This is the last of a four-part series on local outreach. We’re sharing the ten “plumb lines” that guide our local outreach philosophy, as explained by Matt Mig, our Pastor of Local Outreach. Be sure to also read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

9. The Best Way To Avoid Paternalism Is To Seek Friendship.

Paternalism happens when someone who has authority or resources restricts the responsibility or choice of another person in the perceived “best interests” of that second individual.  It is the result of defining our neighbors by their situation or need instead of by God’s design for them.  These unhealthy relationships can occur when we enter into potentially positive relationships like mentoring or coaching without valuing the other person, and even a well-meaning church can accidentally fall into this trap when working with people in material need.

In the book Toxic Charity, Bob Lupton describes the shame and embarrassment an unemployed father feels when materially rich church members provide gifts to his children that he can’t afford and the dependency that misguided aid can create in entire communities.  Paternalistic attitudes often result in services that temporarily alleviate material need, but do nothing to help someone discover who God created them to be.

We’re all susceptible to this trap:  it is the “default setting” for prideful people who happen to have more of something than the person next to them.  We must actively try to befriend our incarcerated or homeless neighbors. It won’t just happen on its own. Building relationships of real equality between people of unequal power isn’t easy, but there are a few habits we can develop that can help us to avoid the trap:

Ask lots of questions. “Do you know anyone who can ___?” “Got any ideas for this?” “What do you think about ___?” Good questions help you assume the posture of learner, not savior.

Build relationships on friendship, not need. A lot of relationships start with a need (for a job, a ride, etc.), but relationships built on need rarely last long. It’s fine to meet a need, but try to make your next step something that has nothing to do with that need—like eating a meal or watching a game together.

Whenever possible, do with rather than doing for. We may have or know something that our neighbors legitimately need, but a posture of partnership—even if it takes longer—validates everyone’s contribution to the solution.

10. Start Small, Dream Big.

This is a very practical guideline.  We can easily be tempted to start a new partnership or ministry initiative big, with a lot of people to create an atmosphere of excitement and momentum. There certainly are times when a big event or project can play a part of an effective launch strategy, but they are usually more useful in highlighting a growing ministry than getting one off the ground.  In large part, that’s because our goal of building lasting relationships is much harder to achieve in huge groups.

Remember: being God’s demonstration community doesn’t just dictate that we serve, it directs how we serve. A church is not alone in desiring to serve its community. Schools, neighborhood groups, synagogues, mosques, and businesses frequently volunteer for service projects. Other churches even organize church-wide project days similar to our ServeRDU Week. But when the church comes back the next week to mentor the high school student or spend time with the refugee family, that certainly sets the family of God apart! Our local outreach ministry should be characterized by faithfulness in follow-through, trusting that God will provide the fruitfulness.

Our capacity for follow-through should match the size of what we plan. Otherwise we’ll wind up over-promising and under-delivering. It’s not because we don’t want to impact our community on a big scale, nor is it because we don’t believe God will bless us with growth. If he grows it bigger than we planned, he’s fully able to grow our capacity too! Rather, this principle is about acknowledging that our ministry is more about caring for the people around us than it is about mobilizing a mass of volunteers to tackle a problem. That’s why “shepherding” is one of the key elements we want to see in every local outreach leader. The commitment to follow through over the long haul distinguishes actual ministry from service projects.