. Conduct a community needs survey.  Ask lots of questions about what people and leaders in the community think their main needs are and how these can be addressed.  Often you will find the best ideas come from within the community.  The community simply might not have the capacity to address those needs well from within – or may just need someone to help catalyze and coordinate a project.
  3. Ask open-ended questions when you get time with local community leaders or when conducting that community needs survey.  Questions like, “What do you think are the main issues facing the community now?” or “How do you think we could improve our work?” or “What trends do you see in the community?”  Asking open-ended questions generates discussion and ideas.  Open-ended questions also demonstrate your desire to hear their opinion.
  4. Share your plans while you are still in the research or planning phase.  After you’ve done a community needs survey, let the leaders in the community know the results and the main need that your group will be working to solve.  Then ask for their ideas on how to approach that issue – and maybe what else other groups have done that didn’t quite work as well as hoped.  Find out why past projects failed and what their ideas are for successfully addressing that need.  Take your time and don’t rush straight to a project without making sure to know the history in that area.  If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
  5. Listen.  Listen to the community leaders, listen to your project’s beneficiaries, listen to people on the street.  If you get in the habit of #3, asking open-ended questions, then listening to what people tell you can reveal a lot.  If there is a language barrier, take a translator or learn the language yourselves.  Even halting attempts at another language (then turning to a translator for help!) go a long way to developing authentic relationship with the people you are serving.

The bottom-line is that we can’t act like we are the ones with all the answers, telling “those poor people” how to solve their problems.  This is a phenomenally arrogant and un-Christ-like attitude that, if we are really wanting to serve like Jesus did, we will shed.  Humility goes a long way on the path of success for community service!

This is one we perhaps have all either seen or done: not take into account local resources available to serve the community.  The thinking goes like this: “well, these people are poor, so we have to bring everything in for them in order for this service project to succeed.”  Not only is this presumptive and a bit arrogant, but it creates dependency on outside help.  Jesus even gives us a great example to follow as he commented on the daily offering at the temple in Mark 12: 43-44 (NKJV) “Assuredly I say to you that this poor widow has put more in than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”  Notice how Jesus didn’t prevent her from giving to the temple offering just because she was poor.  Rather, he commended her generosity and her choice to give, despite her situation.  We should never assume that those we are serving will participate in identifying or providing resources for the project, but we should definitely give them the opportunity.

 

Bronze mite (front and back) used during the time of Jesus

So, how can we avoid making the mistake of ignoring local resources in our service to others?

  1. Involve local leaders and community members in the planning phase, especially if the group is from an area outside where the project location.  These local leaders will know what kind of resources are available within the community and how to connect with those resources.  For instance, a medical clinic could choose to purchase medicines from or refer patients to a local pharmacy to support that business.
  2. Ask for participation in collecting resources (both monetary and non-monetary) from those who will be the targeted beneficiaries of a project.  These items or finances will likely not be a large portion of the project, but you could be pleasantly surprised.  For instance, a coat drive within a community should solicit donations of used, but in good condition coats from the area.  This will allow families to sow into those with younger children rather than sell the coats, if they desire to do that.  Some of the most amazing acts of generosity have been done by those most would consider “poor.”  Doing this allows the community members to feel like they played a part in the project and enhances their sense of community ownership.  This also reduces the likelihood of creating dependency through a project meant to benefit the community.
  3. Challenge the norm.  Look at every item needed and budget line item and ask yourselves, “Can I get this from the community – either purchased at a local store or donated by community members”?  Sometimes the easy way to do a project is not the best way.  Sometimes soliciting community involvement and resources takes longer or requires a greater level of planning.  But the easy way (raising the funds and going to Wal-Mart to make purchases), often leads to a sense of dependency on outside assistance.
  4. At the end of the project, consider expanding the project by asking those who were served to help another community nearby.  This “pay it forward” mentality can further break the cycle of dependency and give community leaders confidence in their ability to solve problems.  This also allows them to experience the true gift that serving others provides to the giver / servant leader.

 

Those we are trying to serve deserve to be part of the process – both in the planning and in the resourcing.  We as servant leaders should make every effort to involve the community we are serving.  These were just a few ideas.  If you have more, please tell us in a comment!

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:

  1. Conversion will not be genuine.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. What is the local perception of Christian-operated service projects and how can this project improve that perception, no matter what it is?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

So, #6 on the top ten list of ways to make sure you fail in community service is a little bit of a touchy subject.  But, I am not going to shy away from it, because I think this is a big sub-message of the book I just reviewed, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.  In case you missed that blog, Mr. Stearns argues that our gospel is missing the action verbs that Jesus was so good at – healing, serving, touching, loving people who are not always easy to love or serve.  He illustrates how the American church has gotten comfortable in our pews and prosperity and abandoned the job that the Lord gave for us to do.  I would go one step further and say that in the US we have even, in some circles (not all!), abandoned the preaching of the gospel message to those who don’t believe in Jesus, to bring them into a relationship with Jesus.  I’m not knocking anyone’s church, but I just wish that the church as a whole, and not just a select, super-spiritual few, in the US would be serious about seeing others come to know Jesus!

In a service project, shying away from the gospel message might look like these statements:

  • “I’m not a preacher and I don’t know how to preach a salvation message.  So, I’ll love on them instead.  After all, doesn’t the Bible say that ‘they will know us by our love’?”
  • “I’m not comfortable sharing my faith in this current environment, as people might think that I have become too ‘radical’ and that I don’t respect them.  I want people to know that I respect their faith, yet I also want to serve others.  I just don’t know how to tell them about this faith that I have without offending them or someone else hearing.”
  • “If I share my faith and talk about Jesus, I risk being fired from my job.  A good friend of mine, and a former prayer partner at work, got fired for telling a co-worker about Jesus at an outside party.  If my boss finds out that I have shared the gospel on this project, he might fire me too.  Then, who will take care of my family?”
  • “I’ve never told anyone about Jesus and just don’t know where to start.  No one has ever taught me either and I don’t see anyone else doing it.  Maybe we aren’t supposed to do it.  Maybe we should just leave that job to the professionals.”

And many more ways of rationalizing not sharing Jesus, who is the beautiful gospel message of salvation and eternal life for our world, even while we are helping others to live a better life in other ways.

So, what is the answer?  That takes more than a single blog post to answer, but let’s get started.  Consider these passages and we can start a conversation:

  • Matthew 28:18-20 – “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
  • 2 Timothy 1: 7-12 – “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.  So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher.  That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

There is a balance between proclaiming the gospel message and serving.  That balance will look different in different places around the world.  As you read these passages, think about the following questions:

  1. What is our responsibility if we obey and take to heart Jesus’ commands in Matthew 18?
  2. How are we to respond to fear in sharing the gospel with others, according to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy above, if we are afraid to share our faith?

If you have never done so, take a minute and write out how God has impacted your own life.  Start with how you were living before you met Jesus, then write how you met Jesus.  Finally, write a little about how your life has been changed because of your relationship with Jesus.  This shouldn’t be any longer than about 2 minutes, as few people will listen for much longer than that.  Now, find someone to practice with – a friend, prayer partner, small group member, or neighbor.  Then tell someone who might not know Jesus personally.  It is your story!  No one can argue with what God has done in your life!  And as you share your story, you will become more skilled in weaving the gospel message into it, using verses that have impacted your own life.

More in future posts about how to best incorporate community service and evangelism.  First things were first, we need to get into a mindset to share the gospel!

* All verses from the New International Version, http://www.blueletterbible.com

World Vision’s President Richard Stearns wrote a book that came out in 2010 called The Hole in Our Gospel.  Now, World Vision has 6-session DVDs and workbooks for churches and small group studies.  In light of this recent addition, I decided to post a review of the book and some comments on the workbook, which just arrived from World Vision at my house.  I don’t have the DVD series, but it looks star-studded, so if you’ve seen it, please comment!

The Hole in Our Gospel

Mr. Stearns in this book boldly proclaims, mainly to the American church, that we have a “hole” in our gospel, meaning that something is missing from our life of faith.  This “something” is our view of and care for the poor.  Now, immediately you might say, “well, my church helps at the homeless shelter and we as a family support such-and-so inner city project.  All that is well and good, but you’ve missed the point – or maybe you should read his book to see!  In Mr. Stearns opinion, this is not enough.  These are merely token involvements because we have not allowed these interactions to affect us, to shape how we view the world and ourselves in it, and how our churches operate.  And why do we have this hole? Mr. Stearns believes that this hole is of our own making, as we have allowed our view of God to shrink to a cosmic tamed mix of Santa Claus and all-supreme but uninvolved Being.  He also feels like we have diminished the role that God calls us to play in advancing His kingdom.  Too many of our church members are sitting on the bench, waiting patiently for heaven and not activated into this great charge we have to advance God’s kingdom here on Earth.  I know this probably doesn’t describe most of my readers, but search your heart – maybe deep down it does.

Throughout the book, Mr. Stearns gives facts, statistics and reality checks to us as American Christians.  These facts and stats are mostly shocking and all true.  He tells stories about his own personal transformation that many who have been involved in overseas compassion ministries will easily relate to.  I cried many times, feeling the burdens that Mr. Stearns felt and remembering my own similar encounters, so I can say that he truly has encapsulated what it feels like as an American to be exposed to grinding poverty and walk away a changed person.  But what I like best about this book is his call for us to examine ourselves, our true situation and to allow God to change us – our motivations, desires / needs and thinking.

So, what are we to do?  Stop, look and listen would be a great start.  Stop – stop the activity we are doing “for” Jesus and evaluate our lives.  Look – around us, at the needs in our community, in our own families, and in our cities.  Listen – ask God for His heart for the poor and His solutions to the issues of our day.  As Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church says in his introduction to the workbook for The Hole in Our Gospel: “God whispers a word of insight to that pair of willing ears and then waits to see what will happen once reality of the prompting sets in.”  God is ready to speak and give insight to those who will seriously listen.  And even small steps taken in faith will have magnified impacts, because God is behind them.

The Hole in Our Gospel – workbook

The book is an easy read, challenging to someone who has never really considered such ideas as engaging in community service activities but it left me with the question, “so what is the next step?”  I am a community development professional, so I knew the answer in my own life, but realized that others might not.  The workbook picks up where the book leaves off – and helps small groups come up with their own answers to that question.  The workbook is challenging, well-produced to engage the youngest generation who might be reading it.  And for those who are leading the groups, it has lots of great advice for how to effectively lead small groups.  This can make the whole concept of leading a group a bit easier for some to swallow.  The workbook has sections for individual study, pre-study and post-study questions, group discussion questions and challenging personal application questions.

I think you could do the workbook without the video series, but not having seen the videos and knowing the high quality of video production from World Vision in the past, I’m sure the videos would add an extra element of impact to this study.  So, I would definitely recommend getting the videos, especially if your church will be doing the study in one large group.  Also, World Vision makes this easier by assembling pre-packaged sets of books, DVDs and workbooks at reasonable rates (when compared to other available products).  Unfortunately, the only place you can find these products is on the World Vision website.  I had a fairly difficult time ordering just one workbook, so would recommend you call to place a non-standard order, rather than rely upon the website ordering process.  Also, the 6-session study is available for free download at the link below.

http://www.theholeinourgospel.com/study-guide/

I would greatly recommend finding some friends, reading the book and going through the workbook together.  If you can’t afford the DVDs, don’t sweat it, but they would add additional zing to the impact.  Then ask God what He would have you do.  I’ll be posting new blogs in the coming weeks and months on some more technical aspects of community service to help groups who are beginning to serve their community.  Keep an eye out for those and for my own 12-chapter Bible study that I am looking to get published.  It will be a great companion to both of these resources as it goes more in-depth about simple, but effective practices for those doing community service without prior professional training (which is most of you!).

This one was hinted at in #8, if you caught that reference.  I’ve seen this cardinal sin of community service in many settings, but especially in the times when nonprofits have had to compete for “new turf” due to available grant funding (it sounds like this in a board meeting: “We can get this grant money but they want us to expand our program THIS YEAR into x neighborhood where we don’t have any contacts”).  I’ve also seen this in cross-cultural missions (here or abroad) when the group simply doesn’t have the proper local contacts, but is trying to do something anyway.  The net result is that these Lone Rangers can end up making HUGE mistakes, offending the communities they are trying to serve, and alienating the leaders who could have prevented mistakes and improved chances of success in the first place.

The Lone Ranger

Why is failing to consult community leaders an issue?  How does it lead to project failure?  More than most other issues, this one is easily preventable by investing small amounts of time to meet and talk with local community leaders.  When we try to serve people in a community but do not take the time to meet the local leaders before our project, we seem like an invading army from the outside.  Even when we are part of the community, it may seem like we are trying to go around the local leaders, or worse to subvert their place of leadership.

Let me illustrate with a scenario: A church-based group from a nearby neighborhood has a heart to reach out to inner city kids through a summer carnival-type event.  They plan the entire event without talking to the local church and community leaders in their area, print flyers out for the entire neighborhood and wait for the parents to bring their children to the event.  Meanwhile, parents are asking around to see who else is going to take their kids to this church that none of them currently attend.  They are suspicious about the church’s motivations.  They ask their community leaders about the church.  The community leaders are surprised about the event and tell the parents that they have had no contact with that church.  Suspicion about the church’s motivations grows.  Few parents bring their children to the event.  Some choose to come anyway.

How could this church have handled the situation better?

A few ideas: send a delegation of leaders to meet the local community leaders in this nearby neighborhood– maybe other church pastors in the area, the local city council member, area business leaders and the directors of community or youth centers.   Tell them about the idea of the carnival and let them know your motivation is to be a blessing and serve the community.  Ask them to allow you to post flyers at their locations and to announce the event in their church or other program services.  Ask one to be a co-sponsor to begin developing a relationship with the community leadership.  Let them know you are not out to steal church members, but to serve their community, develop relationships across neighborhood lines and work together to improve the area.  Let them know you are in the community for the long-term and want to make such events regularly scheduled.

When we operate as Lone Rangers and neglect to involve the local leaders in the areas where

we are trying to undertake community service, we risk alienating the very people we are trying to serve and reducing our effectiveness.  Or even worse, we risk offending the leaders of the community and jeopardizing our ability to conduct community service projects in the area.

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