This year’s theme is “The People.” Today we are exploring….

The People who taught me what missions really looks like

Adam Tarver

Adam Tarver is the Minister to Youth at West Hills Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He studied Religion and Applied Psychology at Carson-Newman University and received his M.Div. from McAfee School of Theology. Adam is an avid Atlanta Braves fan and disc golfer.

When I was in college I was a Bonner scholar. This is a service learning scholarship that gave us some money for school for doing 140 hours of community service, or roughly 10 hours per week. I started this program thinking two things: 1) This is a great Christian mission opportunity, 2) how much need is there really in this small community?

I went to college at Carson-Newman University which has roughly 2,000 students. The university is located in a small college town called Jefferson City, Tennessee, which is about 40 miles east of Knoxville. Jefferson City is actually located in a fairly large county, but I still envisioned that there really couldn’t be that much need in this small town…but was I ever wrong.

I spent my first two years at Carson-Newman volunteering with Habitat for Humanity where I was continually faced with low-economic families coming in with hopes and dreams that someone could help their family. My final two years I spent volunteering with Boy’s and Girl’s Club and meeting children who had experienced more in their short lives than anyone should in a lifetime. Both of these experiences taught me that I really didn’t know as much as I thought.

I assumed that Jefferson City had their fair share of low economic families, split families, and the list could go on and on…but families that didn’t have electricity, water, indoor plumbing, and heat? Surely not. I was in for a rude awakening when I began to realize that this small, close knit community had way more need than I had ever imagined. Maybe I don’t know this community all that well after all?

The part of the program that really threw a wrench into my assumptions was that the Bonner Program was non-religious. The program was actually government funded, which meant that we couldn’t do any direct “Christian” mission work. I almost quit the program.

But I am so glad I didn’t. The four years I spent in that program took the small box in which I placed God and how God works in the world through missions, and absolutely blew it up. I found that there is so much happening in our communities and in our world that can only be attributed to the works of God and God’s people, but is done not directly in the name of Jesus, and that’s ok. God is working in so many miraculous and mysterious ways, that who was I to limit what that could and couldn’t look like? This created in me a shift in how I permanently understand missions and the way that God works in our world. There are lots of great things that are being done in our world directly in the name of Jesus, but there’s also plenty that not directly in his name. But at the end of the day both are working together to further God’s Kingdom on Earth, and I can’t ignore that.

A number of years later I took a class in seminary on missions called “Discovering the Mission of God in the 21st Century” (now ThAT is a bold title for you…). In this class our major assignment was to create an asset map our community (meaning organizations, people, things, etc. that are working toward meeting the needs of your community). After we did that we were asked to find an immigrant community in our area, and find ways to connect with them, spend time with them, and learn about their experience and how they understand mission. I got connected with a Korean community a few miles from where I lived, and once again my narrow understanding of my community’s needs and the mission of God were blown wide open.

I have found time and time again that no matter how much I think I know about my community, there is always a deeper level of need than I had ever imagined. But the beautiful thing I have found too is that God is always already working there, and thank God for that. If people had to wait on me to find them so that God could meet their needs they would probably never be met. What I found is that missions is a whole lot less about me and how I see the world, as it is being open enough to discover where and how God is already working. Once I begin to see the world like this, the question is no longer what can I do to help, but rather what is God already doing, and how can we join in with that?