On Mondays each week I volunteer at a 24-hour skilled nursing facility that my congregation helped start for AIDS/HIV patients. Not a single one of the people with whom I play bingo there has joined my church, nor do I expect any ever will.
On Thursdays each week I volunteer at a public high school not far from me to help a teacher run an afterschool book club. Not a single one of the students with whom I read such books as “Croak,” “The Book Thief” or “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has joined my church, nor do I expect any ever will.
Then what’s the point of this work? The point is ministry. The point is paying attention to where God might be at work in the world and then finding a way to help. The point is that recruiting people to become members of my congregation is rarely the goal of mission outreach.
I tell the AIDS patients and the high school students with whom I volunteer that I do it as a member of my congregation. I find my motivation for this work in the Reformed theology at the base of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), especially its insistence that as part of the body of Christ we work to heal suffering in the world.
This kind of ministry is not direct evangelism. It’s not gathering folks together to proclaim the gospel to them only in words. Rather, we do this kind of ministry to demonstrate what the in-breaking reign of God will look like when it comes in full flower.
And such demonstration is, I believe, at least as valuable as proclamation. That’s especially true when we have an opportunity to interpret our demonstration efforts to those with whom we partner. That means explaining to people that when we work to end illiteracy, poverty, illness or other afflictions it’s because of our commitment to Jesus Christ.
In one of my volunteer jobs I am simply trying to be present with hurting people. Some AIDS patients have been abandoned by their families. Many suffer from various stages of dementia. All face a fierce loneliness that’s hard to fathom. My congregation has been engaged in AIDS ministry since 1989, and in various ways we have helped to transform some lives and helped other people find peace in their final days.
In my other volunteer job, I work in harmony with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s new initiative: “Educate a Child, Transform the World.”
This is in complete harmony with my own congregation’s way of describing itself: “A people being transformed by Christ to help transform the world.”
Word about us gets out through such efforts. In September my congregation’s annual block party drew about 180 people from the neighborhoods around us. Will any become members? Maybe. But that’s not why we do this. We do it to be good neighbors, welcoming strangers into our midst.
Our first aim must be to meet the needs of others. Our own needs — for more “pledging units” — must always come second.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. Email him at email@example.com.