On a regular September afternoon in Trenton, NJ, loud joyful sounds of teenagers and children filled the room of our church’s afterschool program. I methodically counted my volunteers in order to most effectively distribute my helping hands, when suddenly a young lady in all gothic attire interrupted my routine saying, “My friend said I could help you, so I’m here although I don’t like kids.” It would have been easy in the midst of the creative chaos to say, “Let’s set up a time to talk.” And although I’m sure my face didn’t hide my sense of confusion, I do remember instinctively replying, “OK, that’s great” because I could sense a strong desire from her to be purposefully connected to what was happening in that place.

The common understanding of “if you build it, they will come” governs the way many choose to do ministry, and simultaneously counters creativity necessary for transformation in many settings. The ministry I have been fortunate to engage in has been pushed towards creative measures out of a lack of resources reflected in our budgets, buildings, social capital, etc. Consequently, true partnerships have been at the heart of every initiative undertaken in our community. An unwavering commitment to the high school three blocks from our sanctuary fueled my response to this seemingly unfit match who felt led to collaborate with us in service to our community. The promise of God adding to the community of believers in Acts 2:42-47 is a practice God continues to this day; yet, the challenge faced by many of our congregations is the ability to recognize opportunities and partners that surface as we go about our daily business.

Our congregation has (in jest) been accused of thinking it’s a big church even though our official numbers indicate otherwise. But this misperception lies in the inability of some to look beyond the result. At one point, we were one of five churches in our presbytery that combined their limited financial resources to afford one part-time youth director for all to share. It has taken literally thousands of hands from the surrounding community to help sustain a free afterschool program for the past 20 years. Teenagers’ tears have overflowed from seeing disparities between themselves and kids their age who live 10 miles away. Consequently, with every unexpected challenge, it has been imperative that we be proactive in introducing tools (i.e. diversity training, leadership development seminars, college/ work readiness, English as a Learned Language) as a way of honoring the God who called us to work together.

A teen, who had transitioned from being in our elementary age afterschool program into volunteering during her high school years, once asked me to meet with her and her parole officer to confirm that this teen was indeed “one of ours.” She remorsefully admitted to poor judgment and we as a church were committed to loving her through her growing period. Had I been a member of a membership committee, perhaps I would have taken into account the fact that she never filled out a membership application, tithed at our church, or attended Sunday worship. But when posed with the question, “Was she one of ours?” my answer was a firm “YES!” The teenager had identified our church as “hers” and that was the outward sign of a powerful covenant that had been established through the years.

There is no prescribed method to ensure that one’s work be a relevant and transformative ministry in the community. However, there are at least six foundation stones we have learned are necessary for ministry to have a true, long lasting, and positive impact:

  1. Recognize that all the people you encounter were led by God to you. We don’t believe in accidents but rather a skilled choreography with a purposeful reason.
  2. Let there be an acknowledgment that everyone is a gifted child of God bringing her uniqueness into whatever is being done.
  3. Leadership and all active participants of the ministry are responsible for seeing the gifts people bring with them and one needs to be intentional about incorporating such gifts into the life of the ministry.
  4. A healthy balance between traditional order and flexible openness is required. What has always been done may not be what is best at this time.
  5. Transparency is nonnegotiable. No place is perfect and although that seems to go without saying, when it’s not said and “imperfections” are in the spotlight, a sense of betrayal and pain will easily shatter relationships that took years to foster.
  6. Know the power of the message you embody.

We live in a time when people have all the tools and often the ability to become overnight expert advocates for or against any issue because they yearn to be connected to a message that matters. Providentially, Romans 10:17 reminds us that faith will follow the hearing of the message of Jesus Christ. We do live in a culture that often seems to respond antagonistically with “Why should I?” to an invitation to believe in the gospel, but we ought to be quicker at fearlessly responding, “Why wouldn’t you?” We must never forget that the true message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful message we can ever communicate to another person. It is also a message we are called to embody as a church. Harmonizing all the gifted members of the body of Christ is task that requires prayerful discernment but we know God’s grace extends further than our eyes can see. So we are called to “be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Alexandra Zareth serves on the leadership team at Westminser Presbyterian Church in Trenton, NJ, as a field staff for the Racial Ethnic Young Women Together Network of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and as Project Director for Esperanza, USA’s National Programs.