“So tell me, good sir,” as he asked the question, his face made it clear, he was brimming with skepticism about any credibility to the idea of serving, “Just how long does it take before those served respond to your message?”
I thought I understood what he was getting at, but just so the several hundred gathered at the event could hear his linear approach to the subject, I asked him to please clarify. With a loud humph into the roving wireless microphone he said, “How many people do you have to be nice to before someone comes to church?”
I had heard this question many times before. Each time I felt enormously frustrated. Why? I realized the person or group asking saw the simple message of serving as a program of “bait and switch.” That is, they had taken the concept of “God’s kindness” and made it into a hook. Translated, it comes across much like an urban city mission. “We feed you, we give you a place to sleep for the night. In return, you have to listen to us talk. Having been at many such settings, the people listening usually sleep through the talks.
The middle class version of this is just slightly different:
“We give you a bottle of water…
Now you need to listen to us give our little spiel”
Human nature is to attach strings to all that we do, even when we think we are loving without conditions. We can even use the phrase, “No strings attached,” we will continually connect an emotional clause to all we do unless the Holy Spirit loves others through us.
How do we know when we are beginning to get past the “strings attached” mentality?
We are able to serve and love others without worry about the return that will come to our church, the return upon our time investment in a given relationship or even the apparent return a person shows as they are or are not coming toward the kingdom. When God loves boldly through us, there is a liberation released deep within. We drop all worry about results.
I read an interview a few weeks ago about a church in Orange County that has been serving pet owners in various ways (check out ServantEvangelism.com for details on this project that was published in 101 Ways to Reach Your Community). In the interview, a person from the church staff said, “This is great. After we have shown pet owners kindness we are able to get our line in about the church. It works like a charm.”
Yes, it does work like a “charm,” but this is not the kindness of God. This is not the extension of the kingdom of God we aspire to live out, that Jesus modeled. When we serve with any motive to get anything in return, including to grow our churches, we just don’t understand how evangelism works, nor do we understand how Jesus’ kingdom goes forth.
But guess what? That’s okay. We are learning as we go!
What Can We Learn?
We can learn to have an “investor” mindset, rather than a “spender” mentality. First Corinthians 3 describes evangelism as a process, “Paul planted, Apollos watered but it is God who makes it grow.” The investor minded person sees each opportunity to show the kindness of God as an investment in that process toward God. The short-term, spender minded one always loses in the end. In oh so many ways, the church in the western world today is spending her credibility faster than she is gaining even a minimum amount of input into our “account.” As has been the case since before Jesus, God’s greatest enemy is not the mainstream culture though that would be a handy enemy to blame for our poor choices as individuals even more so, as a gathered people.
We are in desperate need of the culture of God’s kingdom to be established in profound ways through us as his people. The kingdom culture is not about more information being heaped upon people. It is about us noticing our way into the lives of people around us
In a word, it is about us walking in hospitality.
When any aspect of local leadership begins to measure effectiveness based upon the number of heads showing up as a “direct result” of serving (let’s retire those two words and the thinking behind them), we need to step back and re-look at Jesus’ ministry. Let’s look at what we have been called to as, “long-term atmosphere architects.”
The short-term view is not love. Cults actually do exactly this. Sociologists use the term “love bombing” to describe what is commonly practiced among cultic groups. Interestingly, “successful” cultic groups have discovered that if a prospect doesn’t buy in to the new way of thinking and living in a whole-hog way in the first ninety days, they are unlikely to ever. Thus, members show great affection to said prospect. Once the person has bought in, the act drops and they are expected to become a reproducer – a natural evolution, but all affection is dropped and it is all about numbers.
Sound remotely familiar to you? Oh God, have mercy on us.
“Jesus, live your life through us in such a profound way that we may realize in all humility that without your intervention each day, we will fall into a ditch of ineffectiveness. Fan into flame the life of your Spirit within us that it may burn so intensely that we will live lives that are increasingly consumed by your presence. Let us ignite each person we connect with today. Amen.”