Session 1: More Than Service Projects

In this first session I share some of my story of growing into a fuller understanding of what it actually means for a community to live “on mission” together.

CAVEAT: The content below was originally written before the pandemic, so please apply it with wisdom and discernment.

When I first started living on mission, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. All I knew was the community was very welcoming, and the mission was exciting. My imagination was captured by a bigger vision for what life, faith, and ministry could be.

I wanted to lean into it, but it wasn’t long before I saw the cracks in the community, I was part of. Sometime latter I came to realise that we all see the world through a certain perspective, and these old paradigms kept rearing their heads. Quite a few times, I walked toward what looked like an open door, but broke my nose running into the glass!

Telling people to live on mission

My wife was the rector of an Anglican church and I was on the leadership. As we set out, our team was full of new thoughts and idealism. Our church certainly was rooted historically and liturgically. All good and necessary things!

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. Our telling people how to live on mission wasn’t producing people who knew how to live on mission.

Service projects to the rescue

It was not too long before we came to realise, we needed to set up examples of living on mission. We needed something concrete. We needed service projects.

This was not new, the church had served the community in the past, but maybe we needed to do more to learn how to connect with the community.

Amongst other things we set up a weekly community meal, a much-appreciated service in the community, and we had lots of people attending. It was well regarded and a success by all intention purposes. But after a while we realized that growth was not happening. Participants were not being transformed, and I myself was not really growing. I had just as much frustration when things did not work as I ever had.

Now that we had a scheduled event on the calendar every week, “life on mission” had become just another item on the to-do list.

These events were not necessarily bad things for us to do, it was great to be out in the community serving others and doing good. But we noticed we had started thinking about “life on mission” in the same category as mowing the lawn or picking up takeout for dinner.

It wasn’t really a life on mission, it was events of mission.

You see the same kind of thing with charitable giving. Instead of really seeking to bring holistic flourishing to people, doing the hard work of discovering what will actually help, it’s easy to just send some money somewhere to relieve your anxiety about being more well-off than others.

I’m not at all 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 our anxiety or moving us into mission?

You see, I am talking about developing our village, seeking the holistic flourishing of the people we are on mission to. Is ‘life on mission’ even possible? Does it exist, and if it does what is it?

How to move forward: from projects to posture

Through much effort, and even a little conflict and stress, Jen and I moved from identifying life on mission with service projects to something more holistic and all-encompassing.

How did this happen? I would love to say we have 3 neat steps you need to follow, but normally it’s a messy process.

1. In the midst of some situation or crisis, name the problem.

Perhaps it’s a service project that does not meet the goal of seeing consistent transformation. Perhaps it’s a crisis in ministry or family, some conflict that cannot be resolved. Maybe even discontentment with where we are at. There are many reasons.

For us, we owned the fact that our weekly service projects had become a way for us to relieve our missional anxiety, but we lacked any understanding of how to see people’s lives transformed.

We talked about it with the other leaders, and for the most part we just come up with more community projects. Again, these were not bad ideas, we kept connecting with the community as best as we could.

But what Jen and I had done was name the reality, we had named what was not working, even though we didn’t know what the solution was yet.

2. Look for relationships forming.

After naming the problem and discussing it at length not really knowing what to do, we were naturally moved to look for a solution.

All humans are change agents; we love to change things. Many of us who are leaders have this illusion of changing the whole world, and often we think we have the answer for far more than we really do. So, we were moved to look for a solution, something we could change.

Now instead of planning more service projects because that was not working for us, we focused on where we were at. For us, having young children and living in a small town, our daily community was elementary school. We started cultivating relationships and started the hard work of identifying life. The ups, the downs, the conflicts and the celebrations.

3. Follow the grace

It was pretty quick that we found ourselves in the midst of life.

Mission isn’t “doing stuff for God,” it’s joining God in His work. So, when we noticed something He is doing, we focused our resources and energy into it. We call that “following the grace.”

And the beauty of engaging with families in their day-to-day life, is you see the ups and downs fairly quickly. This was not a scheduled event where you see the best version of those around you. Instead, you get to see the frustration and the big emotions. You see the conflict and the times of joy. You see the deep connection of bonding between parents and children.

I remember one couple coming to us to seek advise on how to amicably separate so as to parent their child well through this transition. We were way out of our depth, but we had found where God was at work, and we had lots to learn to understand how to join in.

So, we followed the grace. We transitioned into focusing our resources and energy into the neighborhood around us. Specifically, we focused on the families of peace. That’s where God was at work, so that’s where we began our work. What we learned is that life on mission is much more than service projects. It’s learning to pay attention to what is going on in your family, your neighborhood, your relationships at work, where ever you find yourself.

It’s paying attention and then participating in this life. This is the essence of the village, it is to participate in the transformation, the miracle of humanity unfolding amongst us all.

Life on mission means every part of our life getting caught up in God’s life and 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. This participation is what we will explore over the coming blog posts.

(Just one more disclaimer: I really do like service projects! But these are not the end-all, be-all of what it means to live on mission. Let’s move into joining God in his work in every aspect of our lives!)

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