By Paul N. Hanson
Gift giving can be problematic, right? You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that many people give Christmas gifts that they would like to receive. That is probably not even a conscious decision. They simply have a pleasant feeling about an item, an experience, a treat; they universalize that good feeling without realizing they are doing so, and they make a gift of it. These givers get great pleasure from giving what they love. You can see it on their faces. (Watch them—when the gift is opened, they are looking at the gift with a big smile.)
Other people have learned how to observe, listen, and take note of what someone prefers or needs. Their gifts often elicit a sense of awe: “How did you know? It’s just what I needed!” These givers are focused on the person to whom they are giving. They are looking in their eyes, not at the present!
My wife and I have adopted a “no surprises rule”. We simply ask one another what we want, down to the color, size, and make. And we get that. And give it. It is less dramatic, but this way I can be sure that I’m not projecting my wants onto her (like a new power tool) and ultimately disappointing both of us.
Some churches are reflecting on this very dynamic—not with gift giving but with their ministry. They realize that they have been only offering to their neighbors what they themselves prefer. They have opened their church doors so people could perhaps come join in the worship, the fellowship, and the gifts that are important to the hosts and members.
But when the doors remain closed, when worship and fellowship and food cannot happen in that way, it begs the question: “Is that all we are about? Do we even have a gift that others want or need?”
Here is the crucial moment. Do these churches and their leaders find ways to say, “Let’s find out what they want and need! Let’s just ask!” It seems simple, but honestly, congregations have assumed (or prescribed) the answer without really ever asking. That is risky. What if we find out that our goodies aren’t what they want or need? We might have to learn some new recipes.
Then comes another, even more important choice point. What if we aren’t automatically the host, the ones who do the inviting, the gifting? Maybe true relationship calls us to be other peoples’ guests. To eat their favorite foods, learn the songs they know, receive the gifts they offer. Not so we can lure them into our circle but for the sake of knowing them and being In Christ together.
How do you get yourself invited into someone’s life? Well, you try things. You have a conversation and see where it leads. You notice what they say, and keep track of it. You talk about your own questions and needs instead of giving your answers. And you hang out there to see what happens—what the Holy Spirit might do with that moment.
When we get to that space, we can’t help but have a sense of awe at what God is doing. We might well wonder where it is church really happens and why we were so focused on inviting people into the church building in the first place.
Could this pandemic be a gift? No way. But let’s seize the moment to ask some questions, pay attention to how we give gifts, and dare to try something new in this New Year.
How do we connect with others safely during this pandemic? We can listen to our neighborhoods and communities by reflecting on who lives there, and we can also invite engagement outside our doors in places like our parking lots. For example, consider putting up an outdoor prayer drop-off station to listen to what your neighbors need and pray for them. Here’s one way to do this.
About the Author
Paul N. Hanson is a Senior Philanthropic Advisor for Luther Seminary.
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