Mission “Because”: Birthdays and Basketball

12 03 2012

(See previous posts here and here)

If we are truly committed to a missional focus that elevates people over causes, then how do we, as church leaders, create opportunities for our congregation to be involved in sustainable, God-honoring ministry and mission? How do we “program” something when our goal is to transcend programming?  And, how do we get beyond the cause of the week into real discussions about the problems…and the solutions?

I don’t have answers, but I do offer up two stories from my corner of the world:

Souper Saturday crew

1. On the last Saturday of each month, our church cooks and delivers soup for more than 200 elderly and disabled residents in our community. Our youth are in charge of one “route,” where we deliver to the residents of a low-income retirement home.  The last apartment on our route belongs to a woman nicknamed “Tootsie,” who always stops our youth and talks to them for about 20 minutes.  They roll their eyes sometimes, but they understand that she’s lonely and probably doesn’t get many visitors.  Last month, Tootsie told them that her 82nd birthday was approaching.  One high schooler in our group put the date in her calendar and arranged for us to go visit on her birthday last Friday.  We brought her a cake, a birthday card, some flowers, and a few extra minutes of company.  It was simple and lovely and wonderful.

2. Our after-school program consists mainly of recreation opportunities and is somewhat separated from the rest of our youth group (although we do our best to invite them to Sunday programs as well).  But for the past two years, the biggest bridge between the “Tuesday” group and the “Sunday” group has been our church’s “spirit-league” basketball team.  We have mixed the two groups up on our basketball team; although the process has not been without its share of headaches and craziness, it’s been amazing to watch the youth form real friendships with each other.  Several of our high school boys have stepped up to the challenge of being role models for the younger boys on the team, both inside and outside of church.

I’m trying to figure out what lessons I’m supposed to be learning…but here’s what stands out to me about these examples right now:

1. Programs are a good start.  I don’t think we can throw out our programmatic models just yet.  We must create opportunities for students to learn, be inspired, and be challenged to go deeper.  Students can absolutely be changed by their experiences in service projects and short-term mission trips … and those of us who are “all fired up” about missions cannot forget how important it is to create “entry-level” opportunities for those who are not quite as comfortable yet.  We can’t end with programs … but it might be okay to begin there.

2. Relationships are essential.  We easily could have asked the retirement facility for a list of all their residents’ birthdays, and we could have started sending cards to each resident on his/her birthday.  That would have been a nice gesture.  But what made our experience last week so meaningful was that the youth took on the responsibility of an actual relationship.  Relationships help us stop thinking about people as “mission projects” and instead as actual human beings, created in the image of God just like we are.  I wonder if relationships are the medium through which we can escape the “program” box? If that’s the case, then we need to recognize what sorts of mission opportunities have the potential for us to build long-term relationships.  (Not that we should stop doing behind-the-scenes, no-contact types of mission projects, like packing food in a food pantry, because those projects are sometimes just what an organization most needs!  But we can recognize that different projects will have different outcomes).

3. Contextualization is also essential. At first I wondered: if we’re doing mission “right,” will our youth even realize that they’re engaged in mission?  After all, at some point, shouldn’t this whole “loving our neighbors” thing start to kick in automatically without our having to call it “mission?”  Well, yes … and no.  This process of “contextualization” must occur on multiple levels, depending on the maturity of the learners involved, but we can’t ever stop trying to understand our experiences within a larger framework.  For example: sometimes the basketball team boys become frustrated by the bad behavior of their teammates.  In those moments, we might talk to them about why their friends may be acting out, and we also re-cast our vision to remind them of both the reasons for the program and the goals we hope to achieve.  And the basketball program has also prompted some of our youth to ask hard questions about poverty, wealth, inequality, and racism.  We can’t shy away from these questions but instead welcome the opportunity to connect their experiences with the larger issues.

These are just my initial thoughts, subject to change at any moment 🙂   What do you think??