Christians are doers. We think churches are supposed to be “doing” places. Pastors and church staff are the chief doers but everyone else knows they are supposed to be doers too. We expect churches to have an active approach to mission, to have programs that will enable people of all ages and different life settings to be involved. We worship together, have classes and studies, take care of young children and have activities for older children and teens, put on special concerts, plays, and programs, do service projects in our communities and take mission trips to other places, have fellowship dinners and events, and put together leadership and ministry teams to oversee it all. Of course, it all has to be staffed with volunteer workers.
Before you know it, you have a church full of doers.
We like to think we are doing good things and doing them for people, to serve them, benefit them, bring them to Christ, disciple them, transform them into servants — so they too can be doers who keep the chain going.
That means our default position, the question we instinctively ask, the outlook we bring to every situation is: What can we do? What should we do? What does God want us to do?
All of this is pretty standard operating procedure in the common program-style church. David Fitch, who is trying to help church adopt a more missional approach that goes beyond things that happen in buildings and gets God’s people out into their neighborhoods and world, says the “doing” approach can be a trap even for a missional community. If that sounds like a contradiction to you, I recommend you read Fitch’s wise post, “The Grace to Do Nothing,” in which he suggests that doing nothing may indeed be the best way to go about doing the work of the church.
His words don’t just apply to the specific “missional community” setting in which he lives. I wish pastors and church leaders everywhere would take heed to his counsel.
What does Fitch say?
I will let him set the stage:
We were in the middle of a discussion at one of our missional communities. We were talking about the challenges of being a missional community in the neighborhood and the subject turned to finding “what we are supposed to do next.” How do we locate places of need, situations of distress, places where the “least of these” are where we can devote some of our time and energy for the Kingdom? How about the domestic violence shelter down the street, can we help there? How about a project to help the community rally around improving the park? How do we locate where the needy are so that we can put our resources to work?
As the conversation proceeded, Fitch felt led to say, “Maybe the best thing we can do is nothing.” What was he thinking? Here is the reasoning behind his suggestion:
- Focusing on projects turns people into objects.
- This takes lots of effort and resources.
- It ends up making us feel better about ourselves, but it also reinforces and perpetuates less than desirable structures .
- Thus we end up colonizing people and serving them from positions of power.
- Nothing really changes.
So, opposed to looking for projects, I offered that maybe what we are supposed to do is the opposite: Do (emphasis on:”do”) nothing. Instead, our main task is to be “with” people in and around our lives long enough, years maybe, to listen and become friends, partners in life, sufficient to offer who we are and what we have become in Christ in exchange for their friendship and their support and who they are. These relationships should be characterized by
1. Long term presence within everyday life. Being with people at same place same time each week, hanging out in same places, working alongside them, raising children in the park, sharing resources over long periods of time.
2. Listening, helping and receiving help just as you would any other friend. Developing a mutual vulnerability.
4. Developing trust.
Whether one is discussing how a missional community can be “with” their neighbors or how people in a more traditional style congregation can more effectively live out their vocations in daily life and serve together as partners in congregational mission work, can we please remember that Jesus-shaped living and serving is about building genuine relationships with people, sharing life with them in real settings, and receiving as well as giving, as we learn to be friends and neighbors.
As we do that, we may just find that the things we do together achieve more lasting good.
It is about doing less and being together more, talking less and listening more, initiating less and letting others set the agenda more, organizing less and letting things happen more.
I know this goes against the grain of our anal compulsion to do, to serve, to fix. It also puts a great deal of “ministry” outside the realm of our planning and control, and I realize that is no selling point for most of us who like to be in charge.
Nevertheless I can’t help but think that David Fitch is on to something. Maybe this “church” thing is about life and love and learning, and not just about doing.