Why Service Projects Won’t Make Your Church Missional

service projects V3 2016 ben sternke

When I first was captured by the idea of missional church, I started by coordinating service projects. Mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing. My imagination had been captured by a bigger vision for what life, faith, and ministry could be, but I didn’t know how to get started moving in that direction.

Telling People to Live on Mission

My wife and I were planting a church at the time. Full of new thoughts and idealism, we started a missional church. We were going to do things differently. I had absorbed new thinking about mission and discipleship. I was steeped in Willard, Wright, Hirsch, Guder, Newbigin, et al. My preaching changed because my thinking had changed. All good changes!

The problem was that there was a lack of connection between the “in here” of our church and the “out there” of our engagement with our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. My new missional preaching wasn’t resulting in missional living—for my church or myself!

yellingTelling people they had permission to live on mission wasn’t producing people who actually knew how to live on mission.

Service Projects to the Rescue

We realized that people would never really learn to live on mission until they had an example to imitate, and it was difficult to admit that we weren’t a very good example of life on mission at that point. Not much had really changed in the way we were engaging with our neighbors and friends.

So we started with something concrete, something we could measure. Something that seemed pretty missional: service projects. We raked leaves. We cleaned up parks. We facilitated game nights for the local women’s and children’s homeless shelter. Once a month, we were out in the community serving

But we started noticing something disturbing: Now that we had a scheduled event on the calendar every month, “life on mission” had become just another item on the to-do list. The service projects weren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, but we noticed that “life on mission” had become an item to check off the list, like mowing the lawn or picking up the dry cleaning.

It wasn’t really a life on mission, it was episodes of mission. The most insidious part was that it was so easy to convince ourselves we were living on mission, because look, there it is on the calendar!

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Living on Mission or Relieving Missional Anxiety?

I’m not trying to bash service projects per se, but service projects can easily become a way for us to relieve our missional anxiety rather than become a true doorway into life on mission. Even worse, service projects can devolve into self-congratulatory We’re Awesome festivals, where we essentially pat ourselves on the back for being so generous. Ironically, this further entrenches us in ways of thinking and being that keep us far away from life on mission.

I’m not saying we should immediately halt all service projects. I am saying we need to ask what these service projects are really doing for us. Are they relieving missional anxiety or actually moving us into mission?

How to Move Forward: From Projects to Posture

Eventually we turned a corner in our church plant. We moved from “doing service projects” to really living on mission.

Here’s how we did it. 

1. Name the Problem

First, we simply recognized and named the problem with our service projects. We owned the fact that our monthly service projects had become a way for us to relieve our missional anxiety and “prove” we were a “real” missional church. We talked about this with our leaders and mentioned it to those who were coaching and mentoring us.

One of the most important things leaders do is name reality. Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s not working, even if you don’t know what the solution is yet.

2. Look for a Person of Peace

After naming the problem, praying about it, and discussing it with others, we realized that we needed to learn how to pay closer attention to what God was already doing.

How?

By look for a person of peace. Instead of planning a different service project each month, we decided to focus on consistent presence in one place. In our case, this was a homeless shelter for women and their children. And instead of just planning and executing our monthly event, we started using the monthly event to cultivate relationships and look for people of peace (because this indicates where God is at work).

3. Follow the Grace

Finally, once we recognized where God was at work, we followed the grace.

Mission isn’t “doing stuff for God,” it’s joining God in his work. So when we notice something he is doing, we focus resources and energy there. We call that “following the grace.”

For awhile, we had several people of peace at the homeless shelter, families we would see regularly and with whom we developed relationships. However, because of the transient nature of the shelter, eventually all of our people of peace moved on to transitional housing and we lost touch with them.

I remember facilitating a game night where we realized almost everyone there was new to us, and nobody was all that interested in developing a relationship. No more people of peace! What now?

Grace in a New Space

In the meantime, some of our leaders had begun to host a weekly informal drop-in meal at their home, and we found a new person of peace. We followed the grace. We dropped our monthly service project and started focusing resources and energy into that neighborhood. That’s where God was at work, so that’s where we began to work. And that’s another story I’ll have to share some other time.

In the end, what we learned was that life on mission is much more than service projects…

Life on mission is really an identity we embrace that leads us into a whole-life vocation. 

Life on mission is learning to pay attention to what God is doing in your family, your neighborhood, your relationships at work, and in the church. 

Life on mission is beginning to live in the kingdom of God now. It’s moving toward new creation today. It’s following Jesus into a new way of living, a new way of being human. 

Life on mission is having every part of our life caught up in God’s life/activity here and now. It’s what we were made for!

And honestly, it’s way more interesting and exciting than a monthly service project.

30 Days to Kickstart Your Life on Mission

This is one of the most common issues that come up for the leaders we coach through Gravity Leadership: People get a vision for an integrated life on mission, but they don’t know how to get started.

That’s why we’ve created 30 Days to Kickstart Your Life On Mission, an online course designed to help you overcome the resistance that keeps you from joining Jesus on mission every day.

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It’s 30 days of short videos, worksheets, and mini-assignments that help you get moving into an actual life on mission in your neighborhood and relational network.

Going from “mission as programs” to “life as mission” is one of the most significant transformations any leader can makeand we’ve distilled best practices from decades of combined wisdom to you get started.

Normally the course is $97, but we’re offering it to V3 readers for $67 until Sunday November 20.

If you’re imagination has been impacted by missional thinking but your life is lagging behind just a bit, I’d encourage you to take the plunge and kick-start your life on mission.

Start the Course Today

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Ben Sternke
Ben is a church planter who also trains, coaches and consults with leaders to help them build Jesus-shaped cultures in their churches, communities, homes, and businesses using simple, reproducible tools that are proven, practical, and powerful. He does this locally through a church he is planting in Indianapolis called The Table, and more widely through an organization he co-founded called Gravity Leadership. He also writes at bensternke.com. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife and kids.
Ben Sternke

1 Comment

  1. Marc Feb 24, 2017 Reply

    Ben, thanks for your insights. Besides being more missional, I’m curious to know what were the outcomes of being directed by a rule of using the presence of persons of peace to determine where you would focus your ministry?

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