Incarnational Practice 5: Volunteering (instead of starting new programs)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 12, 2005

Most urban areas have social service organizations in place. I suggest you volunteer with them instead of starting church programs–at least early on in the life of your church.  In the West Bank, there are over a dozen organizations that will take volunteers.  When we started, we tried to do our own ESL program.  It didn’t work like we wanted.  I’m realizing now that it would have been better to put our energy towards volunteering at existing ESL courses.  When we volunteer, we submit to the service organizations–yielding to their agenda instead of forcing our own.  In that place, we can begin to make relationships with people.  As we meet people and get to know them, we have the opportunity to take that friendship outside of the volunteer organization.  As we find out more of their needs, then we may try to serve them as a church. 

The basic idea is this: utilize existing structures.  Build relationships within the existing systems.  Social services provide a great way for you to meet people (both volunteers and those with needs) without having to put alot of time and energy into planning.  You get the benefit of meeting people by simply volunteering.  And you will grow in your understanding of the people you want to serve.  Plus, you are helping people.  And too many churches don’t do enough of that.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that a church should never start programs.  A church may be obligated to do so because there is a profoundly unmet need.  Or you may be led to do so; these are simply suggestions to help you think through being incarnational, not hard-and-fast rules.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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