Even with the best of intentions, things have a way of going south.
When we launched our outreach ministry (at Mariners Church in Orange County, Calif.), the first thing we thought to do was meet the basic needs of the people we were serving. Sounds reasonable, right? They need groceries; we’ll give them a bag of food. They need winter coats? Got it. School supplies? Check. Then we’ll teach them about Jesus and they’ll pray the prayer and bam! We’re all good.
If we really believe in an irresistible Savior whose love is the most powerful force on earth, why is it we cling to manipulative tools, gimmicks and cheap material resources to all but bribe someone into the kingdom of heaven?
Let’s say you’re visiting a village in Africa, or a squatter’s camp on an earthquake-ravaged island, or a slum in downtown Santa Ana, and you’re handing out mosquito nets or water bottles or bags of groceries to the residents there. The long line of people waiting is a clear sign they really need what you’ve brought. It’s a captive audience.
As you pass the nets across the folding table, or hand a bag of food to a mother holding a sick baby in her other arm, do you say, “This is a free gift to you and all your neighbors from God-loving people who care about you,” or do you start asking them about their relationship with Christ?
There’s a subtlety here I don’t want you to miss, because I have missed it many times.
If you’re still holding on to the gift as you ask them about Jesus, there’s a very good chance the two will be connected in their mind, and not in the way you may have intended. Just for a moment, they may think something like, “Do I need to say yes to Jesus to get this water?”
Most of the time, we’re not even conscious of whether we’re still hanging on to the gift, but sometimes I think we are.
The way we present the gospel can sometimes feel like a business transaction: “If you give me this or respond to what I’m asking, Jesus will do this for you. He’ll save you from hell if you say these words. He’ll provide a meal for you if you raise your hand.”
Certainly, there are people who recognize this and work the system to their advantage. But the people we minister to have taught us that receiving the gospel is more than just a simple transaction. We often assume we need material incentives to motivate people. We think we need to bribe them into wanting a relationship with God. We need to convince them Christ will solve their problems, whether they are emotional, relational or financial. But so often, despite the apparent material needs they have, that isn’t what they really want. More than anything what they want and need is relationship.
Being Authentically Generous
This transactional method—offering people reward for the right behavior or response—is very effective at motivating people. It works well in the business world and is frequently used by parents as they try to shape the behavior of their children. Unfortunately, we sometimes use this method when we present the gospel to people. Intentionally or not, we manipulate people using the power of stuff. When we achieve success this way, though our numbers may look great and we may see visible responses to our work of ministry, the success we achieve is not consistent with the heart of the gospel message.
Transactional ministry is often done with good motives, but I wonder if deep down we embrace it because we like the way it makes us feel. We like the visible results. And the people we are serving need what we offer them, even if they have to jump through a hoop to get it. But this way of ministering to people reflects a lack of genuine love—and a lack of faith.
It is ministry that is centered on doing what makes us feel good, ministry that must have immediate, visible result to be considered successful. True spiritual fruit isn’t always produced immediately, though. When we minister in this way, we focus on the short-term results and lack faith in God’s work over the long haul.
So is there a way for us to be authentically generous with people without trying to get something in return? Yes. It’s generosity that overflows from a heart that is satisfied in god, a heart that is willing and ready to sacrifice for others—not to get something in return, but as the natural fruit of God’s love for us. And this requires a deeper commitment to really knowing and loving people.
Our conversations about Jesus shouldn’t be the only ones we have with the people we serve. We have to earn the right to be heard and to share the gospel with people. And we do this be sacrificially loving and serving them, not because we have to, but because we want to.
When it comes to the work of Jesus, we need to show up with a loving heart and open arms, letting the Holy Spirit do the work of bring people closer to God.
Laurie Beshore is the founding pastor of Mariners Outreach Ministries in Orange County, Calif. She has been married for 33 years to Kenton Beshore, the senior pastor of Mariners Church.
Note: The preceding is an excerpt from Laurie Beshore’s book, Love Without Walls: Learning to Be a Church in the World For the World. The book is designed to not only better equip next-generation outreach ministries to spread the message of Christ, but also to help every Christian more faithfully live out the Great Commission in their daily lives.