When I was younger, I used to go on mission trips or do mission projects, and I really thought I was helping. Maybe I was in some ways. In high school, I went to several inner-city Missions and did various projects and ministries – usually culminating with our epic, behind the sheet drama of Carman’s The Champion (you know what I’m talking about if you were involved in a church in the 90’s). Then in college, I served in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as a summer missionary. During the days, we did ministry at multi-housing apartment complexes in the inner city. Groups would come in and do activities with the kids. I would play basketball with the kids every day. Back then, I was sure that I was having a profound impact – teaching them how to compete without cursing or fighting, showing them Jesus in my actions. Hopefully I was impacting them to some degree. I think I was.
So naturally, when I moved to New Orleans, I was drawn to inner-city missions. I chose Urban Missions as my degree path, and I started to work at Rachel Sims Baptist Mission – an inner-city mission that focused on children and teens. I was ready; I was prepared. I had my basketball in one hand and my sheet in another. And that worked for a while. I had some impact on the kids in the neighborhood on the basketball court. We saw the wonder in the children’s eyes when youth groups would come in and perform skits for them.
But the longer I stayed, the more I realized that not only was God using me to work in the inner-city of New Orleans, but that God was using the inner-city of New Orleans to work on me. Through my seminary classes, through my Scripture readings, and through my interactions with the people of New Orleans, my views on ministry were beginning to change. Because before then, part of my worldview was that the poor, the inner-city, even those of different cultures were in desperate need of help – of my help. I thought that they were doing things all wrong and that I was going to come in and show them the way things should be done. In some ways, I was trying to save them. Now hear me on this, some people who are poor or in the inner-cities, or in different cultures do need help, and some of them do need saving – but that’s Jesus’s job, not mine. And one of the things that I realized was that sometimes I was trying to make them more like me, not more like Jesus. I used to try and get everyone into a great job or to go to college or to at least finish high school. And those things can be great tools. They can be helpful for some people, but I was beginning to realize that those things had nothing to do with whether or not your heart was devoted to Christ.
So I was changing. All this time I thought that I was supposed to be changing other people, but God was actually using them to change me. And soon, I learned another important lesson about ministry to those who are “in need.” You see, I began to realize that up to this point in my life, I had really been doing ministry from afar. Yes, I had gone and done mission projects in high school, but those projects usually lasted a week at the most, sometimes only a few hours. And yes, I had spent a summer playing basketball with kids in an apartment complex, but I wasn’t actually a part of their lives – not really. Now, I am not saying that these were not good things. I think they were. I believe they had some impact. I am not trying to bash short-term missions, but God was beginning to show me that ministry, true ministry – to the poor, to the rich, to those in the country, to those in the city, to whoever – was about relationships. No longer could I minister from afar.
I mean think about it. Think about Jesus. Jesus could have ministered from afar. He could have stayed in heaven and reached down to grant us mercy in our time of need, but he didn’t. No, instead, he came down and became part of our world. He became part of our culture, part of our lives. And no doubt it was messy. It was really messy. Jesus was tempted with sin; he suffered lost. He had people who called upon him only when they needed physical food to eat. He had people who followed him only because they thought he was going to lead a rebellion. He was betrayed by one of his best friends, while all of his other friends denied him in his time of need. And then, he was hung up on a cross and crucified. But Jesus realized that true ministry had to be built upon relationship – no matter how inconvenient those relationships could sometimes be. Jesus did not just minister from afar. He did not just drop off his clothes to the local shelter, or come and serve some food every once in a while, or come to visit for the summer. No, he was actively involved in the lives of his followers.
In fact, Jesus was so involved in the lives of his followers that he would eat with them. Let that sink in for a second – Jesus would eat with them. In other words, he did more than simply serve them food. He did not simply perform an act of mercy and then walk away thinking he had fulfilled his mission. No, Jesus ate with them. He ate with the sinners, with the tax-collectors, with the prostitutes, and with the poor. They would – of all things – invite him over for dinner. And it made the religious leaders furious. If you want to minister to those people that’s fine. Serve them a meal. Throw some money in their cup. Give them some used clothes. But going to their house, eating with them – that’s taking it too far. In doing so, you run the risk of being associated with them. You run the risk of someone thinking you are like “those people.” But Jesus didn’t care. He ministered anyway – despite what the people thought, despite what they said. He had real relationships. He did not minister from a distance. And yes, sometimes those relationships got messy. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes Jesus probably felt like a failure. But he kept pressing on.
Most recently, my ministry has brought me back home to Pineville. And yes, I was once again drawn to inner-city ministry. I was once again drawn to minister to the poor. One day, while I was meeting with some men in the church, one of them suggested that we get a group to go and eat at the Salvation Army. Automatically I fell back into my old self. “Well why don’t we get a group together and go serve there one day,” I said. I’ll never forget his response. “Everyone is always wanting to go and serve from behind the counter,” he said, “but no one ever wants to sit down and eat with us.” Sometimes people simply need someone who is just willing to dine with them.
I’m still trying. I’m still missing the point a lot. I’m still learning, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. But through it all, God is gracious. Through it all, God is still building a relationship with me. He’s coming to eat with me of all people. He doesn’t care that my house is a mess most of the time. He doesn’t care that I can’t cook. He just wants to dine with me. And he wants to dine with you too. All you have to do is invite him in.