Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 19, 2013

Servants Or Friends?: Thinking about how to best help those in need

I have been thinking a lot about community outreach these days. I have been reading about the various models that churches employ in order to reach their communities, networking with various community outreach initiatives that are already place, and initiating conversations with folks who might be interested in pursuing this important aspect of our calling as a church.

In the course of this process I have come to realize that serving people requires a lot of discernment. If we are not careful, our programs for reaching those in need can do more damage then good. If we insist on doing things for people rather then with them we can create unhealthy dependency. If we impose an external agenda on people without listening to their needs we can create barriers rather then bridges. If we turn people into projects we can accidentally trample on the dignity of those we set out to serve.

imagesTo guide this discernment process I have been reading Rubert Lupton’s book, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking ministry to the poor. Lupton has been involved in community development for over 30 years and provides a lot of practical insight into how we can best reach out to those in need. One of his main points is that our approach to outreach must respect the people we serve. He writes, “how we demonstrate our compassion has everything to do with whether or not the poor actually feel valued.” Lupton is aware of the fact that serving can have a dark side to it. Service to others can easily devolve into a way to control people or make ourselves feel better about ourselves without taking into consideration the needs of others.

Lupton provides a great example of an outreach initiative that needed to be reworked. One Christmas his church sponsored under-resourced families by providing toys for kids. He thought it was a great idea until he observed what happened when the families from his church delivered the toys to the kids. While the kids were happy the parents often looked dejected. If there was a father in the picture he usually couldn’t even stay in the room. Whatever shreds of dignity the father was holding on to had been taken from him. As a result, Lupton decided to change his approach. During the next Christmas he developed an initiative called “Dignity For Parents.” Instead of having people adopt a family and bring toys to the kids, his church developed a toy exchange. People would donate toys to a local charity co-op where parents could buy them at extremely reduced prices. If they could not afford them they could volunteer at the store and earn credit. In doing so the parents were able to have the joy of giving gifts to there own kids rather then having someone else do it for them.

Lupton sums up his approach by saying, “doing for others what they can do for themselves is charity at its worst. New technologies of charity must be developed to bring the dignity of reciprocity into the practice.” Reciprocity is important because it helps us move beyond simply doing relief work to development work. As the old adage goes, “give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he will feed himself for a lifetime.” Lupton does acknowledge that there are times when relief work is appropriate. Elderly homebound folks or people with physical disabilities may need help with a leaky roof, troubled kids can benefit from after school programs, clothing closets and food banks can be a life saver to a single mom between jobs. However, we need to find ways to create reciprocity and mutuality whenever we can.

Lupton also suggests that our outreach must be relational. He reflects on John 15:15 where Jesus says to his disciples, “no longer do I call you servants . . . but I have called you friends.” Lupton suggests that friendship is actually a higher calling then servanthood. Unlike servants, “friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle and are committed through time.” Servanthood can create an us-verses-them mentality, while friendship encourages respect and reciprocity. This leads Lupton to conclude that “good neighbors are preferable to good programs any day.” Healthy outreach requires a long term relational investment with people.

As we move forward as a church I think it will be important for us to keep these values in mind. We should favor approaches to outreach that are local, long term, relational, and focused on mutuality and reciprocity with those we seek to serve. Sometimes this will mean that our outreach will not be a flashy centralized program. For many of us it will begin by developing a relationship with a neighbor in need, or partnering with a community outreach program that is already in place and that we are passionate about. Perhaps it will begin with your small group committing to a specific outreach opportunity for the next year. When we do pursue programmatic service opportunities we will need to find ways to make it relational and reciprocal with those we serve. Whatever it is, let us be sure to approach our community in a spirit of friendship and love!

I’d love to hear your thoughts? Some questions to consider:

In what ways are you reaching out to your community right now?

Are there people in your neighborhood that God is calling you to reach out to and develop a relationship with? Are there areas of outreach that you feel called to engage in?

How might we as a church mobilize our congregation for meaningful outreach in the coming months and years?


  1. great article. Advocate WITH the person in need, alongside, just as habitat for humanity allows the recipient to input sweat equity as they are able. I’m totally on board with the dignity preservation and teaching/learning skills rather than just “buying” your giving quotient by donating gifts etc. It doesn’t set the heart in a right place if you haven’t learned some compassion and empathy. Just because we are better AT something (earning money?) doesn’t mean we are better THAN someone (poor/disabled). I have always liked the model of “barn building” by the Amish communities, how you raise a building together. So there are many people who need fences repaired, rain gutters fixed up, etc. What about a “barn building” group? Come together like the old-fashioned days. Seems like there are people with this leaning in congregation, the work n lunch bunch around church, and different individuals I know who have galvinized different members to go do some projects like this. why not make it an “official” outreach with some publicity and a “name tag”. We could be known as the community church who actually reaches out to the community! (at large)

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