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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

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