We had to make sure to park the church van around the corner on the next block where it wouldn’t be seen.
We needed the van — a half-dozen people with all of those rakes and tarps and whatnot wouldn’t fit in somebody’s normal-sized car. But the van was also too conspicuous. The name of the church was painted right there on the side, after all, and if anybody saw that our cover would be blown. We couldn’t be sneaky if the neighbors saw us getting out of the church van. And being sneaky was the whole point — that was what made it so much fun.
“Fun” was the best word I had for this back then. It’s not wrong, exactly, because what we were doing was fun. But that word gets used in so many other ways for so many different things that it’s not quite precise enough to be the right word here. “Delightful” might be better, even though that wasn’t a word that teenaged me would’ve used. I think it better captures what was going on: We were finding our own delight in delighting others and thereby also, I believe, delighting God.
All of which is to say we were raking leaves.
We had a list of a bunch of older folks — people from our church or the neighbors of people from our church, mostly — who weren’t able to rake leaves themselves. And our mini-army would show up — unexpected and unannounced — rake their yards as fast as we could, then race back around the block, jump back in the van and drive away, ideally without anyone ever even seeing us in action.
That was the really fun part. It didn’t spoil the fun any if we got caught. That was still fun, too, when someone we thought wouldn’t be at home caught us in the act and knew who we were and where we were from. The result was the same, after all — they were still unexpectedly relieved of a burdensome chore. But it was somehow more delightful when we got away clean leaving them a bit startled and mystified. We enjoyed adding a bit of amazement to an act of grace.
This was something we did several times with the youth group of the fundamentalist Baptist church I attended growing up. It was something that church taught me — something that has stuck with me longer than any sermon or altar call I heard from any of that church’s pastors or guest speakers. It shaped, and continues to shape, what I think of as “ministry” or “discipleship” or “gospel.”
The problem with how we use all of those words is that they don’t seem fun. They should be. They should all be delightful. If they’re not, you’re doing it wrong.
I remember that these guerrilla leaf-raking raids were discussed a bit in terms of their merit as “outreach.” Wouldn’t it have been better, it was asked, if we’d parked the church van directly in front of the houses where we were performing this ministry? That makes sense. I mean, if part of what you’re trying to do, as a church, is to become known for your love of neighbors, then it would be useful to have the name of the church right there instead of sneaking around trying to keep it hidden.
We weren’t able to articulate why it just seemed better to keep this secret. We’d fumble for an answer and wind up falling back yet again on that not-quite-wrong but not-quite-right word “fun.” It was just more fun — for us, for the neighbors themselves, maybe for God too? — to make this party a surprise party, to conduct this “outreach” or “ministry” like a kind of holy prank.
This, again, continues to influence how I think of Christian “discipleship.” The gospel itself, Jubilee, is a kind of holy prank and “discipleship” — the apprenticing practice of becoming disciples of Jesus — means, among other things, that you are now in on it. It means you now have a role to play in the execution of this prank, that you will be participating in pulling it off. And that you will be participating in the delight it can bring to everyone involved.
That was also, by the way, the sentence by which our youth minister convinced us all to spend a precious free Saturday afternoon doing muscle-taxing yard-work without pay. “It’s fun,” he said.
That might seem like a classic bait-and-switch since raking leaves is not intrinsically fun. It leaves your hands calloused and your shoulders sore. It’s sweaty, exhausting work, and doing it faster just makes it even more tiring.
But he was telling the truth. It was delightful. It was fun. I can’t say when I’ve ever had more fun, unless maybe it was the time we did the same thing, but with snow shovels after a big winter storm.
“C’mon,” he said, “bring a rake. It’ll be fun.” And that, I think, was the best lesson on evangelism I ever learned from that church.
P.S. I was reminded of this and started writing about it after reading Hollis Phelps’ recent essay on “The Problem with the Latest Predictions for ‘the Rise of the Religious Left’” right after reading Sarahbeth Caplin’s Friendly Atheist post about a Texas church paying off the school-lunch debts of an entire school district. And I think when I started, I had some notion about how all of these things tied together. I seem to have lost my handle on that connecting thread in the meanwhile, but I do think they’re all still tied together.