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To serve, couple ‘takes on flesh’ of the neighbourhood

By Stuart Mann

In 1999, Jon Osmond started a church in Mississauga. He took the conventional route: he got a group of people together, came up with a plan and launched a worshipping community.

Ten years later, Mr. Osmond and his wife left the church and moved to downtown Toronto, a totally different context that required a different approach. They hope to start another church, but this time they’re going about it differently.

“We’ve become part of the humanity of the neighbourhood and taken on the flesh of the neighbourhood,” he says. “We’ve listened and learned and gone with a humble approach. We haven’t arrived and said, ‘Hey, we’re putting our flag in the ground here and we’re going to plant a church here and tell you the programs we’re going to run for you.’”

Mr. Osmond led a workshop at the Vital Church Planting conference on serving needs, one of the key components of becoming a missional church. He says Christians almost automatically start planning programs to help the community, but a better course of action is to listen and learn.

One of the first things Mr. Osmond and his wife did was join the neighbourhood association. “Instead of coming to them and saying ‘We’ve got all the answers to your problems,’ we’ve actually served with them. It usually means working for the betterment of the neighbourhood or some other function that will bring the community together. So my wife and I have just rolled up our sleeves and done everything from shovelling manure to arranging the pumpkins for the community pumpkin patch.”

He says the key thing is that they’re going to the neighbours rather than waiting for the neighbours to come to them. That has opened up some opportunities. “I’ve come as a servant but have been given opportunities to lead,” he says.

For example, some people in the neighbourhood wanted to have a carol sing. They came from different faith and no faiths. An email went around the neighbourhood association, asking for volunteers. He went to a planning committee, and when the people found out he was a pastor, they asked him to lead the carol sing.

“The learning is, I didn’t go to the neighbourhood association with the idea to do a carol sing. Instead, I listened and entered in, and the carol sing emerged beautifully out of that. Singing Joy to the World and Silent Night with people up and down the street was incredible.”

He says serving doesn’t have to be complicated or involve a lot of time or effort. In fact, he says the simplest acts of service, such as inviting someone over to your house for a meal, can be the most powerful. “I don’t think we should ever underestimate the power of hospitality and serving. You can see that in Jesus’ life. He shared food and entered people’s homes. Everything he did was serving.”

He quotes from the theologian Henri Nouwen: “I wonder more and more if the first thing I should do is to know people by name and eat and drink with them and listen to their stories and tell my own story and let them know with words, handshakes and hugs that you do not simply like them but truly love them.”

He says that’s good advice. “I’ve seen that happen over and over again in our neighbourhood. Just by extending hospitality and friendship, amazing relationships have opened up conversations.”

He says, however, that followers of Jesus have to go beyond simple acts of kindness. “We’re called to lay down our lives for people. Jesus, wherever you go, I will follow. I’ll take up my cross and follow you. Following Jesus into our neighbourhoods requires us to go beyond shovelling the snow off the sidewalk, to places where we struggle.”

He admits it’s not an easy task, especially when the acts of service seem insignificant or even pointless. “Sometimes we wonder, ‘Will these small acts of serving actually do anything?’ But the resurrection tells us that new creation is launched in Jesus and every act that we do is part of that larger picture. We have to tell ourselves that. The kingdom is happening, though sometimes it’s hidden, and we have to participate in it.”

This kind of commitment to service is only possible by having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, he says. “Without a deep transformative experience with the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, individually and as a team, it’ll be difficult to move past being nice to really radical acts of service. Even in the early church, some Christians stayed in cities where there was sickness to help, not because they were committed to a program, but because they were deeply rooted in Jesus and the call to compassion and service.”

He adds: “Jesus doesn’t go out and say, ‘This is how it’s done, come to me.’ He says, ‘God’s kingdom is coming, take up your cross and follow me.’ This isn’t just another random act of kindness project, it’s a deep devotion to Jesus.”