As a full time MDiv student I spend much of my time hidden behind my laptop and a pile of books and journal articles. I debate and defend theology with other students, wrestle with Greek and Hebrew, and receive instruction on topics from church administration through to effective communication techniques; I even have classes specifically devoted to my spiritual formation. But even with such a holistic theological education I have found there are many things that just cannot be learnt about the Christian life from the seminary classroom, or the church sanctuary. Some of these lessons are assumed, and others are overlooked, whilst with some the theory is mentioned, but the lesson never truly learnt or understood. To learn these lessons we have to go somewhere else.
For me that somewhere else has become the streets of my local town doing Kindness Outreaches. I have to admit that this was never something I started off doing with the aim of educating myself, it was all about the people I was serving, and it still is, but no matter how much I think I know, I always seem to learn something new every time I go out onto the streets to serve. So without much more ado, here are some things that Servant Evangelism has taught me…and seminary hasn’t.
1. People long to be loved
I have lost count now of the number of people that I have gone up to during Kindness Outreaches and the response has been either dumbstruck faces or tears. Smiles are certainly the most common response I have had though. One time I was out doing a Kindness Outreach with my wife, giving away popcorn to people at work. She wandered into one of the businesses and on this occasion I hung around just outside the store looking through the glass store front (I think that this was only my second time doing Kindness Outreach and I was still terrified back then). As my wife walked out of the store, having given away the popcorn, the single employee, who had been sat looking very bored and lonely in an empty shop, had a huge smile across her face. I think that we had just made her day.
This may seem like something that should be so fundamentally understood by Christians: that our love is not just needed, but also wanted. All too often, though, I think that we assume this is so fundamental to how the Christian should think that we overlook it. During my time at seminary I have been a part of several discussions that have looked at church growth, development and issues surrounding the supposed “consumer congregation,” but within these talks it seems that the idea of a church growing by actively going out and loving its local community is often overlooked, apparently we just don’t seem to think that love is what the “consumer congregation” wants. But Kindness Outreach has taught me that love is exactly what people want.
2. Community is alive and well
Once, back in October, a few of us took a truck filled with pumpkins around some of the apartment blocks in my town. We pulled up to the first block of apartments and started talking to a group of teens stood in the parking lot, they we’re eager to take some pumpkins. Then a remarkable thing happened: children started pouring out of the woodwork from all over the estate and formed quite a crowd around the truck as we handed out the pumpkins. Within a few moments the truck went from bursting full to half empty. We had managed to serve an entire complex and knocked on a total of one door. Instead the community had done the work for us, the children had been running from apartment to apartment, telling all their friends and family about the people giving away free pumpkins, and as more people found out they in turn told more people until the whole complex was aware of our presence.
I see this sort of community spirit a lot whilst I am out serving the community, perhaps most often when I am around giving out bags of food to those who need it. As I start talking to people I often ask if they know anyone else who is in need of some free food, and whilst sometimes the person shrugs their shoulders, more often than not the person steps out of the doorway and starts pointing to other houses in the street.
3. We are part of a single catholic church
When I was out serving with free bags of food the other day something happened that I did not expect. I was in a rundown trailer park and knocked on the door of one of the trailers, holding my breath that the fragile construction would not collapse as I knocked. A little old lady answered the door, her arms filled with food. She had seen what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it and so stuffed a ton more food into the bags that we were carrying. This little, old lady was not part of our church, or even our denomination, but as we explained to her what we were doing she was still excited to help out. In that moment our slightly different takes on theology were irrelevant, for the both of us our theology did not need to go any further than “We love because God first loved us.”
People from all sorts of backgrounds and denominations go out to do Servant Evangelism: Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and many others. We have all at times debated and fought over our theologies, and being at a multi-denominational seminary I sometimes find myself focusing more upon how we differ than how we are alike. But when I am on that doorstep doing Kindness Outreach, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if my companion for the day was from a different denomination, for at that moment we need to go no further than “We love because God first loved us.” And surely we, as the church, can at least agree on that much.
4. And finally…
Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learnt from doing Kindness Outreach, however, is one that arises out of all my outreach experiences. It arises out of the fact that people need to be loved, it arises out of the fact that community is still important, it arises out of the church being able to stand as a unified whole, and it arises from every door that I have stepped up to and God has used me to make a positive difference in somebody’s life: that there is hope for the church today. Kindness Outreach has shown me that there is a way for us to effectively shine Christ’s light to the world and, that through us Christ can impact the lives of countless people. All that needs to be done is for us to get out there and serve.