As one who grew up in the church, I loved learning Bible stories. I memorized passages. I could be counted on to give the Sunday School answer. As time went on it became apparent to me that being able to recite Scripture was a good first step in my spiritual growth, not an end in itself. I needed to understand the verses and apply them to my own life.

Luke 10:27 is one of those passages: … ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, Love your neighbour as yourself’. Luke 6: 31 is another: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (I usually really think about this one when someone isn’t doing unto me like I think he or she should).

What does it mean to love your neighbour? What does that look like? James gives us some insight here (2:15-16): Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

Love is practical and we don’t need to look far to find our neighbours.

Diakonia is the Greek word that is translated as ‘service’. It conveys a sense of reconciliation, of giving without expectations. This challenges us but as it’s the kind of love and service Jesus modeled for us, it’s what we’re called to live out.

Let me share a story with you. A developing leader in a congregation was praying that the Holy Spirit would show her how she could practically love her neighbour. This was answered. There was a family in the neighbourhood of the church building that was in crisis. The parents were separated, there were four children and the second oldest had received a second cancer diagnosis and the prognosis was not good. This meant that the mom and daughter would essentially be living at the hospital out of town during treatment. The grandmother was lending all the support that she could on the home front, as was the father, while holding down jobs. You can imagine the stress involved on all levels: physical, emotional, spiritual and financial.

The leader knew she needed and wanted to do something. She talked with her mentor and her small group and they got excited about the idea. That led to a meeting with the grandmother, to offer assistance in the home (cleaning, etc.) as well as the offer to do some decorating in the bedrooms upstairs for the kids.

The work began – sleeves were rolled up and people dug out old paint clothes. More help was secured for some of the repair work that was required. Many consultations happened over paint chips and fabric as the kids had input to the project and helped with the work.

The planning and work needed support. The leader addressed the congregation and shared the need for both prayer support and financial assistance. The congregation responded and met those needs.

Aside from two or three small pieces, the work was completed a day before the mother came home from the hospital. The stay at home was brief. The treatment had not been successful and the daughter passed away in hospital within a short time.

The family continued to be loved. The funeral was conducted from the church building and another member of the congregation was able to minister at the elementary school where two of the children attended.

Diakonia. Serving without expectations. Loving people as people, not as projects. It is challenging – the expectations creep in before you realize it sometimes. The story could have ended there. Many times that’s what happens, and that’s OK. We’re called to love practically. The rest is very much up to God.

What role do we play as leaders in helping others experience diakonia? Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Preach it and teach it. Encourage people to be open to the leading of the Spirit for opportunities to apply God’s love and word.  Create a climate of possibility and expectation.
  • Model it ourselves. Otherwise it’s just all talk.
  • Identify and support emerging leaders. That’s an investment of many things, including time.
  • Work to create an environment where it’s okay to try different things, even when those things don’t unfold according to our expectations.
  • Establish functional systems for discipleship, prayer support and finances.
  • Stop and celebrate the good things along the way.

Now onto the rest of the story! Connection with the family remains – including the kids. The mother and grandmother surrendered to Christ and have been baptized. They are regular participants at worship services and active in small groups. The grandmother is training to be a small group leader and is absolutely excited and thrilled about it! The story isn’t finished yet; God has many more pages to fill.

Practical love does make a difference. As we love people in this way, I pray that we will learn to be less fixated on the results we want to see, less fixated on the behaviours we expect from those we’re serving and more focused on our own hearts and attitudes. After all, God hasn’t finished writing our stories either. We need to be people that God entrusts with new believers so that we can make disciples (sounds like another Bible verse, doesn’t it?). I hope we embrace this with an enthusiasm that matches the grandmother from the story:  a huge smile, dancing eyes, and an ‘I can’t wait to get started’ attitude.

Rev. Kim Henderson is the Director of Personnel for The Free Methodist Church in Canada