In Christian community development circles, there is a story about a ministry working in an underserved community. Suburban churches were interested doing weekend service projects with this ministry. Unfortunately, with limited experience and training, there was little that these well-intentioned congregations could actually contribute. Ministry staff decided to tell the visitors they had a wall that needed painting. The visitors would spend an afternoon cheerfully painting the wall, and go away pleased with the notion that they had done something to benefit the neighborhood. The following week, another church group would come in—and repaint the same wall.
To be clear, we’re not recommending that anyone use the “repaint the wall” approach. It’s just an illustration to show how challenging it can be to find ways to serve that actually make a difference. As graduate students, you are learning to use data and critically evaluate impact. It is vitally important to ask hard questions and think critically. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to become cynical about well-intentioned groups that don’t really accomplish anything, and in some instances can actually cause harm. Not all short-term projects are bad. There are some walls that really do need to be painted, abandoned lots that need to be cleaned up, and weeds that need to be pulled. And sometimes God uses these little projects in a bigger way. What if a volunteer has a life-changing experience as a result of participating in a service project? What if God leads the weekend warrior to reflect spiritually, rethink his or her preconceived notions, and pursue a career—perhaps in education, research, or non-profit fundraising— that will enable the person to actually help address deeper societal problems? How does one think critically but remain hopeful about people and the future?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart focused on Jesus’ words: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).” Jesus’ followers need to have both qualities. A tough mind without a tender heart can be cold, analytical and detached, merely going through the motions without seeing real people. In contrast, a tender heart without a tough mind can be sentimental and naïve. Without critical thought, a person can believe they have done something to change the world, when really all they have done is appeased their own conscience. Jim Collins, author of Good-to-Great, describes “The Stockdale Paradox” named after a U.S. military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. According to Collins, an organization or person needs to be strong-minded enough to confront the brutal facts of the current reality, but at the same time maintain unwavering hope that he or she will prevail despite obstacles.
It is vital to think critically, ask hard questions, and challenge assumptions. It is also important to maintain a positive, hopeful mindset, a humble attitude, and a willingness to listen to and learn. We should resist the temptation to look cynically at others and focus on how they can do more harm than good. Commit to using your knowledge and skills in a positive, respectful way—to help well-intentioned, but perhaps inadequately prepared congregations and people—to contribute and grow. The proper balance of hope and critical thinking will best prepare us to address deeper societal challenges—like racism, poverty, and inequalities—facing our communities.
- Have you ever participated in a short-term community service or missions project? Describe where and when. What did you learn? What were the strengths and limitations of the project?
- Describe your field of study. How is critical analysis used in your area?
- How comfortable do you feel critiquing Christian efforts? What might be some barriers to constructive reform of church-related programs or projects?
- How might you use the knowledge and skills you are gaining in a positive way to help congregations to grow and contribute?
 Martin Luther King Jr. A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart. Accessed 26 March 2018 at: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/tough-mind-and-tender-heart-1
 Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap–and Others Don’t. 1st ed. New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001.