This article is an extract from a longer article entitled "Six Catalytic Service Approaches". The full article can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking here. This article is used by kind permission of the author.
The six churches referred to here were introduced in this article. -- Editor
Albert Schweitzer once said, “I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be truly happy will be those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Here are some common themes that run through most successful service events.
1. Prayer Precedes the Plans
Christian apologist Lee Strobel once said, “Before Jesus would talk to his neighbor about God, he would talk to God about his neighbor.” As your church engages community leaders in conversation of partnering for a service day, prayer should be a key element. “Prayer began with our management team and elders about six months before the campaign started. We bathed the entire project in prayer from the beginning planning stages through casting the vision for our congregation, which included asking them to pray every step of the way,” says Cathy from Parkcrest.
Eric Marsh points to dependence on prayer as the primary credit for the beginning of Hope for Long Beach. “We didn't start out by trying to 'do' many great things for our city. We started with several small groups praying for months about what it would look like for our church to become more externally focused.”
The leadership team of Hope for Long Beach values a life grounded in daily prayer. In addition to this, once a month they begin Grace Brethren Church worship services with a time of focused prayer. “We break up into groups of five or six and pray for specific needs and hopes for our city.”
They also devote time in planning meetings to commit all that they do in prayer to God. “This keeps us grounded in the midst of busyness. We recently added a person to our team who has a gift and heart for prayer. Her role is to remind us to pray, but not to be our 'shaman'. At our last meeting we took an hour to reflect on Psalm 23 through prayer and praise to the Lord for our ministry and the work he is doing in and through us.”
2. Consider Your Current Church Culture During Planning and Implementation
Churches with a strong small group structure already in place should infuse service projects into that existing culture. Pantano, Fellowship Bible Church North and Parkcrest honored their small group cultures. Pantano gave all Life Groups first opportunity to take ownership of a location. “If they do that, we take the location off the public sign up list and let the group have a lot of freedom in making it happen,” says Dave White. Glen Brechner says, “We are trying to regionalize it so small groups in certain geographic areas can serve in their area and develop longer, stronger relationships.”
Parkcrest took the small group to an additional level by including a sermon series, a study and the call to action through service in their 40 Days campaign. “We had a six-week sermon series in which our lead pastor preached on the topics of becoming a servant, engaging culture, learning the heart of God, serving our community, serving in the church, and leaving a legacy that would be discussed in the small groups that week,” shares Cathy. All of the 120 Parkcrest small groups watched a DVD (made in-house) and shared in a discussion of the weekly theme. Small groups were the main vehicle for communicating the service plan. Cathy says, “We provided the groups with a list of projects and agencies although many of them came up with their own ideas.”
Building a church of small groups, often called a “cellular church” and utilizing that structure may well be the most effective long-term externally focused growth strategy available for the future. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and New Yorker columnist, wrote about the amazing influence of Pastor Rick Warren on current church culture and his cellular church structure as a successful model for volunteer involvement and giving to the church. He also cites the work of sociologist Robert Wuthnow in the effectiveness of greater volunteer numbers when they are involved in a small group experience.
Gladwell writes: Membership in a small group is a better predictor of whether people volunteer or give
money than how often they attend church, whether they pray, whether they've had a deep religious experience, or whether they were raised in a Christian home. Social action is not a consequence of belief, in other words. I don't give because I believe in religious charity. I give because I belong to a social structure that enforces an ethic of giving.
'Small groups are networks,' the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who has studied the phenomenon closely, says. 'They create bonds among people. Expose people to needs, provide opportunities for volunteering, and put people in harm's way of being asked to volunteer. That's not to say that being there for worship is not important. But, even in earlier research, I was finding that if people say all the right things about being a believer but aren't involved in some kind of physical social setting that generates interaction, they are just not as likely to volunteer.'
What Gladwell describes above is reminiscent of Paul's writing to the Romans, “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). Like the American Express mantra, small group membership also has its privileges.
3. Develop and Sustain Long-Term Service Opportunities through Partnerships
“I went to the local Substance Abuse Foundation (SAF) and asked how we could help them. They told me their biggest need was mentoring,” shares Cathy from Parkcrest. While that was not necessarily a one-time project opportunity, it turned into a meaningful partnership and personal mission for Cathy. She formed a group to identify and meet the mentorship need. Cathy says the brainstorming and prayer session about the SAF needs, “were the most God-inspired things I've ever been a part of!”
After several months of working with SAF, her team has moved from working on a project to people-on-people ministry with the women at SAF. Many women in the mentoring program now choose to come to church. “When you ask me 10 years from now what I'll be doing, I'll still be doing work with SAF.” This long-term commitment came because of a short-term plan.
4. Equip Volunteer Leadership From Year to Year
“The key is getting the team captain to take ownership at the grassroots level, then empower them—not micromanage them,” encourages Dave White at Pantano. With each monthly vision assignment, Theresa Wisda from Centennial says her team learns more. “In the future, my hope is that all of these assignments are generated by people in the church. They would not be staff-driven, but driven by the body.”
Leadership is often developed when volunteers are able to meet and exceed expectations. To do that, they need clarity. “One thing all volunteers need is a clear idea of the need, what their part is in serving that need, whom they will be working with, and the expected outcomes of their involvement…If you want people's hearts, they need to know what they are exchanging their lives for,” writes Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw in The Externally Focused Church .
Eric Marsh of Hope for Long Beach believes very strongly in leadership development. “One way we are building into the future of Hope for Long Beach is by raising up leaders within the church and providing for them opportunities to get a taste of service and leadership. Younger generations need to be empowered by someone who trusts they can use their talents and gifts for the sake of God's Kingdom.”
Grace Brethren Church has been very intentional about acting on that commitment to leadership development in the spiritual community forming in its corner of the United States. During the summer, Hope for Long Beach offers an extensive internship program to their college students. “Through this fellowship program we expose college students to the hopes and needs of the city and require them to use their passions to bless the city. This enables students to be imaginative in the way they make the vision of our church a reality within their lives. In turn, their enthusiasm grows to infect the church in ways that programs or senior leaders cannot.”
5. Be Open and Flexible to Change and Growth
How are churches improving their great days of service in the future? For Pantano Christian, it is about collaborating ministry goals into one goal for the church. “We are aligning the efforts so that more energy is concentrated into targeted neighborhoods where we would eventually like to see both community transformation and church planting take place,” says Dave White. They are also looking to use technology as a future tool. “We are also working on a web registration program that is simple and facilitates team communication.”
Glen shares that Fellowship Bible Church North would like to see the Love Collin County project partnering with the schools as well as try some large group service projects that can accommodate 100 or more people. “One thing we will also do next time is have a gathering place, prayer and, at the end of the day, a celebration,” he adds.
6. Inspire the People in the Pews by Communicating the Vision
In the book, The Founding Fathers on Leadership , author Donald Phillips writes about the actions necessary to inspire the masses for change in the American Revolution. How did the 13 colonies, with separate and distinct governments, come together? “They turned to those who had the potential to motivate great masses of people in a relatively brief period of time,” writes Phillips. While there were many revolutionaries calling for independence, there was a moment when Thomas Paine, a penniless writer, rose to lead the way by communicating the vision. With his manuscript, Common Sense , Paine “challenged the existing paradigm.”
Paine also made a point of making Common Sense , well, common . He used everyday language and Common Sense was read aloud to people who could not read. “Paine strategically realized that only through plain talk could the great masses of people be mobilized…”
Just as inspiring the people to revolt was no small matter, changing the DNA of a church can seem monumental. One step all the churches profiled here took was to strategically communicate the service event and the vision of serving the community in numerous ways. “If a revolution was going to take place, a great majority of people had to be the catalyst…” writes Phillips.
Communication started with one person or group at a time. In every church, there are certain influencers who will be receptive to and get behind an idea whose time has come. Who are the influencers in your church? What is their perception of community service? When church leaders invest time with influencers, they can help to manage the acceptance and perception of new ideas. As they tell their stories, an increasingly larger group of people will come on board.
At Grace Brethren, communication has been vital as the senior leaders lead the congregation in launching Hope for Long Beach, serving the community alongside nonprofit organizations and partnering with other local churches. Communication flows through sermons and various ministries of the church. “We also have regular announcements about large events, a booth on our plaza after the service with information about all of our partner organizations and a website.”
In order to understand the wide range of ages at Grace Brethren, Hope for Long Beach chose a “coach” for each Sunday School or youth ministry. The coach's role is to inform their class of upcoming events as well as communicate back to Hope for Long Beach the group's interests and questions in regards to being on mission in Long Beach. In addition to the coaches, the vision is communicated through champions”, who are regular volunteers at the church's partnerships. “Champions connect Grace Brethren volunteers with the nonprofits. This has opened numerous opportunities to lead groups in becoming more externally focused. Coaches and champions meet four times a year and are in frequent contact with us in order to mobilize the groups to serve.”
Communication is also visual. A common element of event communication includes logos, pictures, and promotional materials. The Hope for Long Beach initiatives all contain visual elements, such as the Serve Day logo.
For all of their public service events, Dave White from Pantano Church says, “We have five to six weeks of publicity in live announcements, web and paper sign ups and tell lots of stories from these events after they happen.” Communication should not come to a screeching halt when the event is over. “Lots of photos and video are taken for storytelling purposes,” says Dave.
Continue to communicate the service days so the church can share in celebration stories after the event (and those that did not participate can see what they missed).
7. Leadership Is Supportive of the Externally Focused Vision
A vital step to communication is the public support of the day of service from visible leadership. Cathy from Parkcrest says it was critically important that the lead pastor talked about participation in the service projects in his sermons almost every week. “Our service project became the thing to do instead of just an option,” says Cathy.
All churches featured here agree that having top level leadership buy-in is critical, whether it be the senior minister or additional staff members. Dave White of Pantano Church says that in the beginning it was essential, but not as necessary now that the word is out. “We have a teaching team with all pastors demonstrating ownership of these outreach events across the board.”
In working with multiple churches, Eric Marsh agrees that staff leadership buy-in is vital to the success of service events. “As we work with other churches, we constantly hear that the senior leaders need to get on board with the externally focused ideas in order to influence the congregation. We found this to be true at Grace Brethren. Hope for Long Beach began because we have had the support and influence of our staff and leadership.”
8. Remove Barriers to Involvement
“To give people a taste for ministry, your church must increase the number and frequency of drop-in, get your feet wet opportunities,” write Rusaw and Swanson. Busy families need opportunity for connection on the weekends so Centennial's monthly vision assignments always include a family-friendly project to choose. According to the churches profiled here, “Don't leave the kids out of service opportunities!” More families will sign up if they can serve together. Parents may also see the community service projects as a way to impart valuable life lessons to their children. According to the Hope for Long Beach Serve Day training manual, “Kids can make a great addition to the serving team, provided the projects match their maturity and skills. If you're patient and have a little creativity, you can involve your child in any of the kid-friendly projects. You'll know best what project will be a good fit for your family. As a team, you may decide to designate someone to stay with any very young children, so everyone else can be free to serve. No childcare is provided at the Serve Day rally – children are welcome [to participate]!”
People need to engage in activities that produce results and that they can celebrate on the spot. Dave White says that the families of Pantano take time to celebrate with lunch together even after their two-hour Serve Tucson projects.
9. After the Service Day Relax, Review, then Repeat
Aristotle once wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The churches profiled here see the value of repeating their events, either annually or monthly. Churches partnering in the Hope for Long Beach Serve Day are asked to plan follow-up service at each project location. According to the training manual, “In years past, we have found that planning a follow-up project can help solidify a relationship between your church and the organization, business, or person you are serving. It also lets the participants see that the value is in regular service–not just a once a year event.”
10. Dialogue Your Way to a Successful Day of Service
The above examples certainly provide inspiration and a foundation for churches to model. But as Dave Fleming writes, “The simple truth is that it's easier to copy another church's success than it is to dialogue your way to your own.” Rich Henderson, pastor of extension ministries at Blackhawk Church couldn't agree more.
“Not everything everyone else does works. Don't replicate, but use prayer and discernment,” says Rich. Like most ministers Blackhawk staff members are always looking for innovative ministry ideas, but the common phrase that comes up in staff brainstorming sessions is, “That's a great idea. How do we B lackhawk it ?” –meaning, how do we take that ministry innovation and mold it to fit the creative and unique culture in Madison, Wisconsin?
Each church has a unique ministry to provide to the community and a unique church culture to understand. One of the best ways to dialogue to a great service event is to brainstorm using the following list of questions:
- How will we articulate the vision?
- How will we locate the projects and get organized?
- What kinds of projects motivate and excite our people for service? Create a list of projects that are attainable, yet challenging.
- How can we maintain the person-to-person connection during a service day?
- How will we celebrate the successes?
- Not all projects will go as planned. How will we empower people to troubleshoot on the spot?
- Even though we want to be initially successful in the one great day of service, how can we leverage this event to have long-term effects?