A few years ago I began to try and figure out a way to get our students more involved in helping the poor and needy in our community. I began asking around and doing a little online research about some places for our students to get plugged in. We did everything from once a month trips, to serving meals at homeless shelters, to trash pick-ups in inner-city neighborhoods, to working on houses through our local Baptist Association. I stumbled and bumbled my way through all of them trying to figure out the best place to get our students plugged in. The problem with my search was I was focused on finding things for our students to do.When we served meals at the shelter I wanted there to be enough jobs to go around for all the students so they didn't feel like they were wasting their time. When we worked on houses I wanted to make sure there was enough work to go around so no one would be bored. I was consumed with organizing projects. So much so that I missed a crucial aspect of helping those less fortunate that us.
What was that crucial aspect? The need for relationships.
For a little over a year now, a group from our church has been investing in the lives of men and women in inner-city Birmingham. The funny thing is that it all started as a project for our students to get involved in. Last December I was talking to a friend of mine about doing something with the students to help provide some blankets, sleeping bags, coats, and other warm clothing to the homeless. We gathered all these items up and headed downtown one afternoon in early January. We took some hot chocolate and snacks with us and started passing out the clothes and food to everyone who stopped by. God moved in our hearts. We knew we didn't want this to be just another one time project that made us feel like we did our good deed for the day. So we went back and hung out some more. And we kept going back, building relationships with the people we were serving. You see, one of the main things each of these individuals was missing in their lives were meaningful, Christ-centered relationships. They had people serving them meals and handing out clothes to them all the time. But they didn't have anyone investing in their lives and caring about them as people. This changed my whole paradigm for what I wanted our students (and myself) to be involved in. Too often our framework for serving others is to do projects or events. It's hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we can, in fact, build long-term relationships with the poor and needy in our cities. We don't have to just share Christ with them once and retreat back to our safe environments. We can show them His love over and over again by pouring into them. But here's the deal: doing projects is a lot easier than building long-term relationships. A trip to a shelter every now and then is quick, easy, and clean. Building a relationship with someone that is desperate, in every sense of the word, is time consuming, hard, and extremely messy. But if our desire is to see life-change, we have to get our hands dirty and pour into people on a regular basis. Projects are important because it's the avenue through which God often grips people's hearts to go deeper. But we can't just stick with projects!If we just stick with doing projects, then we quickly become a mile wide and an inch deep. Life-change happens when Christ's followers pour their lives into others, share and show them the love of Christ, and hopefully have the opportunity to disciple them in their walk with Christ. How you approach this with your students is going to depend a lot on where they're at right now. Maybe this is so foreign to them that you need to start with some projects just to open their minds up to what is going on around them. If you're in a place where you've been doing a lot, but not investing in people consistently, it might be time to sit back and figure out how you transition from projects to relationship building.
Ask yourself this question: How can we move beyond the project-based model to more of a relationship-based approach?
My encouragement is for you to find a place you can plug in and see the same people on a consistent basis. This will give you and your students the opportunity to sit, talk with, and listen to the people you're ministering to. You won't be forced to cram everything you want to say to the person into one 10-minute conversation because your plan is to keep coming back and investing in them on a regular basis. Relationships are complex, messy, and have their ups and downs. But, traveling that road with someone and investing in their life over the long haul will have such a greater impact than a one-time weekend project.