A community activist I know describes the frustration she feels with fellow members of her congregation who work hard at their food pantry yet show little enthusiasm for advocating to change public policies that cause hunger in the first place. While I agree that we could all be more active in addressing the systems that cause hunger, let me play devil’s advocate and suggest reasons why direct service is important. A large majority of US congregations engage in direct service, (somewhere between 75% and 85% according to reliable surveys). There must be a reason. Here are five.
- It feels good. When you reach out you gain a better understanding of yourself and other people. It’s nearly universal that people who help other people feel a deep satisfaction from it. A volunteer at a homeless shelter in New York City said, “I’m a reasonably successful lawyer, but I have not gotten as much pleasure out of almost anything as I get out of this.” He tells about coming into the Port Authority terminal late one night on a bus from the airport “and one of the guys who’d stayed at the shelter saw me and called out my name. I felt like a million dollars!”
- We connect with others through service. In workshops I lead for service providers, I often hear people express this thought: “It feels like I received more than I gave.”
- We connect with our families. Eugene Roehlkepartain advocates what the calls “family ministry” as a way to connect intergenerationally. This is different from what many congregations do when they organize service to others programmatically by age groups and for individuals, with children doing some projects, youth doing others projects, adults (or particular subgroups of adults) doing still other projects. Roehlkepartain encourages congregations to engage the entire family in service. Family service nurtures growth in faith, fosters a lifelong commitment to service and justice, and strengthens families through time spent together.
- It provides important opportunities for Christian formation. Martin Copenhaver observes that it is rare to hear someone speak of “service” and “learning” in the same breath. “I have concluded that we need to approach ministries of service as opportunities for Christian formation, without apology and with great expectation. Of course, we have always known that service in the name and Spirit of Christ has formative power. Many of us can point to times when we were given the opportunity to serve as perhaps the most formative experiences of all. But I think we have been largely apologetic about that, as if that formation were an unintended and extraneous by-product.”
- It’s an important first step toward improvement in people’s lives. Some years ago, Kami O’Keefe, then Director of Development for Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City, described the many interventions intended to break the cycle of hopelessness experienced by new guests—including hot meals, counseling and referral, and medical help. “All of those things are band-aids, but they’re steps forward. . .Without the band-aid, the wound never heals.”
Victor Claman and David Butler, Acting On Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference. (Boston: Insights, 1994),104.
 Claman and Butler, 113.
 Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids, Mi.: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 62.