Dorcas. Community Services. Outreach Ministry. It has many names throughout our churches. And it often gets a bad reputation. This important department (if it even exists in your church) is often trivialized. In many congregations, bringing up community service evokes thoughts of a group of elderly women, working in some cramped corner of the church, sorting discarded clothes to give to those in need. Maybe they give out food too. Definitely not the most exciting images.
In some churches, in reaction to that image of outreach, people have abandoned those old fashioned tropes and re-imagined community services in a new way. Perhaps your congregation did a neighborhood felt needs inventory a while back. And the idea of serving the surrounding area became reinvigorated with new ideas about how to serve. At least for a time.
Or maybe to capture the zeitgeist, your church tried to find out what the exciting new project was. For a while, the importance of combating sex trafficking captured the national consciousness. Workshops and ministries in several congregations sprang up to help exploited kidnapping victims. Or perhaps your church was involved in workforce training. People in the community need to learn job skills so your church had programs for resume building. For a few months. Or maybe you had a children’s tutoring ministry. Or maybe, with the attention garnered by Nipsey Hussle’s death, you have wondered, “why can’t our church do that?” In part the “that”, which he was engaged in was, interestingly, giving away clothes to those in need from his neighborhood.
I’ve often engaged in conversations with Adventist clergy and laity alike lamenting why we can’t be as “relevant” as congregations in other denominations. And I have had conversations with Christians of other denominations who are dismayed, wondering why Christian churches can’t be more relevant, period. Here’s the thing, though. Everyone is so caught up in what someone else is doing, we don’t really build up and strengthen our own niche.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church made headlines recently for bailing out impoverished people who were in jail awaiting trial. Many don’t realize that in the United States 2 out of 3 incarcerated people have not been found guilty of any crime. They are just too poor to pay bail to await their trial at home. Many of them often wait in jail for inhumanely inordinate amounts of time (sometimes years) to be tried for petty crimes and misdemeanors that they are eventually found not guilty of. This happened to the young teenager Kalief Browder who was jailed in Riker’s Island for years while waiting trial for stealing a backpack. After 3 years he was able to go home without ever having a trial, because the prosecutors realized they didn’t have enough evidence. Staying in a rough facility like Riker’s is mentally taxing. The slim 16 year old was physically and sexually abused in jail. Two years were spent in solitary confinement which only added to the emotional exhaustion. And knowing his innocence throughout those years made him even more distraught. Kalief was eventually released, shortly after which, he took his own life. Kalief’s story is far from the only one. Bail out programs do important work. After New Birth’s headlines, a pastor friend inquired how his church could be involved. He was disappointed that our denomination hadn’t gotten on the bandwagon earlier.
While it’s a human tendency to react viscerally to emotional stories, we don’t maximize our resources by continually jumping to the next big thing. If a church wants to be involved in bail out ministries, that’s awesome. If they want to deal with disaster response or re-entry programs, those are all noble and worthy causes. And if you have a big enough church, it’s possible to conduct several ministries at the same time. But I must stress, “big enough”. There needs to be a large enough base of volunteers to commit to: 1) doing a ministry well; and 2) doing it for the long haul. There are many needs. Yet we can do more harm than good when we make a big splash and leave to chase after the next flashy cause.
People look down on the older sisters sorting clothes. But at least they know what it means to be steadfast. They have stayed the course for years and are consistent. What many of our Dorcas ministries could use is an influx of volunteer help and strategic planning to maximize efficiency and reach. The concept doesn’t need to be scrapped totally. On the other hand, many ministry projects that often attract young adults are event driven one-offs. They rightfully focus on important work. And they are often well organized. But the downfall is the lack of consistency. “Let’s go paint the women’s shelter!” And then we’re never heard from again. “Let’s feed the homeless at Thanksgiving”, as if that food will last until next November. It’s fine to do periodic ministry, as long as we are systematic and connected to those communities afterwards. New Birth made headlines with a huge one-time influx of money towards bail outs, but they aren’t the first. Many organizations do this year round with smaller amounts, so they may not get the same publicity. I hope New Birth continues to help and this isn’t simply a one-time thing. Because a continual presence is what’s impactful. It may not always garner the same accolades, but that’s how organizations make a true difference. Not following the latest trend every time it changes, but finding an area of impact and sticking with it.
One of the most notable ministries I am familiar with in Adventism is Re:Live in Redlands, CA. This is a Loma Linda University Church run thrift shop, in a model akin to Goodwill. It may not get a lot of international attention, but it is effectively run and has been a stable presence. ADRA, similarly, is good at what they do, and have done it for the long haul. They can meaningfully coordinate with other NGO’s because of demonstrated stability.
We can be relevant. But it takes commitment. And it may not always be trendy. Nor may it always get applause. But nevertheless, we help others not to be revered by humans, but because we are doing God’s work on earth (Matthew 25:31-46). There are many innovative ways to serve. But whatever we choose, let’s be committed to do it well and do it for the long haul.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
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