This is a true story. One night around 10pm, someone knocked on our door. This is not unusual. His request, however, was a first:
“It’s our toilet. Can Jay come and help unplug our toilet?”
I said no. I told him to use another toilet in his house, and that Jay would be in there the next day.
That instance has become our reference point. We’re available, our door is open, but we don’t always unplug toilets upon request if there’s another available in the house. Further, toilet plunging is a one-time demonstration; after that, everyone needs to learn how to do it independently. But, outside of toilet-plunging at 10, our boundaries are pretty permeable.
Because relational ministry and building bridges means being available. But being available is a little like seeing the low-lying branch up ahead and choosing not to duck. You can’t determine to be available and not expect some pain, inconvenience, fall-out, and serious rearranging of schedule.
Building-bridges doesn’t happen on schedule, and it doesn’t follow a program.
Bridge-builders need to fall in step to God’s rhythm and to be available for relationships as He directs.
As Westerners, one major hurdle for us to clear before we can accept the factor of availability in relationships is this: programs. We’ve become used to programs as a means of relationships and discipleship. Programs are a bit more conceivable with clear objectives and a neat plan. And, programs have good purposes and can be instrumental, without a doubt. At The Bridge, we run some programs, like our weekly Bible studies that happen at a specific time with set curriculum and schedule.
But, I believe bridge-builders have to understand the difference between program-based ministry and relational ministry – and we have to be proficient at navigating between the two. Because program-based ministry isn’t effective in every situation. Some situations call for relationships, embracing the everyday divine, “doing life” within a community, and just plain being available outside programming hours. Here’s what I’ve come up with as key differences between the two:
- Measures of effectiveness :: Program-based ministry focuses on numbers. Relational ministry focuses on stories of transformation.
- Ability to contextualize :: Programs include other cultural backgrounds, if they fit into the set structure. Relational ministry reaches into various cultures/subcultures and engages one by one.
- Strategy :: Programs require planning, coordinating, and carrying out of plans. Relational ministry is less planned; it’s lived. It’s never over. It changes shape, but there is never a “final night.”
- Needs :: Programs ask for budgets and buildings. Relational ministry asks for sufficient team members.
- Method :: Program-based ministry is carried out as separate from one’s everyday life. Relational ministry is everyday life with divine purpose.
- Focus :: Program-based ministry focuses on specializations. Relational ministry is holistic.
- Target :: Program-based ministry is from leaders to a targeted group. Relational ministry doesn’t have a target group; it’s done “with” or “alongside” not “to.”
- Adaptability :: Program-based ministry fits a season and/or specific group. Relational ministry is fluid across time and ages.
For example, after our neighbor’s request, we could’ve launched a program about how to help newcomers deal with the intricacies of toilets. We could’ve set it according to our schedule. Maybe that type of program would’ve pulled in some volunteers for their allotted one-hour/week service, and we could’ve set some objectives and guidelines. But his request was a need that was better met in the context of an on-going relationship – because his plugged toilet was not the only need or even the real issue, as we were aware. A holistic approach was needed for this man and his whole family. In this case, he didn’t need a program to address the symptoms; he needed relationships to heal the root.
Truth is, he, along with many on islands, have needs and contributions that don’t fit into a program and thus aren’t recognized.
And, I believe we, as the Church, have maximized and mastered programs – to the exclusion of living on mission with God-given purpose day in and day out. That unsettles me.
So I’m calling for a balance, and I’m calling for Christians to be proficient at both sides. Could we be available for relationships and embracing the everyday divine – as well as organizing programs when necessary? Yes, it’s possible, and it’s needed.
It starts as we make ourselves available.
Here’s another post on this topic that I wrote in February of 2015:
“Do you have someone who can use some used toys (clothes, TV, etc?) Still works fine and everything; we are just upgrading and needing to clear out some space.”
And, sometimes the above question is followed by:
“I don’t want to just drop it off at (local used goods store). I want to make sure it goes to people who really need it.”
At the ministry of The Bridge, we receive variations of this question regularly. Often, the giver includes a request that we make sure the donation goes to a certain type of recipient, sometimes detailed right down to the age and gender. The intentions seen noble enough.
Why, then, does it leave us with an awkward feeling and a shudder?
The awakening comes after we wrestle through some admittedly tough questions–
While we know your heart is generous and often truly desiring to bless another person, there are some blind spots that easily show up in our materialistic culture. Please understand, I share the following points as just that – points to consider. And, I offer suggestions – not rules or hard facts, but possibilities to create a more positive outcome.
And, please know, all this takes conscious efforts by the dominant culture. The majority rarely has to consider its influence on the minority, whereas the minority is constantly aware of and adjusting to the power of the majority. If you are reading this as part of the majority, then you will typically feel the strain of seeing this situation from another point of view. You may even be surprised by what you haven’t considered. But, please do try.
1. First, please consider – what is your motivation in donating something(s)?
In all honesty, ask yourself why you are donating this used item. It may be to alleviate some guilt surrounding materialism. Or, maybe it’s to teach your children about giving or to make a point about their excessive amount of toys. May I suggest teaching about sacrificial giving and biblical tithing (giving of first fruits) rather than used leftovers?
2. Also, consider why do you have an issue with “just dropping it off at the local used goods store?”
If your motivation is 100% to just clear out junk – does it matter who receives it? Give without strings attached. Let go of controlling the destiny of your leftovers.
3. Finally, is this item useful to others, or only meaningful to you?
For example, it may be alarming for you to conceive of someone living without a TV or Christmas presents or box springs, but your “necessities” may, in fact, be just luxuries for another. Sure, they’ll take it all if you offer it, but the amount of help achieved remains debatable. At worst, it may be enabling.
Now, slip your feet into my shoes, as a leader in a faith-based nonprofit ministry.
Back to the idea of your motivation. If the underlying theme is alleviating your guilt, then suddenly my job description includes “making the wealthy feel better about their materialism.” And, it is often at the expense of those individuals we actually work with. Instead of dealing with your own excess, it is projected onto the recipient (with my assistance) and causes that person a real loss of dignity. Because, honestly – no, not everyone is desperate and overwhelmingly grateful to receive your child’s used stuff toys. Would you be?
And, the role of The Bridge is not the same as a Goodwill store, for example. We affirm such entities in their work, but we simply don’t have the capacity or vision to do the same. Our work is relational; we focus on training and discipleship and friendship, and the introduction of more stuff often complicates rather than blesses.
So, may I make a couple more suggestions?
Please cut the strings and choose to truly bless another (and us) by not putting an impossible task on us – because it’s just plain hard to track down that one “needy” family who needs your black and white TV and then to somehow, awkwardly inform them of the donation.
Instead – and this is a BIG one – whenever possible, please let people have the self-respect to walk into a store and make their purchases at a lower cost. Dignity remains.
From my point of view, I see numerous families living with less than I personally would consider comfortable, and they are content. Somewhere along the line, I recognized my own bias of what meets my standards of “comfortable living,” and I’m learning to not project that onto other people.
Our goal is not simply to raise everyone’s standard of living. We don’t seek to “improve” people, like a project. The mission is not to ensure that all children have presents to open on Christmas or that everyone sleeps on a box spring and mattress; our mission at The Bridge involves valuing individuals, nurturing relationships, and witnessing the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Sometimes this includes an emergency, relief response of getting a family certain items, but rarely – and only within the context of a relationship. Because, overall our goal is not to emphasize the “haves” and “have nots” at all, but to value the whole person and to emphasize his/her potential (not lack) in God’s eyes. Often this happens through the unseen – education, spiritual growth, love, respect, and relationships.
And, while many people in our community may come from very little in terms of physical goods, they actually have a far better understanding of a concept most North Americans crave but can’t attain –-
So, if you truly want to be a blessing and be compassionate, please don’t call or email to ask to drop off your used goods.How to really be a blessing? Give your friendship not your stuff. Click To Tweet
People in our community don’t come to us asking for more things. They desire relationships, connections, and community. They are often lonely and missing their homeland. They struggle to figure out what you could clarify in a few conversations – paperwork, winterizing a house, recommendations of businesses in town, fixing a vehicle, language questions, and more.
You see, mere things don’t fill those empty places. Mere things aren’t friends.
So, when you think of what to give away, glance at your clock rather than around your house.
Invest time. Share life with someone. Meet a new friend, someone with whom you will interact year-round. Build a relationship and make memories. Learn from each other. Invite someone new over to your house. Take time to talk with your neighbors.
Maybe that sounds like a strange concept to you? It is for most of us with strong North American mind sets. But, believe me, your friendship will be a treasure, and your time investment will be valued far above old TVs and stuffed animals.
This month’s series is on being a bridge-builder. In short, it’s about how to be like certain individuals who let God show up in their words and deeds and forever changed our little family. But, it’s not a series about our story; it’s as series about how Redemption made our story useful, even valuable, in a greater story.
If Jay and I know anything about being a bridge-builder, it’s because we were the ones stuck on an island. If we understand anything about the power of meeting people where they are and standing in the gap, it’s because that’s how we were rescued – by God, through average people.