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Community and our best selves

A yellow bicycle provided relationship and connection
A yellow bicycle provided relationship and connection

Relationships not projects.
That’s something I keep on the forefront of my mind when engaging in any type of ministry.

It’s far too easy to do an outreach/service project and do it to or for people, rather than connecting with and engaging people.

I bring this up because I’m an introvert. There are a lot of introverts called into ministry. It’s as if God has a weird sense of humor, because ministry is an endeavor involving a lot person-to-person interaction. My natural tendency is to get through an event with minimal human interaction. When I have an opportunity to visit a church, I tend to choose a large church where I can blend in, sit in the back, and the only people I have to interact with are the greeters. I know, I know…

I was serving a church a suburb of Los Angeles and we had done a lot of outreach for the houseless.
However, all the work we were doing felt — at least to me — incomplete. I knew the work we were doing; the problem we were addressing but I had no idea who were serving. I kept walking away with a nagging sensation that everything was transactional rather than relational. That was more of my wanting-to-be-in-my-shell getting the best of me; it was not the fault of those who planned the events.

During Lent season that year, our church did a study (to accompany the sermon series) about what it means to love our neighbors — particularly those who society tends to easily dismiss and/or ignore.

I shared with my small group that I wanted to really focus on loving my neighbors who are houseless. I shared with the group my struggles between projects vs. relations, transactional service vs. relational service, and how I kept choosing the easy way out. I was sharing simply because it was my turn to share. To my annoyance, my small group started pushing back and asking me questions.

What are some ways you can be more relational in our church outreach ministries?

What are things we can do to help better connect with the people we serve?

What are things you can do to be more relational on your own?

Without really thinking, I responded to the last question with a location in our city where all the houseless people congregated: I always wanted to build connections there but just never got around to it.

Then the people--who I thought were my friends--asked the question that actually hurt:

”Why not?” And its best friend, ”What’s been stopping you?”

I was not prepared for such an attack on my personhood.

The truth (or at least like 75% of the truth) was I didn’t have any means to get to that area. My wife and I shared one car and her work was a 20 minute commute while my commute to church was a 10 minute walk (and this was way before Über or Lyft existed). The place where many of the houseless folks gathered was too much of a walk.

Then one of the small group members (who I forgot was an avid mountain biker) said, “It’s only like a half hour bike ride, I think. Give or take 10 minutes. That’s not too bad, right?”

“No that’s not bad at all,” I agreed, only because I did not own a bike nor did I intend on getting a bike.

Then my turn at the witness stand ended.

The very next day, I got a call from one of my small group members, the avid mountain biker. He said he’s pulling up to my apartment and wanted to see me. So I went out to meet him and found him standing next to a yellow mountain bike. Confused I greeted him, “Hey! Cool. New bike? You biked here? What’s up?”

“No, this is for you.”

He explained he had enough bicycle parts lying around to make at least two full bikes and figured after our discussion from the previous night, I could use a bike.

I learned that there is a Japanese word, arigata-meiwaku, which describes the feeling you have when someone does you a favor you didn’t want them to do, and which might have caused you trouble, but you have to act grateful anyway.

He then said, “If you take the bike trails, you’ll get there 30-40 minutes, depending how fast you go. It took me 25 minutes. So go do your thing!”

The following week, when we reconvened for a small group, my mountain biker “friend” asked me, “Did you get a chance to go connect with some people since last time we met?”
I hadn’t gotten around to it. And I felt immensely guilty for not doing so after he had put time, effort, and love into assembling a bike for me (that I didn’t ask for).

In fact, the guilt was enough that when we meet next week, I wasn’t going to let him down (not that I did).

That’s the thing about community:They hold us accountable. They push us to be better versions of ourselves.

I first went to that part of the city out of a mixture of guilt and obligation to my small group members, particularly the Mountain Biker. But that was just the Holy Spirit working over time to get through my dense head.

I was able to build relationships and make friends with my weekly bike excursions thanks to my small group. I begin to see familiar faces when volunteering at the local rescue mission or when our church would do our outreach ministries.

That small group pushed me into knowing and loving my neighbors. But more importantly, they helped me be a good neighbor to the new friends I met[4] .

I am a huge believer in small groups. As Andy Stanley once said: faith formation happens in circles not rows meaning that our sense of community needs to go deeper than what just takes place on Sunday morning.

If your church already have a small group ministry, have the courage to get plugged into one. If not, have the courage to start one. There are plenty of great resources out there that can help you get the ball moving. One of the easiest ways to start something is to get a few people committed to reading a book and getting together to discuss it via virtually or physically distanced gathering. Always remember, circles are better than rows.


Joseph Yoo is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at josephyoo.com.