Bright and early on a Saturday morning earlier this month, families and couples and teens from our church gathered at the local high school for an event we call Serve Day. When this tradition first started about five years ago, I didn’t understand the concept. Why was this one day designated for service? Shouldn’t we be serving continuously? But, then again, my family was fairly new to the church at that point, and I didn’t know what opportunities existed already for how to serve the church and the community. Back then I wanted a rubric for options and requirements and expectations, and I wanted to fit myself into the work being done and get to know those around me.
For most of my life I’ve attended churches with large congregations, ones where I didn’t know most of the people I was sitting around. At times, some of us sat in the same seats every week and made more of an effort to vary the language we used during the times of greeting or when we exchanged the phrase “peace be with you”. When this happened, I’d grow confident enough to use their names and say hello again, but usually that was as far as the friendship would go.
Several years ago, I was advised by someone in ministry that if I want to get to know people, really get to know them, I needed to do more than show up on Sunday morning. I tried serving with the kids’ ministry, at first teaching two-year-olds and later occasionally subbing in the one-year-old or three-year-old classrooms, but I learned over time that I needed a break from being around small children. I finally allowed myself that break and started seeking out other ministries.
A few years ago I organized a book club for ladies at the church, and for several months while it lasted, we enjoyed discussions around contemporary Christian writers. Last year I sang in the choir during the Christmas Benefit Concerts. These types of things were wonderful while they lasted. They served others, built community and perhaps I will be able to do them again in the future.
But in the absence of participating in any ongoing kind of work through the church, and perhaps as an opportunity to have a change of pace for those who are more plugged into regular service (through ushering, serving communion, worship team, hospitality, youth ministry and admin), a couple of times each year there are big events, chances to get in on a one-day project and come together as a congregation. In the winter, hundreds of attendees invite their friends and neighbors to the annual Christmas Benefit Concerts. In the spring, we run the World Vision’s Global 6K (which I wrote about in May; the race also serves as an entry point for more families to serve through child sponsorship). And this time of year, near the end of the summer, we work to get the high school ready for the upcoming school year.
Recently on that Saturday morning we broke up into teams in order to spruce up the grounds, clean the library and paint a classroom for the upcoming school year. I would have loved to sign up to work in the library (you know that’s my favorite room in any building!), but I opted instead for the more family-friendly option: weeding and mulching the front grounds.
I have a black thumb. Really, weeding and mulching and anything to do with gardening are things usually quite far from my mind. (And if you walk by my house, you can see that’s fairly obvious.) But for church? For our neighbors?
My family arrived on site with a gardening shovel, an adult-sized rake, four kid-sized rakes and an assortment of gardening gloves (which were then fought over) and at least looked the part...before the kids lost interest and my husband and I worked as quickly as we could to make progress in between redirecting our children.
At some point we noticed that we hadn’t had to break up a fight in awhile. We looked around and saw that our children had latched onto another family, parents a little older than us with teenage children, who were tolerating our kids and putting them to work around a hedge about fifty feet away. My husband and I shrugged and enjoyed a few minutes of quiet work while chatting with another parent about his experience at our church.
We couldn’t stay for the entire morning, but we gave it our best effort for about two and a half hours before collecting our kids and our tools and thanking the other family for engaging our kids and thanking the man in charge for distributing kid-friendly snacks.
We gazed across the lawn from the parking lot where we loaded everyone and everything back into our car and felt good about the work we were able to accomplish. The grounds looked improved and inviting, clean and organized. We felt satisfied when the head gardener told us he was happy with the work.
There are some days when I hem and haw about where to put my efforts. Which organization should I donate to? How much? Which organization should I serve with my time? For how long? On a regular basis?
We might not be able to answer those questions, or our answers might change. But I think back to something my pastor Laura Truax said during a sermon at our church in Chicago. She had just returned home from an international mission trip and was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of need in the world. She reminded herself -- as she reminded us all -- that while we likely aren’t able to solve all of the world’s problems, we are called to do something.
That Saturday morning, we did a simple thing. I was grateful for the opportunity to work alongside our congregation, to serve locally and see the immediate fruits of the labor, even if it did mean scrubbing the dirt from my fingernails afterwards.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.