I came to some of the foregoing conclusions, not by studying benevolence, but by asking how we can conduct teen and campus ministries in such a way that we keep more of our kids in the faith.
The fact is that our (meaning the church at large, not our particular ministries) teen groups do a very credible job of keeping our kids entertained and coming to church. And many also do what their elders demand — get lots of kids to come to weeknight devo. Nothing quite excites the elders like the sight of one or two hundred teens at youth or college events. This is so exciting that elders often give the youth minister leave to do things they’d never allow among the adults. After all, don’t the crowds prove that something righteous is going on?
Sadly, though, when the kids leave for college, they often abandon the church — not just the Church of Christ, but Christianity altogether. Either that or they go looking for a church that entertains them and helps them make friends as well as their old teen program did. What they don’t do is look for a place that will equip and support them to serve.
What was holding the kids to the teen program anyway? Music? Parties? “Relationships”? And so what would have kept them? You have to figure: more of the same.
The fact is, we might just be looking at this exactly backwards. The solution isn’t to be better purveyors of goods and services. Christians aren’t consumers. They’re servants. Servants! If the teens had been taught to be servants — really, really taught so that service is in the marrow of their bones — not just one of many optional church missions — they just might stay — provided the church as a whole really becomes a place to do service. You see, teen ministry must be nothing but age-appropriate adult ministry. The two ministries can’t be all that much different.
So why don’t our kids grow up to be servants? Well, in part because their parents aren’t servants, but that just moves the question to another age group. Why don’t we teach the parents to be servants?
Now, I urgently state that many of their parents really are servants. The Holy Spirit is alive and well and living in the hearts of our servant members, sometimes despite our best efforts. But many are not. Why not?
Well, it’s because we have an incomplete doctrine of service. We teach two kinds of service: evangelism and service to our members. And the purpose of the service to our members is to make church such a great place that we irresistibly draw the lost to join our group. Basketball, intramurals, Weigh Down Workshops, softball, youth league baseball, singles mixers, “relationships” developed through an intricate series of small groups — everything the 21st Century un-churched person needs, all for the low, low price of baptism. “Relationships! Get ‘em while they’re hot!”
Nowhere does the Bible ask us to call people to the formation of relationships. Nowhere are we called to develop sports programs. In 1 John 2, we are called to have a relationship with God (“know God”) by obeying his commands, of which there is one: love our neighbors.
We are called to serve, not to be served. This is the essence of Jesus’ example-
(Matt. 20:28) “[T]he Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And whom do we serve? Well, whom did Jesus serve?
(Matt. 9:12) On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”
We have some very thoroughly doctored healthy people. We’ve gone from being a hospital to being a health club — highly buffed bodies sweating in the air conditioning to no effect other than being in great shape to exercise some more.
Every preacher, sometime in his career, preaches this sermon-
I went to the ball game yesterday. Boy, I’ve never seen anything like it! I mean, I just thought I’d been to a football game! People screaming and cheering everywhere for hours before and even hours after the game! Incredible!
Why, 92,000 people went to that game and they could have sold twice that many tickets. Millions watched on TV. It was just so exciting!
But isn’t Jesus much more exciting than Nick Saban? Didn’t he do far greater things than even (dare I say it?) Bear Bryant? And if that’s so, why aren’t we screaming and cheering just like we did yesterday? Surely a victory over Satan is better than a victory over MTSU!
So let’s get excited! Let’s get fired up!! Let’s cheer for Jesus!!!
And on it goes. We’ve heard it all before. We didn’t get all that excited last time (or the first time). I mean, we tried. It seemed so very logical. But the preacher’s cheerleading just didn’t work. A forced show of excitement, a moment of guilt: why aren’t I as excited today as yesterday at the big game? And then the sermon’s over and soon forgotten.
The reality is that we aren’t excited because there’s nothing much to be excited about. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? If church were exciting, by definition, we’d be excited. If we’re not excited, then church is just not exciting.
Here’s the idea. If our teen ministry not only does evangelism but also does benevolence right, there will be victories aplenty — and the celebrations and excitement to go with it. The same is true for college and adults. Even for children. Imagine seeing one of our teens or college students in the baptistry Sunday after Sunday immersing a convert! Imagine last year’s converts in the baptistry again, immersing the next generation of newborn Christians!
So to decide what is benevolence done right, we have to first figure what is a victory. What would make us dance with excitement (even in church)? Well, it’s such a rare thing, we can’t imagine it. One fine woman told me: only a miracle. Well, miracles still happen.
First, something good has to happen for someone. And that person needs to be someone we love. That’s about it. Of course, the more people we love, the more opportunities we’ll have for victory dances. Unfortunately we really don’t love very many people — not in the sense that we’d excited enough to buy a ticket to see their baptism.
There are basically two ways to do good. You can help someone find Jesus, and this is, of course, an incredible thrill. But we already know that. It’s just that we aren’t very good at it.
The other approach, which I’m calling “benevolence,” is just about anything else good done for another. There are plenty of options. But from a programmatic standpoint, an ideal benevolence program would look for these characteristics:
- It must be done in the name of Jesus. Helping people without giving Jesus credit dims the light on the hill.
- It must involve true interpersonal contact with other people. We can mail millions to the tsunami victims (and we should), but we can only love them in the abstract. We need programs where we love people we know: where perfect strangers become neighbors whom we love intensely.
- It must involve victories. Now, not all benevolence is about winning, at least, not in the American sense. Hospice care, for example, is all about accepting defeat, which is, of course, a victory, but we need at least one program where the good guys get to win in a way understandable to the immature: college students, teens, and kids.
- It must be doable by the young. Again, many valuable programs are beyond the reach of the young, but some are well within their reach.
- It must be in our community. It absolutely eludes me why youth ministers insist on hauling kids to other parts of the world to do benevolence. Good deeds are done, but —
- The kids don’t learn that there’s good to be done here.
- The kids don’t get to see their own community change.
- The community doesn’t get to see the congregation’s love for the world.
- Many of the kids don’t get to see their own parents participate.
- The rest of the congregation doesn’t get to help. The kids and new members need to see benevolence as a work of the congregation, not the teen or campus program. They can, of course, do different parts, but one reason we lose kids is we convert them to salvation but not to the body-the community where Jesus lives.
- It’s an inefficient use of money. The same monies could do much more good at home and the kids could be powerfully changed by getting to do the good in community, that is, in partnership with the congregation they are part of. This is a powerful concept that God invented for us.
The reason some (former) ministers have given me is this: “When we take the kids out of town like this, they build great relationships.” It makes me want to scream!
We isolate kids from the families, their congregation, and their community to build self-indulgent relationships. And when they turn 18 or 22, the relationships end as kids go their separate ways, and so the kids leave the church.
When a white teenager sees a kid from “the projects” in the hall and they exchange a high five because the white kid and his dad visited his home and helped him find a job, will lives be changed? Will the school be changed?
When the Tuscaloosa News writes up the story and the church freely teaches other churches in town how to follow its example, will the community be changed? When the churches expand the Tuscaloosa Prayer Network to include a forum to share ministry ideas and coordinate efforts, will the church be changed?
There are always negatives, of course. God has built caution into us for good reason.
How will we ever find enough volunteers?
Good question, and it’s even worse than you may think. Churches have very few economies of scale. More members means we need more teachers — more volunteers of nearly all kinds.
And as we get bigger, our expectations get higher. Some people who were great song leaders or Bible class teachers back home don’t make the grade when they move to a larger church. People just expect a huge church to have great classes, great singing, great everything. We never get so big that volunteers are spare.
But this also means that we have guys who could teach back home and who will now be excellent in a jail, in an apartment church, or in an evangelistic small group. And now they’ll be worth vastly more to God.
Hence, there are at least four pools of additional volunteer talent —
- Underutilized talent. We have people who teach children’s church once a year who could do puppets at an apartment church for six months — just long enough to train someone local to do the puppeteering and graduate to puppeteer coach.
- Formerly unusable talent. There are people at church who know how to teach a kid to house paint but don’t know how to lead a small group or even invite a friend. We have retired speech therapists and social workers. There’s lots of talent out there that doesn’t find a spot on the yellow volunteer sheet. (The theological point to make at this point is that if God gives a talent, there’s a need. We just have to find the need to fit the talent. We do tend to get this one backwards.)
- People in the community that we serve. These people can paint, move a puppet’s mouth, or punch out flannel graphs. Soon enough, they’ll be leaders.
- Friends of volunteers. If my theory is right, kids and adults will easily invite friends to come paint a house or put on barbecue, and the friends should be put to work. It’s called “hard work evangelism.” Show up because you already have a friend, do hard work, see people smile, feel your heart grow, and so find Jesus. (Kind of the opposite of: go to church to find a friend, expect to be served, and feel entitled.)
- New talent. Gifts come from the Holy Spirit. We’ll surely find people who last year didn’t have a clue about how to do this who suddenly find themselves, literally, inspired (God-breathed) to lead or work in ways that are beyond our power to ask or imagine.
We don’t know how to do this
Yes, and we don’t really know how to grow 10% a year by inviting friends, but we try very hard anyway and spend millions trying.
Besides, there are people who’ve already done this. Get on Amazon.com and type in “Ron Sider” and then try “missional” and then follow the links to other authors. While Churches of Christ have largely been uninterested and ineffective at benevolence (and many other denominations are the same), there are churches that have been doing this for, well, centuries. They are glad to share what they know.
We don’t have enough staff
That’s probably right. But perhaps that’s because of our self-indulgent external and internal culture. I mean, how big was Paul’s staff?
I think that, over time, we’ll find this problem solved by God’s gifts, more volunteers, less selfish demands on staff time, and more donations. In fact, just getting the members to see how their neighbors live will persuade them to be less self-interested.
We have to allocate resources. If we start by first indulging all our members’ whims, there won’t be time or money left to change the world. Allocating is very hard. (I remember the first time I proposed cutting out the subsidy for baseball shirts! We all know other examples. Pray for courage.) Allocating is easier when the congregation has a shared vision.
But the mission fund (among many other prior successes) amply demonstrates that when Christians step out on faith, God supports our feet. We often underestimate the goodness and spirituality of our members. After all, the deeper you go into the leadership structure, the more you see their selfish side. It’s easy to get cynical, even hopeless. But the scriptures provide ample encouragement —
(Deut. 15:11) There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
(Job 22:7-11) You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land-an honored man, living on it. And you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless. That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you.
(Prov. 17:5) He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker … .
(Prov. 19:17) He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.
(Prov. 21:13) If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
(Isa. 14:26-32) This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? … The poorest of the poor will find pasture, and the needy will lie down in safety. … What answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The LORD has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge.”
(Isa. 58:6-12) “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
(Ezek. 22:29-31) The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.
“I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
(Matt. 19:21) Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
(Luke 6:20) Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
(Luke 14:12-14) Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Rom 12:20) On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
(Gal. 2:10) All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
(James 2:5) Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who lov
 It just kills me to say or type “relationships.” “Relationship” is the generic term for how two people relate. My relationship to some is as father, to others as son, to others as attorney, to others as client, and a few others as enemy. Why not say something with a little content: “friendships.” Was that so hard? We really don’t sound smarter or better educated talking this way — just harder to understand.
 Yes, yes, I know that members have to have 7 friends to stay. I just think they should make their friends with their sleeves rolled up.
 This is the verse Jesus quoted. Of course, it’s used in budget meetings to argue against benevolence programs (to the credit of the Ministries Team, never in one of its meetings).