Mission “Because”: Cause vs. People

10 03 2012

I recently came across a letter written by Kelly Finlaw in response to the 2011 BuildABridge Institute:

i have come to the conclusion that there are typically two types of organizations in the social justice world … one type of organization does whatever they do “for” a cause.  in my head i label the “for” people as the legalists and associate them with very hurtful things.  things that i want nothing to do with.  there is an agenda and right and wrong and black and white and not much room for anything but their own ideas.  if you disagree with whatever they are selling then it is an attack on the “for” and consequently, an attack on them.  one brief example – one of the presenters through buildabridge told her story of using music as therapy with palestinian children inside the separation wall in bethlehem.  her research was phenomenal and fascinating.  but when she was done and came home and began to tell her story she encountered people that didn’t understand why she went to the middle east and worked with palestinian children instead of israelis.  i put the people that questioned her in the “for” category.

then there is “because” type of organization.  they do things “because” of the need that they see and the love within them.  they live in the middle with open hands.  anyone can come and join and serve the need.  anyone can agree or disagree and it’s not offensive.  no agenda.  just service to the needy “because” love spills out of them.

There are probably other ways to describe this dichotomy, but semantics aside, Kelly’s distinction is an important one to make.  When we do things for a cause, we constantly must wonder if we have picked a worthy enough cause.  When we do things because of people, there’s no need to wonder.  People are always worthy of love.

Don’t get me wrong: causes can be both important and effective. They can put the stories of individual people into a larger context. They can help us ask hard questions. They can point out systemic injustices. And sometimes they can give us the social impetus to move forward.

But if our justice work is not rooted in real relationships, then we often find ourselves chasing a lost cause.

One of my friends has worked in an African orphanage; another advocated to save the Argentinian rainforest; another is helping free sex slaves in Thailand; several others work for Teach for America/Americorps…and the list goes on.  And when you’re stuck in a “cause” mindset, it’s easy to play the comparison game: is my cause good enough?  are my efforts as noble?  am i really making a difference?  is it worth it?

But then I remember each one of the kids that has wormed their way into my heart over the past two years (right here in the very same city where I grew up!) and I remember why I do what I do.  It’s because of them.

And because he first loved us.

Of course, there’s always more work to do. And I think it’s vitally important to educate ourselves about global — and local — issues of social justice, and to be involved on both a global and local level.  I’m just saying, don’t pick your ’cause’ because of someone else’s ‘people.’   And don’t denigrate anyone else’s efforts (or your own!) because they seem small.  As Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

And as Jesus himself once said, “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”

The Gate of Eaven

16 01 2012

There’s always that one kid.

You know the one I’m talking about.  The one you secretly hope will not show up for youth group. The one you wish would just find Jesus…at some other church.

He started out in our after-school program and was the first to make the transition into Sunday night youth group. I don’t know much about his background, although I’ve gathered snippets of his story from talking to his brothers and cousin.  I know he’s seen more violence than anyone his age should.  There is a large scar across his cheek.  I’ve never asked how he got it.

He is hardened, sullen.  When he does come (which is not often), he picks fights and causes trouble. He enjoys the food, and he always plays basketball…but when we start Bible study, he prefers to sit on a chair away from the group, cracking dirty jokes under his breath.

Last night, when we divided into small groups, I had to send a volunteer to coax him out of his hiding place. He came in late and lay down on the floor beside me.

Our discussion continued as I asked the students to finish the sentence, “God is…” Their answers came flying back: “God is our Father!” “the Creator!” “Light!”

He lifted his head up, watching. “The gate,” he said, finally. “Isn’t he the gate of heaven?”

“Yes!” I said, handing him a pen. “Why don’t you write that down?”

He sat up, leaned forward, and painstakingly wrote the words onto the canvas. After that, he didn’t say anything else, but he didn’t lie back down, either.

When we sent the youth out to decorate their mirrors, he hunched over the small table, cutting shapes out of blue vinyl and then scrunching them up and tearing the edges as he saw fit.  When he was finished, he showed it to me proudly before setting it down with the others.

Later, as I was washing the etching cream off his mirror, I discovered that one of his letters had not stuck down and could not be seen. Oh no, I thought. It’s ruined.

But I went back to look at it after it had dried. The light shone down on it in a special way, and I realized: it’s perfect.

mirror image created by a student

What a metaphor.  The gates of heaven are not polished or even sanitary.  They’re a bit messy most of the time, and they have jagged edges.  But what makes them beautiful is where they lead.

To the Cross. To Jesus.

Planting Seeds

3 10 2011

Last fall, our youth group began an after-school ministry for middle school students who live in the neighborhood around our church.  I am long overdue for a post about the challenges and successes of this ministry, but on the whole, I believe the program has been a wonderful thing for everyone involved: the students, the volunteers, and the congregation.

From the beginning, we have involved high school students as volunteers for the program.  Last night after youth group, I ended up talking to one of our high school seniors about the impact of this program.  He wondered aloud what good we were doing, and whether our relationship with the kids will have any effect on their lives.

I said, “We see small successes all the time, but we won’t know the long-term effect for many years, if ever.  I think we have to hope that we’re planting seeds…that these kids will have a positive impression of the church, that they might one day remember their mentors or something we’ve said, or maybe they’ll be inspired to do something different with their lives.”

“There’s a parable about seeds, isn’t there?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“And in the parable,” he continued, “some of the seeds fall on rocky soil and thorns, right?  So even if we plant the seeds … if a kid goes home and his parents are abusive or addicted to drugs or whatever … then it’s like the seed falling on the thorns, and it will never grow.”

I was completely taken aback by this profound insight and the implications it has for ministry and education as a whole.  Teachers, of course, can only do so much; a child’s learning is dependent on many other factors outside the classroom.  And along the way, we plant many seeds that will end up being eaten, choked by thorns, or prohibited from taking root.

But we still plant seeds, and we never stop planting seeds… because we believe that every once a while, we’ll land on good soil.  And when that happens, it will produce a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.

How Local is the Local Church?

1 09 2011

As a lifelong Methodist, I don’t claim to have any expertise in Catholicism.  However, one of my Catholic friends once explained their parish system to me in such a neat way that it has always stuck with me:

Because the Mass will be the same at every Catholic church, it doesn’t really matter which church you go to.  The focus is on the Mass, not the priest or the specific church.  So you usually end up going to whichever church is closest to your house.

I know that the church is not a building, it’s the community of believers. But most churches do have a building, which means that they have a very specific geographic location as well as a unique role within their immediate communities. And I believe the church, as a body of believers, has a responsibility to that local entity: to know the neighbors, contribute to the community, and reach out to meet local needs.  For that reason, I do think there is value in living near your home church, so that your spheres of influence (both as an individual and as a church member) intersect in strategic ways.

When we lived in Atlanta, we certainly did our fair share of church shopping, with mixed feelings.  But there was definitely a part of me that felt it would be most healthy and faithful to drop the “shopping” aspect altogether and just settle down at a random church.  After all, if you truly believe that each local church is a microcosm of the body of Christ, then it shouldn’t matter what kind of music they sing or what kind of donuts they serve before the service. Eventually, if you get involved, it will start to feel like home.

We currently attend (and work at) a 101-year-old mainline church, with a congregation that is probably 90% white and middle class.  The neighborhood surrounding the church is ethnically diverse, with mostly low-income residents.  The majority of our members drive a significant distance each Sunday morning, passing several other churches along the way.

Last year our church hired a group of evangelism consultants to research our community and congregation and help us develop a strategy for church growth.  Informally (that is, off the record), one of the consultants commented that we should be training our church members to evangelize the people in their own neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools.  He said that while it was all well and good to focus our mission efforts on the neighborhood around us, we should not expect this outreach to result in church growth.

I’m sure his recommendation was based in real church experiences…but when measured against the gospel and message of Jesus, his dichotomy is misguided at best and dangerous/racist/heretical at worst.

Yes, it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone with people who look and think just like we do.  But Jesus calls us to do hard things.

Yes, we absolutely should be reaching out to people in our own neighborhoods and workplaces.  But that does not absolve us of our duty to reach into other neighborhoods and other workplaces.  If I’m not mistaken, Jesus’ commission should be taking us all over the world!  And the Apostle Paul rejects any kind of “us vs. them mentality” that would even allow for a distinction between “our people” and “the neighborhood people.”

Yes, we like to pat ourselves on the back for providing charity services to the poor folks in the neighborhood.  But Jesus calls us to do more than that: to know our neighbors by name and care for them as individual people rather than as labels.

Yes, integrating the church is slow, hard, uncomfortable work.  But if our church is not attracting the poor and marginalized in society, then we must ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

What do you think?  What has your experience been with this ministry/evangelism dichotomy?  How is your church reaching out to its local neighborhood?


Winter Jam Review

22 03 2010

On Saturday night, we took a busload of kids over to CenturyTel for the annual Winter Jam concert.  The entire youth group had been excited about this show for weeks: when else do you get to hear 8 or 9 major Christian bands for just $10? It was a great deal, and promised to be a night of wholesome Christian entertainment.  But by the time intermission came, I was completely disenchanted by the whole thing and found myself turning to Jordan to ask, “When did I become so cynical?”

Maybe it’s because I’m saturated in youth ministry right now, or maybe it’s because it had been a really long week, or maybe the raging liberal is coming out in me…or maybe I’m just overreacting… but I was deeply disturbed by some of the messages that were being subtly promoted by this concert tour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that the organizers of this tour have the best of intentions.  And on the whole, the evening was great: the technology was well-done, the concert flowed smoothly, and I have a lot of respect for their dedication to making this Tour affordable for all.  But it is precisely because the concert was so well-done, because there was so much hype about the Tour, and because the Tour does in fact represent the heart of Christianity to nearly 350,000 teenagers across the country, that the flaws seemed so glaring to me.  So, if anybody affiliated with Winter Jam happens to read this, please know that I respect what you do and am making these criticisms in love.  In short, these were the problems that I had with my experience on Saturday night:

1. Racism, sexism, and homophobia.  Near the beginning of the concert, one of the concert hosts was talking about how you can use music as a form of outreach.  He used the example that you could give a Christian CD to one of those Asian women at the nail salons, because you can’t understand a word they say anyway.  Jordan and I looked at each other: Did he really just say that? Out loud? I really would like to believe that he walked offstage and hit himself in the head, wondering why those words had come out of his mouth.  However, I also know that the Bossier City stop was one of the Tour’s last, and everything was extremely well-rehearsed, even a bit canned.  He had obviously said those words many times before, during many other concerts.

Equally problematic, or perhaps even more so, were featured speaker Tony Nolan‘s comments during his message (and here I paraphrase because I did not write down his exact wording): Girls, imagine that you could own all of the clothing in the world.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Guys, we don’t care so much about clothing.  Or if you do care, well, then, I’ve got to be a little bit worried about you. (cue laughter from the audience)

Okay, I know those comments aren’t exactly at the level of Westboro Baptist Church.  But that’s not the point.  How many teens in the audience were struggling with their sexuality that night?  How many of them had already been marginalized or ridiculed by the church?  Why would you ever pass up the chance to show love to these teenagers and instead make a joke about it?  It is never okay to use people’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality as the butt of a joke…especially not when you are a leader in youth ministry… and especially not in a concert setting filled with thousands of impressionable Christian youth.  When you make the joke, then you are implicitly making it okay for them to go out into their churches and schools and make more jokes.

2. The Sinners’ Prayer.  This is more of a theological difference than anything, and I do want to be clear: it is not the prayer itself that I have problems with, but the hype that goes before and after it.  I take theological issue with the idea that salvation happens in a moment, but I also recognize that the organizers of the Tour probably have different theological leanings than I do, and that the inclusion of this altar-call moment was in keeping with their theology.  However, I take practical issue with the emotional and peer pressure that was put on students to “stand up if you prayed this prayer.  Come on, don’t be ashamed of your faith.”  About 30 seconds later, the speaker proudly proclaimed that several hundred  students had just made the decision to give their lives to Christ.  No further instructions were given to the students about what to do with their newly changed life, other than to stand and be counted.  I understand that they may have been short on time, but I believe they missed an opportunity to go a few notches deeper than simply “getting saved.”

3. The Mission Moment.  I would consider myself to be a pretty mission-minded person, and it takes a lot to make me criticize a missional focus.  I am all for creating experiences that challenge youth to get out of their middle-class bubble.  But I think there is a tendency in the Church to accept all things Christian as equally good, and that’s simply not the case.  As leaders especially, we must be discerning in what we choose to endorse and in how we choose to endorse it.

The featured mission organization was Holt International, an international adoption agency based out of Eugene, Oregon.  Tony Nolan spoke about his own experience of childhood abuse and said that he felt God was calling him to be the voice for children around the world.  His speech was well-done and moving.  Then, he brought to the stage his three-year-old child, whom he adopted last year, and let her speak into the microphone to say, “Help children like me.”  It was cute, for sure, but I do not believe there was any need for him to parade his child around and use her for his cause.  In 10 or 15 years, when she can speak for herself, that will be a different story.  But…maybe then she won’t bring quite the same cuteness factor onto the table.  Perhaps Tony is just a good salesman, but somehow I think I would have had less of a problem with the whole thing if he had just shown a picture of his daughter rather then handing her the microphone.

Then he asked the audience something along the lines of, “Do you believe God is calling you to be in mission?” (Who could say no?)  And the response was, “If so, then go down to Holt International‘s table and pick out a child to sponsor.  We’re trying to sponsor 200 children tonight.”  All these good, dutiful youth then streamed down to the table, ready to pick out a cute child.  Which is not the end of the world, I guess.  But I am puzzled by their choice of charities to support.  While I am aware of problems inherent in Charity Navigator‘s star-ranking system, I think it is worth noting that Holt International has only received two out of four stars and is not even included in several other ranking sites, such as the American Institute of Philanthropy.   Again, if Winter Jam is promoting excellence in all things Christian, then I believe they have the duty to think critically about the mission organization which they choose to promote.  And, I know this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I sure would love to see an event go deeper than “pick out a child that looks cute” and instead to engage deeper issues of philanthropy and mission.

Fortunately for us, the second half of the concert made up for the shortcomings of the beginning.  Tenth Avenue North was excellent, both in their music and their message.  Their songs all seem to speak to a deep sense of grace and healing, and I have continued listening to their CDs this morning :).   And the lead singer of Third Day came across as surprisingly authentic, recognizing the overwhelming consumerist nature of an event like Winter Jam while attempting to go deeper and challenge the audience to see into the heart that inspired their music.

As we left the Century Tel center and headed toward the bus, we were surprised by snow!  I guess, on the eve of spring, Winter Jam brought some winter weather to Louisiana!

Here’s some of our group on Saturday night: