of moon bounces & granola bars

Yesterday, I brought up one of the bigger themes from the past month: A focus on striving for actually helpful help in our mission trips, service projects, and the like. At both Virginia Tech and here in Boston, ministry has recently been received from “outsiders” on a grand scale. Plenty of this service has been quite helpful – but not all. The question is, What kind of ministry actually helps those who receive it, and what kind might accomplish something else entirely?

I’d encourage you to read that introduction if you haven’t already. Today, I want to flesh out the theme with some practical suggestions, gained through observations and interviews on this trip.

This may not be a complete checklist, but hopefully it’s a good start!

No moon bounces. (Don’t create problems on the receiving end.) No, nobody actually sent a moon bounce to Va. Tech when tragedy struck last semester. But there were gifts not much less problematic. Why “problematic”? Because sending a moon bounce (or whatever), for all its fun, first and foremost may create a hassle for the recipients. (How in the world do you set up a moon bounce?) In the case of any hardship (whether natural or man-made), the situation on the ground can be particularly complex or at least busy. “Help” that adds to this busyness isn’t always help, so we’ve got to ask ourselves – how annoying could our gift become?

Likewise, those receiving our ministry (like ministers in Boston) can’t be our concierges. “We’re coming to help, so you should plan our trip” doesn’t necessarily ring true to those on the receiving end of that kind of “help.” Whether it’s before we come or after we’re there, we should probably do all we can to minimize the administrative bulk created by our visit.

No “just what you need.” (Outsiders may not know what’s needed most.) There is a tendency to offer our help by suggesting, “We’ve got just what you need!” The problem is, outsiders can’t know “just what you need.” In the case of Boston, for instance, groups are tempted to bring their brand of ministry here – and are shocked when tract-passing or Vacation Bible School aren’t automatically effective. At VT, it was likewise easy for well-meaning individuals to presume what was needed – even though they might never have faced anything close to the tragedy that occurred there (how many of us have?).

Sadly, non-relevant ministry can even hurt the ongoing work of the local ministries. While a well-meaning group might leave with warm fuzzies after a week, what if they’ve just hurt the reputation of the local believers? Bad news!

He’s omnipresent. Really. (Our service is one small part of what God is already doing.) When Christians come to the Northeast for missions, it’s often with the thought that they are “bringing Jesus to Boston” (or whatever our “target” city happens to be). Surprisingly enough, He seems to already be here, powerfully at work transforming lives. But we can sometimes slip into that sort of thinking as we approach so-called “dark” areas, whether ministering to post-Katrina New Orleans or to Va. Tech or even in Tsunami-ravaged areas.

Instead, it might be better to remember that God is already everywhere – and, it might be argued, He’s probably often at work no place more than in the midst of tragedy or “secularized” places like the Northeast. So joining Him rather than bringing Him might be a better way to look at things. And that probably means connecting to what His people are already doing (see the next point).

Granola trumps tracts sometimes. (Our service should complement local ministry efforts.) When we brought a mission trip to Boston from Abilene, Texas, a few years ago, I remember it was a little surprising that  asked us to pass out granola bars to subway travelers as a major part of our trip. What kind of mission trip was this?

It turned out, though, that this activity was about as far from “busy work” as you can get. Granola bars are, in fact, one of HFC’s major ongoing instances of “servant evangelism.” It’s such a part of the church’s M.O., last Sunday the pastor joked that if HFC ever sponsored a subway platform here, they’d have to install little pop-up granola dispensers!

Perhaps, when we try to help in places like VT or New England, we should look at partnering more than pioneering. One Virginia Tech minister noted that the most helpful people last semester were those who approached suggesting things they could offer – “If it would help you, we could do this or this or perhaps this…” I’m realizing more and more that “regional specialists” (a.k.a. locals) seem to know an awful lot more than I do about what their people need. Shocker!

Money. (It’s often a great option.) Certainly, service of all sorts is in God’s plan for the advance of His Kingdom. But sometimes as we pay money for mission trips or gift baskets or moon bounces or whatever, you might say we’re getting a pretty lousy “exchange rate.” What if more Kingdom value can be attained via a $1000 wire transfer (and the subsequent ministry “on the ground” it allows for) than in a $1000 trip? That’s a tough thing to weigh, I know, and it’s almost anathema for a college minister to think about, right?

But the point is that money can be a great thing to give when we want to help, even when it coupled with presents or presence. At Virginia Tech, for instance, in the days following the tragedy money could be budgeted toward financing random spiritual opportunities that arose. So when a non-Christian friend needed to chat, a Christian student could take them to lunch – knowing the meal could be covered by their campus ministry. Thus, a contributor from Arizona might have accomplished far more in the life of those 2 students through her $20 donation than with a $300 plane ticket.

In the same way, many of those ministering in places like Boston aren’t doing it all on the basis of “tithe and offerings” received from their fledgling congregations. Yes, a mission trip can be great – and can be exactly what God is calling us to do. But God might at other times lead us simply to give, which can support a minister who is already here.

And still God directs us. Beyond all this pragmatism, I still do recognize the role that creativity can play in blessing the socks off of those who need our service. And our God, as He directs us, will give us all kinds of creative and BIG ways to meet needs – ways that humans, either on the giving or receiving ends, could never imagine on our own.

But I also know that I need the wisdom gained from these notes. For instance, I’d be likely to think about taking a collegiate team to the site of a campus tragedy (as you’ve noticed, I’m pretty okay with road trips). But what if my group would get in the way, rather than truly helping? I need the wisdom to investigate what would be most profitable for those who need our help.

So let’s pray like crazy, be willing to be adventurous, give extravagantly, and think outside the box. But as we do, let’s receive good counsel from these guys out here, who at times have received some fairly unhelpful (or even, sadly enough, hurtful) help.


  1. Ben! Here is my comment (sorry if it turns out to be really long!) :
    I agree… moon bounces are great, although I’d be pretty disappointed if someone presented me with a fun bouncey contraption…. and I didn’t have an air pump to inflate it. I think that New England is very receptive to the more subtle forms of ministry. For some reason we don’t warm up easily; tracts, over advertised VBS, or outright Christian outreach events don’t go over very well here. I think though, that the subtlety of granola bars, or buying coffee for someone in passing initiates conversation, and sets a common ground that in a way makes it easier to share faith.
    Do you think that it’s easier to start a college ministry, because of the array of people groups on any given campus…. and that it’s a bit easier to get the word out to that setting/age group? Versus, starting a similar ministry geared toward another age group where people may not be as open to, or aware that there is something available to them?

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