I had an enormous trash problem at our little church.
It seems that the men who built our trash box didn’t really think it through. They built the sides too high for the trash collectors to reach down and get the trash from the bottom. So, for more than a year, they had just been skimming the trash off the top. And, you guessed it, the trash at the box’s bottom was the stuff nightmares are made of.
I knew it was a problem that I’d have to deal with eventually. But ministry is hectic and chaotic, and my schedule is already overflowing. We deliver groceries all over the county, hand out bags each week at our food pantry, feed over 200 people weekly at a community meal and there’s always a Bible study or sermon to prepare.
Digging through year-old-trash is always going to be at the bottom of the priority list.
Our neighbor, Larry, who lives across the street from our church, stopped me one day while we held our food pantry. Larry has never come to a single service in the two years we have been in his neighborhood. But he comes to the pantry and to our community meals. He stops by and talks to us when he sees us working in the yard. It might not seem like it is Larry’s church, because he doesn’t attend there. But it is the church in his neighborhood, and he cares about it. In fact, he cares about it so much that he wanted to talk to me about the trash box that day while visiting the food pantry. He asked for permission to fix the problem.
Larry wanted to cut a door into the trash box and put hinges and a hook on it. He also asked (get this!) if he could bag up all the loose trash at the bottom and scrub it clean.
Of course, it was more than just alright — it was an answered prayer. But I also felt some guilt about it. I couldn’t let this guy who doesn’t even go to our church clean through that mess. That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t his problem.
I told him I really appreciated the offer but that I would find someone else to do it. I apologized for taking so long to address the problem and assured him I would get it taken care of immediately.
He stopped me, mid-sentence, and said, “This is something I know how to do, and I really would like you to let me do it.”
In that moment, I felt the Holy Spirit say to me, “Let him serve.”
I remembered something I struggled with often when I first started working in ministry. I wanted to do everything on my own. It was partly because I didn’t want to “burden” others by asking for help. I had all these big ideas of how to make the world a better place, and I didn’t want the whole team to get burnt out on serving.
But it was also very selfish. I liked serving and I didn’t need help.
Yet I was robbing others of the blessing of serving. The conversations I got to be part of because I served someone, the tears of joy and gratitude in the eyes of someone on the receiving end — those were things that I was selfishly keeping all to myself. I had a team of people ready and willing to serve, but I was denying them the opportunity. After a season of struggling with this, I realized that even if I was perfectly capable of completing a task on my own, if there was someone else who could do it, I needed to let others serve. Other people in my church needed to experience the blessings that come with loving your neighbor and serving the Lord.
So, I bought the hardware needed for the job, and Larry got to work. He cleaned up the trash box, scrubbed it down, sawed through the side of it and created a door. Our trash collector was thrilled. Our yard looks so much better. And Larry got to serve the Lord.
As a church planter, it is easy to get caught up in the numbers trap. Every pastor has the tendency to let the weekly attendance determine the mood for the remainder of the week. We planted a church in a rough neighborhood and knew it would be a challenge to get people to engage because church, Christians and Jesus were not on their radar at all.
I had people tell me I was throwing all of my energy into a losing battle when we moved here. (“You’ll never get those people to go to church.”) We have seen some of them come to church. Some have given their hearts to the Lord and become some of our best members. But we have also seen some, like Larry, who haven’t made that leap yet and still see our little church as their neighborhood church. They mow the yard. They clean up trash on the sidewalk. They message me on Facebook if someone is looking in the windows. They care about the little church on the corner, because they see that church caring for its community.
The number of people in the seats for Sunday service is not the only measure for success in reaching a community. When Larry needs a pastor, he knows I am there. When he wants to do something to help his neighborhood, that is where he will serve. When he needs food, he turns to our church.
And if something ever happens to our little church, I know Larry will be right there, watching out for it.
Rev. Melody Smith serves as pastor at Homeland Community Wesleyan Church in Parkersburg, West Virginia.