I just got off the phone with a dear friend who has been doing urban work for nearly three decades. For both of us, it was our off day and we were sitting around the house sipping coffee, unwinding from pretty busy weekends of ministry. I called to ask Nancy a bit about developing ministry in the city and the tension that I’ve been feeling between building relationships versus starting ministry programs. Three or four days a week, Charity and I end up visiting families in the neighborhood, deepening trust and friendship. Many of those days visitors pop in at our house at random times keeping us pretty well surrounded by continuous relationship building.
During our call I was venting a bit on how to best establish collaborative ministry amongst different groups, how to get people to work well together, how long to wait to pull the trigger on larger ministry projects and Nancy reminded me that sometimes sitting on the porch and chatting with neighbors is the most strategic and necessary thing we could possibly be doing with our time. We have all seen ministries that charge ahead with program after program but in the end are left wondering how deep-rooted relationships slipped from their grasp. The tension of walking between both of those worlds is real.
My weekends find me teaching four different groups of students with initiatives ranging from Sunday school, to youth group, to conversational English. We have some very big projects in the planning phase and these are the sorts of things donors and people on the outside get excited about. But man, it is really us showing up at neighbors houses in the evening and staying for 2-3 hours at a time that brings the most joy, encouragement, and energy to our neighbors. Sometimes the best thing we can do in ministry is to block out all the noise, block out the need to be recognized by those from the outside, block out the buzz that comes from the intoxication of power and ministry success evidenced by big donations and fancy programs. Thinking through what those all around us really need or want are questions I never want to pass over.
We’ve planted churches, started community centers, run ESL programs – all of those are extremely necessary in urban work. I’m not against those things, especially the establishment of local multiplying churches. But, our neighborhoods will probably survive without those programs. I’m not sure our neighborhood will survive though without friendship rooted in the beauty of the Gospel. Without relationships, there is simply no foundation for anything else we say or do.
I’m wondering today if start-up ministries and churches should advise a much more extensive requirement on building relationships before rushing into anything else they do in ministry. The complaints I have often heard are that mission donors and churches are expecting results, more bang for their buck so we need to start initiatives quickly. I can’t say how representative that is or if that pressure is real but if relational focus is short-circuited, what will really come in the long run?
So today I rest. I rest in Jesus and His friendship in my life. I will start afresh tomorrow to again continue to deepen trust and relationship with those around me. Sometimes a phone call on your off day reframes things and the pieces come together. Thankful for this Monday of rest.