My work with Teach One Reach One has me working with a lot of urban ministries and mission fields. When I meet a new group, one of the first things I ask is what challenges they face. Inevitably, one of the things I hear is the groups that come in to serve their ministry are not well prepared to help.
While they acknowledge the groups mean well, often they leave a wake of problems instead of service behind them. There are numerous reasons for this, but one is that the groups come in “knowing” what the people they are about to serve need. While it’s true we all need to be loved and to hear and understand God’s message of redemption, most of the things these groups actually “know” about the people they are about to serve is little to nothing.
There are a lot of ways to help students learn to minister to others more effectively, but one of the most important is teaching them to ask good questions and really listen to the answers. This applies especially to learning what people may really need. Seems a little crazy when you are taking your students to go serve in a soup kitchen. Obviously, the people are hungry. That’s why it’s a soup kitchen. The reality though is so much more complex than that.
To really serve someone and reach them for Jesus, you have got to know that person. Yes, sermons aimed at hundreds and thousands of faceless people have worked since the very beginning. But baptism is only the beginning of the Christian walk. All of those letters in the New Testament show it takes knowing people and their strengths and weaknesses to help them live godly lives. Sometimes, it is important to know them that well to help them get past something that is holding them back from becoming a Christian after hearing that wonderful sermon.
The next time your students go to serve someone, ask the group you are serving if your students can spend time getting to know some of the people they are serving. Before going, spend time working with your class to think of respectful, loving questions that will help your students get to really know the people and their real problems. Questions like “Would you mind telling me what your average day is like?” “What problems do you face on a daily basis?” “What challenges do you have that this program helps?” “What challenges do you have that they can’t meet?” “If you could change one thing in your world, what would it be?” “How do you feel about God and why do you feel that way?”
The trick is to be respectful to the people with whom the students are talking. Have them imagine they are talking to a King or a job interviewer. Remind them this isn’t just a person struggling in life, but a person with a life and a story. A person who needs God even more than he/she needs the physical things you are providing. A person whose life experiences may be creating a barrier that’s making it difficult for them to accept God.
When you return from serving, ask students what they learned. Were the needs they thought were there the actual needs, or did they uncover new information? Did various people have similar stories? Could those similarities reveal a new ministry need that is more important than any current ministry? Can your class think of more effective ways of serving and sharing faith with these people? Did those people teach them something?
That last question may seem strange, but actually it is a crucial piece of being effective in ministry. Those serving need to always remember the people they are serving can teach them as much as they think they can teach them. When your students can begin viewing service as a collaborative effort instead of your class the “experts in life” teaching this person who needs serving (and thus has obviously not mastered life as well as your students), the more effective their serving and faith sharing will be.