There are many reasons that individual Christians may pursue local mission by themselves. Some of these include:
- Compelling stories: We hear or see a compelling story about a marginalized group that compels us to action. Praise God for these eye opening experiences!
- Life experience: At times, God may allow us to go through difficult circumstances of our own to move us toward missional engagement in the margins of our city.
- Pride: If we’re being honest, a lack of humility or the assumption that we can “fix” a problem can often drive us to engage in local mission on our own.
- Lack of congregational support: Sometimes, the passion and drive of an individual outpaces that of their local church. When this happens, the individual doesn’t want to wait for the church’s vision or support, and decides to pursue mission alone.
Though our heart is often in the right place and the motives leading us to engagement are good, one of the worst things we can do is pursue mission by ourselves. If you take nothing else away from this this post, remember this: do not pursue local mission by yourself. Here are 3 reasons why you shouldn’t engage in local mission to your city alone.
1. Local Mission is HARD. This isn’t an over-simplification. Heartbreaking stories often draw Christians into local mission, but the soundbites we hear or the videos we watch rarely capture the complexities of the marginalized experience.These testimonies are formed over years and have layers upon layers of nuance. Consequently you only come to know these individuals and the complexity of their stories by entering into the narrative. It’s one thing to serve at a soup kitchen - it’s something else entirely to sit-down, share a meal, and hear the stories of those you are serving. They are sad, complicated, heartbreaking, and often overwhelming.
Not too long ago, my wife and I were looped into a benevolence case where a mother of 5 children came to our church asking for food and money. She had no food whatsoever for herself or her kids. She was about to get kicked out of the motel she was staying in and had no friends or family in the city.
My family was one of the first to respond. Within the first few conversations, we learned all her children had come from different dads, and none of them were in the picture. She had no financial help from her children’s fathers. The family she was previously living with were abusing her kids, so she knew she had to leave. She thought she found her “knight in shining armor” when she moved to Austin to be with a man that promised to take care of her and her kids once he landed a job in construction. Once he landed the job, however, he decided he didn’t want the burden of a woman with multiple kids. As a result, he left her with nothing in a motel room across the street from our church.
How do you begin to untangle everything going on in this woman’s narrative? What is the most loving way to care for this family?
These are only a few questions my family wrestled with after entering into this woman’s story. By the grace of God, we had other deacons, our local missions pastors, and our own missional community walking with us as we tried to care for this mom and her kids. Without our church and community, there’s no way we would have been equipped to care for this woman or meet all of the needs involved. Even with all this support we couldn’t meet every need.
2. Local Mission is COMPLICATED. Local mission is not only hard - it is complicated. One of the ways churches have sanitized city engagement is by turning mission into a series of large group activities often called “service days.” The problem with these service days, however, is that they rarely move Christians into long-term relationships with the people they are being mobilized to serve. Service days may be logistically complicated, but they’re often “sanitized.” The formula is simple: helicopter in to a neighborhood, meet a need, helicopter out. Everyone feels good about an honest day’s work, but no relationships were actually developed. Serving days create a clean one time opportunity, but building relationships is an ongoing pursuit of entering into what is messy.
Recently, one of the women in our community began building a relationship with a local homeless woman named Liz. We learned Liz couldn’t hold a job because of mental health issues. She had burned all her bridges with family and friends and was most likely involved with drugs and prostitution as a means of survival. One day, Liz called one of the ladies in our community to ask for a ride to Walmart.
When our friend took Liz to Walmart, Liz told her to stay in the car and wait. After returning to the car with a cart full of items, Liz’s demeanor changed. She told our friend to leave quickly, and it became apparent that Liz may have shoplifted from the store. Our friend tried to confront Liz,, but she would hear none of it.
What does loving Liz look like in that moment? What is the line between mercy and justice?
Fortunately, again, we had our local mission pastors and community to help us navigate this situation. Local mission is hard and complicated because sin is real and complicated.
3. You Will Need A Break. If you desire to invest in being a missionary to your city over the long haul, you will need seasons to rest. If we become a one-person mission team, we will likely experience:
- Burnout: When we put the weight of local mission on our shoulders, burnout is inevitable. Once we burn out, the work we’ve put in to caring for a marginalized pocket of people burns out with us.
- A Savior Complex: We can easily fall into the problematic belief that our effort is going to rescue people from their circumstances, not Jesus.
As a Navy veteran, I think that the cycle used for military deployments could serve as an effective template for local mission. There are 3 primary seasons military personnel operate in:
- Pre-deployment Training: This phase involves team building, learning about the people and place where sailors will be deployed, and defining what a win will be once on the frontlines.
- Deployment: During deployments, sailors are no longer training but are working on the frontlines to accomplish the win that was determined in advance.
- Post-Deployment Rest: These are seasons when sailors come home and rest . They receive care, counseling, and time to invest in the health of themselves and their families.
Churches and small group communities should follow a similar cycle when it comes to local mission. Some seasons are for team building and training. Others are for serving on the frontlines, building relationships, demonstrating and declaring the gospel, and entering into the stories of the marginalized. Finally, there are seasons where those on the frontlines take a step back, recuperate, and rest. When communities and churches invest in local mission together, relationships are always being built and cultivated. Individual Christians and small group communities are serving each other and their city without burning out.
If at all possible, do not engage in local mission on your own. If your church or small group community is unwilling or unable to support you in this season, look for at least 3-5 other Christians that are willing to partner with you. There are also nonprofits in every major city serving a variety of marginalized people groups. Reach out to them and learn more about what partnering with their organization entails. We need Christians who place a high value on local mission in the margins of our cities - Christians who understand the necessity of pursuing mission in community and not in isolation.
I lead our Resource Development Team and have been a part of the For the City Network since 2017. I have an M.Div in Missional Studies and a M.A.R in Intercultural Studies from Liberty University. I am married to my beautiful wife Angela and we have four kids. I am a native of San Antonio, TX, and now live in the inner-city of Austin, TX.