Lessons Learnt from Service Projects
Part of Soul Survivor’s DNA is to put our faith into action by serving people in practical ways. As Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve”, we too want to put time and energy into serving others, and in doing so reflect the love of Jesus. We encourage this in our individual lives, and we also sometimes organise ‘service projects’ where we join forces and serve people together. In our eighteen years of doing this, we’ve seen God move in powerful ways through service projects. Having been involved in many of these, I can testify that my own faith has grown and been sharpened through these experiences. At the same time, I will freely admit that I’ve made mistakes along the way! There are things we’ve learnt that may be helpful to you as you run your own service projects.
We don’t have in the Bible a specific roadmap for how to run a service project. We have in Jesus a model of what it means to be a servant, and we have the example of the early church looking to the needs of others. We take these principles and apply them to where we are now - how can we, as the body of Christ here in this neighbourhood, serve those around us according to what they need?
Our needs or their needs?
We’ve learnt that we need to examine whether the project is actually meeting their real needs, or is it actually more about fulfilling our own need to feel like we’re doing something?
I once led a project that was around the time of Mother’s Day, and as part of it we put together little ‘gift packs’ for mums, and went door to door in our neighbourhood giving them to any mums that answered the door. While well-intentioned, with hindsight I can see that we were unwittingly carrying out a project that was more about ‘us’ than the ‘mums’. Handing out gifts made us feel good! If I’d been more thoughtful in considering how to really bless mums on Mothers’ Day, I think we could have spent our time and resources differently. We could have asked local charities or schools if there were kids that wanted to give their mums a gift but didn’t have the means to do so, and we could have used our chocolate-and-soaps budget to give the kids something that they could give themselves. We would have missed out on being the ‘heroes’ delivering gifts door-to-door, but the greater need would have been served. Rather than just making us feel good, we would be genuinely demonstrating Jesus’ love through generosity, regardless of whether or not we received personal thanks or credit.
If you build it… they still might not come!
We’re learnt that simply organising an event isn’t enough to connect with a community. Among the list of ideas at nearly every servant-evangelism-brainstorming-meeting is to run a free community event. These can be fantastic; I’ve seen first-hand a happy hub of activity at a face-painting booth in a country town, a gradual building of relationships through a weekly sausage sizzle at a skatepark and a steady stream of locals wandering through a neighbourhood fete. But some of us have probably also experienced standing on an oval with our
best “I’m-loving-you-in-the-name-of-Jesus” smile, waiting for someone, anyone, to show up!
Simple putting on an event doesn’t guarantee people will show up. If we really want to bless the community we need to ask hard questions: Is this something the community actually want? Do we know these people, and if not should we try to spend time getting to know them before we put on an event for them? How we will advertise this in a way people will actually see the advertisements and want to come? The face-painting booth in the country town worked because the team knew their community well through their ongoing weekly ministries, and knew the location well so that they could set up in the best possible place. The weekly sausage sizzle worked because it was consistent over time, turning up even when they didn’t feel like it to gradually build a sense of familiarity and safety. The neighbourhood fete worked because they advertised well and had things people actually wanted like good quality free food and and a jumping castle. By asking good questions before organising an event, we will hopefully reduce how often we find ourselves standing on an oval alone!
See the people, not just the project
We’ve learnt the importance of seeing people like Jesus did. When Jesus walked the earth we’re told He “saw” the crowds, had compassion on them, and then began to teach and to heal. He saw people, not just a bunch of problems to be solved.
Once as a teenager on a summer camp (not Soul Survivor), my fellow campers and I paused our sailboat ride to help another sailor who was stuck on a sandbank. We were on a high from spending a day on a service project, and jumped off our boat to energetically help our fellow seafarer, then jumped back onto our boat again. One of my fellow campers, giddy with evangelistic enthusiasm, yelled out “Jesus loves you!” as we sailed away. While I don’t believe God frowned at our efforts to serve in this situation, looking back I realise that I remember what we did but have no recollection of the actual sailor. In my enthusiasm to serve, I saw the project but not the person. The sailor no doubt appreciated our help. But did we really “see” him like Jesus would have done? And if not, did he really experience the love of Jesus through the body of Christ?
In the service projects that we organise, are we allowing time, space and opportunity for the volunteers to “see” the people they are serving? It may not always be possible or appropriate to meet directly, but are we at least telling the personal story? By “seeing” the people and not just the project, we’re getting closer to serving like Jesus did.
We’re still learning how to best serve people in practical ways. We’ll probably keep making mistakes! But with each service project we pray that God will use our hands, our time, our skills and our resources to demonstrate His love to the world.◼︎