People like the idea of service more than they like to serve.
Isn’t it true?
My job at North Point Community Church is to mobilize people to serve, to help them engage in the real needs of our community through great nonprofits. For our team, the easy part is inspiring people who already love what we do. These are the people who give up their birthdays to fund a well in a third-world country, sacrifice a week of vacation every year to go on a mission trip, and serve regularly at a local nonprofit. It’s already in them: a passion for justice, the gift of mercy, a lean toward activism. But that’s not everyone. However, serving is good for everyone—for all of us. Getting the rest of us in the game is the real challenge. How do we have a community engagement strategy that mobilizes more than just the predisposed?
We don’t have all the answers by any means, but we have discovered a few simple strategies that have increased our effectiveness in inspiring the whole congregation to serve in the community: build awareness, make it simple, and celebrate impact.
In seeking to inspire people to serve, we have found it helpful to think about moving people from ignorance to awareness, from awareness to engagement, and from engagement to lifestyle. This simple grid gives us a very important step before ever thinking about engaging people in volunteering: we have to build awareness.
As leaders, we need to meet people where they are. I remember a colleague’s maxim from my teaching days: “Teach the students you have, not the ones that you wish you had.” If all we ever push to our congregations is the sign-up-to-serve-once-a-week-for-the-rest-of-your-life-with-an-organization-you-know-nothing-about-addressing-needs-you’re-not-sure-are-legit opportunities, we’ll find that we’re not mobilizing many.
The truth is, many in our churches don’t know that there are real needs in our community (even in a wealthy suburban context like the one in which I live and serve). They haven’t heard of the organizations that meet those needs and don’t realize that those organizations need volunteers, donors, and advocates. They do not understand that there are ways to do charity that are actually harmful to those they’re trying to serve. They think that serving must mean going to a soup kitchen downtown. They may have biases against certain hurting or marginalized populations. They may simply be skeptical that volunteering ever does any actual good. When we ignore these realities and misperceptions, we lose.
In our awareness-building efforts, we’re trying to close one of these gaps or address one of these misconceptions. We aim for both their heads and their hearts. This means trying to help people understand why we work so hard to mobilize them to serve (head) as well as feel dignifying compassion toward those we are serving (heart). When we do this well, we are moving people from ignorance to awareness—and a step closer to engagement.
At the same time, we marry our efforts to raise awareness with opportunities to serve. When we are trying to engage those who aren’t already giving their time, we work hard to make it simple. In fact, that’s the tagline of our ministry: serving made simple.
A friend of mine makes a very helpful observation. He says, “In any given process, you can’t remove complexity. You can only shift who bears the responsibility.” This leads back to the opening statement. Serving sounds like such a good idea, but serving is hard. It is inconvenient. It costs us our time. Many people have no idea where to start, where to go.
My team deliberately takes upon ourselves as much complexity as possible to make it as simple as possible for those we are trying to mobilize. It’s complicated for us so it can be simple for them. It’s a lot of work, but when we get to witness people moving toward a lifestyle of service, and when we see the impact our congregation has on our nonprofit partners, we’re reminded that it’s worth it.
These success stories become another critical element of our strategy. To maintain and gain momentum, we celebrate impact. This is about vision and inspiration. It can be an impressively produced video story, an anecdote in the bulletin, results shared on Sunday morning, or simply a conversation in the hallway. The point is that when people see and hear the impact of their efforts, they feel the importance of the work. Nothing inspires people to future generosity and compassion like seeing the impact of their past generosity and compassion.
We have seen that when we inform minds (i.e., build awareness), equip hands (i.e., make it simple), and inspire hearts (i.e., celebrate impact), people move. And once you get people serving, they experience the kingdom-of-God truth that giving your life away is life-giving. In other words, they learn to love not just the idea of service, but service itself.
Bryan Apinis serves at North Point Ministries and North Point Community Church as the director of their community engagement efforts, The Intersect Project. Among Intersect’s initiatives is Be Rich, a generosity campaign engaging 40 churches across the US and around the world in focused efforts to give, serve, and love. While Bryan loves his work, even more, he loves his family. He and Kathryn work hard at having serious fun with their children.