I’m not one of those Christians that loves service projects. I was never longing to go on mission trips or to the nursing home on the weekend. My brother had a heart (and skill) for that kind of thing and, for a long time, I just dismissed it because it was not something I felt naturally connected to.
I engaged in a few of these experiences out of obligation and what I discovered shocked me. There is an irony about service (volunteering). In giving, we discover some significant things about who we are, wrestle with a world bigger than ourselves, and explore new realms of character.
We try to gain so much power through service. We like to cast ourselves as the savior. There is a tempting arrogance that comes when we think of ourselves as the solution and others as the problem. I am capable. They need my help. It is the sort of thing that makes us burst with pride and false humility when we offer to pay the check at lunch with a friend, yet we are offended and fight like cats when someone offers to pay for us. The latter makes us feel weak and incapable. I once had someone wrestle (literally) the check from me and say “I pay for you; you never pay for me.”
This posture about serving has become a major problem in our world. We’ve polluted the idea of helping one another into another of our world’s power plays. We want to “serve” to display our power, peacocks showing off at the zoo, rather than from a place of true influence and care.
It has been well documented that this mindset has harmed communities around the world and at home, recipients and givers.
All of this is a perversion of the way things should be (and are to a large degree). In response to this tainted perspective, it has become fashionable to suggest doing nothing. To separate from service.
The true value I’ve discovered in service is that it changes both me and those I come in contact with. It is a cliché for mission trip participants to say “they served us as much as we served them”. It is cliché for a reason.
The major mistake is that we associate serving with physical needs. Poor and hungry and destitute. All it takes is a simple look at our society, politics, news stories, to see that we are suffering from a poverty of character, purpose, and truth. Mental illness, suicide, and violent crimes are sky-rocketing. We are depressed and complacent. Terrified of failure. Crippled by a culture of blame.
What I’ve discovered in my experience with service is that it changes me. And it gives me the opportunity to influence others. If I forget or focus on just one of those to the detriment of the other, I’m kind of ruining both.
We need each other. Life is hard and complicated. We learn from one another, and are inspired by one another. We are moved and motivated by the truths we see others living out. Physical needs are just the beginning (they are the beginning, by the way – can’t ignore that). If we cannot learn how to serve and be served by one another, we are truly doomed.