Is Your Church Community Service A PR Event?

It was Sunday morning about 4 years ago. Nathan and I awkwardly navigated the packed church lobby, an experience which always reminded me a bit of bumper cars.  I said a few quick “Hi, how are you”s as we collected our kids from their classrooms. We jumped in the car and drove to our favorite post-church lunch destination.

Taco Bell. (Don’t judge. You can get three bags of food for $20 bucks!)

Nathan was driving because the drive-thru ordering process is too stressful for me. My job is to look through the bags and see what they missed. Something is always missed.

Our conversation turned toward discussing the day’s sermon. Our pastor had charged the congregation to go out and serve the community. “Be sure to give them this card,” he added. I turned the card over several times in my hand. It had the name of our church on it and the service times.

I tossed it in the garbage with our unused diablo sauce packets and the plastic sporks. Nathan and I agreed we wouldn’t be handing out the cards.

The problem wasn’t that we were being asked to serve others. The problem was that the cards made this effort feel more like an advertisement than genuine care for others. We agreed that we needed to be more intentional about reaching out, but we didn’t want to make people feel like an assignment.

Church service days and community outreach events can be good things. They are well-intentioned, but if we’re not careful, they can easily send the wrong message.

Sometimes I wonder if some of those community outreach initiatives are simply PR events. 

John Crist’s honest missionary video opens with this statement:

“What the point of serving in a third-world country if people in America don’t know we’re doing it?”

It’s funny because there is a hint of truth in it.

For whose benefit was this? Would we be willing to do these things if our local church didn’t get any credit? What are we communicating to our neighbors by the way we serve?

I don’t want our churches to be like the long-lost friend who finds us on Facebook, and we quickly discover it’s not our friendship they want, but our business.

I think the one-day community service events can be great if we see them as a starting point and not the fulfillment of our duties toward our neighbors.  If we want to send the message that we truly care, it’s going to look more like a long-term relationship.

How can we serve in a way that isn’t about us? I have a few suggestions:

*Partner with a local nonprofit who is already serving the community. If your community already has a fantastic food shelf, don’t recreate one yourself for one day at your church. Support the one already set up which knows the needs and is positioned to effectively serve.

*Adopt your local public school. Yes, go and clean it and paint it on your official outreach day, but don’t stop there. Ask them what ongoing needs they have. Our church sends volunteers moms and dads to have lunch at a local church on the days when parents are invited. They go and sit with the kids whose mom or dad isn’t around or is unable to be there.

*Provide babysitting or driving assistance to the single-parent that lives on the corner.

It’s been a couple years since that conversation after church. I haven’t stopped thinking about it and it started me on an adventure that resulted in something unexpected.

It landed me in General Sessions court. But that’s a story for next week.

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