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Is handing out water bottles really mission?

Is handing out water bottles really mission?

Jesus said, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones . . . truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42) It seems that a good number of congregations have taken Jesus at his word and are doing just that. But is the reward that they are seeking the one that Jesus is promising? 

When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992, I had just moved from Kendall to Hollywood. Our neighborhood in Hollywood had no power for a week and most roads were impassable due to downed trees and power lines. The congregation responded to needs in our area, but we began to receive calls from friends regarding extreme needs in the Kendall area. The congregation sent teams down to Kendall near where Sue and I had lived just months before. The devastation was so great that it was difficult even to figure out where you were. When we opened up our truck and started handing out peanut butter, bread and water bottles, people flocked to receive what we had because they had nothing anymore to eat and no drinkable water.

A congregation wanted to connect to their community, so they decided to hand out water bottles, which seemed simple enough. They bought a bunch of water bottles and everyone wore their church t-shirts. They drove to a busy street corner not far from the church one Saturday morning and they start handing out water bottles. Recipients were a bit surprised and asked, “What’s the catch?” “No catch,” the church members responded, “Our church just cares about the community because Jesus cares about everyone.” It was an interesting experience, but the next day, they were disappointed that not one new person came to their church as a result of handing out water bottles. 
How do you think about these two experiences from a missional perspective? Here are several questions that might help? 
Was a felt need addressed? There is a difference between attracting attention and doing ministry. Ministry embodies God’s love at the point of people’s needs. Handing out water bottles can certainly address a need, if people are thirsty and have nothing to drink. It can also be a way of trying to attract attention in order to grow your congregation, which may indeed be a need of your congregation. Then the issue becomes whose needs are you really trying to meet, theirs or yours? 
What do you consider a “win”? Often we are unclear what it means for our efforts to “succeed”. Sometime we choose a strategy before clarifying the point of using it. For example, have you hit the bull’s eye by simply handing out water to thirsty people? Or are there other objectives? Is it a success only if some people come to your church as a result? Or only if someone accepts Christ and prays the sinner’s prayer?   Or only if people thank you and say how much they appreciate you doing this? And do the people with whom you are ministering get to help decide what a win means to them? What if instead of a bottle of water they really needed a box of newborn diapers or a chain saw? What if in being “helped” they feel disrespected or belittled? If the ultimate goal of ministry is to express God’s love at the point of people’s needs, shouldn’t the people you are ministering with get a voice in clarifying what a “win” will mean?  
Was an authentic relationship formed?   Henri Nouwen writes about the ministry:  “I wonder . . . if the first things shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own…and let them know that you do not simply like them – but truly love them.”  There are times when acts of mercy can be offered anonymously. Entering into an authentic relationship with someone that is transformative for all parties is, however, certainly more representative of God’s Kingdom. Maybe the reason that no one comes to the church after receiving a water bottle on the street corner is that not only were they not thirsty, but no mutual relationship was formed. It was a missional gesture, but not relational in a way that communicates God’s love and leaves them wanting more. 
Perhaps ministry most worthy of Christ’s name starts by entering into authentic and mutual relationships. In this relational context, the “win” is clarified through conversations.  Together you get to know and appreciate each other’s strengths and needs.  “Success” allows both sides to give and receive, to serve and to become more fully human. And finally, together you can evaluate whether the needs were indeed addressed effectively. 
A friend of mine and his wife began traveling to an orphanage in India. Initially they were part of a group to learn more about the ministry of the orphanage and to explore if they might be of help. The experience was so moving that this couple made several trips a year on their own. During their visits they got to know the orphanage leaders, to play with the kids, and to discern how they might be of help. They kept in touch by phone and email between visits. Eventually, they hit upon an idea: develop a goat herd to support the orphanage. While the people in the orphanage knew all about raising goats, they didn’t have the money to buy breeding goats. That was something my friends were able and more than willing to supply. Today, there is a goat herd that not only helps feed the children of the orphanage, but sustains the orphanage financially. The lives of literally hundreds of people have been positively impacted. 
Connecting with your community missionally is a long-term and costly investment. It involves building relationships, discovering needs, and exploring options where everyone is empowered and blessed. Handing out water bottles on a street corner may be a nice attention getting gesture.   Hopefully it can be a prelude to the sort of ministry Jesus desires of his people – if, in handing out the water, we strike up a conversation that leads to actually getting to know the people in your community and discerning together how Christ desires us to be blessings to one another. 
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins        
The Center for Congregational Excellence