When I was a 21-year-old doing youth ministry in San Diego, some college students and I would occasionally hop in the car, stop to load up on one-pound bags of cheap candy, buzz across the border to Tijuana, and waltz into one of the barrios where children were playing.

We’d attract a large group of kids with the candy and then act out a scene from the Bible while the kids sucked on lollipops. Several of us spoke “Spanglish,” which allowed us to deliver the gospel in a somewhat meaningful way, and I remember being both awestruck and delighted that someone always wanted to know Christ.

Seeing God work on those occasions down in Tijuana, sporadic and disorganized though they were, fueled my passion for ministry, for bringing hope to the hopeless and light to souls that were dim.

What My Buddies and I Knew

Three decades later, I look back on those early experiences, and on one hand I concede that spontaneously quick-tripping the 17 miles to Mexico with my Jesus-loving buddies was the most natural thing we could have done. We were well-versed in the Great Commission, where Jesus exhorts his followers to go into “all nations,” which to us meant any place outside of Southern Cal.

We knew about the whole sheep-and-goats categorization, from Matthew 25: when you care for “one of the least of these brothers and sisters” of Jesus’, you care for Jesus himself, (v. 40).

We knew about Ephesians 2:8-10, where the apostle Paul reminds us that we are saved by grace through faith for a purpose, and that that purpose involves walking in “good works.” If there was better work than giving children free candy and Jesus, we weren’t at all sure what it was.

But then there’s the other hand.

The Flaws in Our Approach

While I applaud the abundance of passion my friends and I possessed, I must acknowledge that we lacked some important things—thoughtfulness in our approach, for example. Our Tijuana excursions may have been spiritually stimulating, but were they sustainable in the end? Further, did they really accomplish what we thought they accomplished, in terms of fulfilling the mandate of Christ?

Those little details in the Great Commission about making disciples and then teaching those disciples everything Jesus had said seemed to have been lost on us. Yes, it was wonderful to help those kids get rescued from sin and death, but didn’t they also deserve to know how to live the “life that is truly life”?

Letting Our Light Shine … But How?

At last count, I have pastored churches in five states, and in each context, I’ve viewed my role as that of a visionary, someone who walks people to the window, opens the blinds, and says, “Look at that great, big world, filled with people we get to serve!”

At Gloria Dei, where the average congregant age is a spry 32 years old, and one in five members is under the age of 13, the collective energy for “letting our light shine” by really seeing and really serving others is off the charts.

Two years ago, we raised a $125,000 to support 27 local ministries, including a local homeless outreach, the rescuing of women from human trafficking, the filling of food banks, and more. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we donated more than $10,000 in two weeks, and then several couples made the 1,000-mile trip southward, tools in hand, to help families rehang their drywall, rewire their electric, and get their ACs running again. Here lately, a couple dozen members have taken to working with refugees from Burma or Myanmar in our community, teaching them English week by week so that they can become U.S. citizens.

Same Frustrating Flaws

But as noble as these and other service-oriented initiatives have been, the same flaws inherent in those Tijuana escapades can plague our efforts here. Could a sizable financial gift satisfy our need for human connection? Was storm-chasing a sustainable approach? If 24 people out of 2,400 provide tutoring each week, did we all benefit as a result?

Were these the only ways we were choosing to “let our light shine,” we’d be leaving vast potential untapped. We had a whole lot of resources, and the world had a whole lot of need. Wasn’t there a way to connect the two?

Finding a Solution that Works

I first learned about the work of Compassion International long ago, from a postcard I’d received in the mail. I signed up to sponsor a child, but it wasn’t until decades later, when I came to Gloria Dei, that I reconnected with Compassion. The more I learned, the more I found to like.

I liked that Compassion met real needs in the lives of real people, and that I got to connect with those real people by sending and receiving letters from them.

I liked that Compassion worked through local churches, and in places I’d never been.

I liked that not just a small percentage of any given congregation could be involved, but that everyone could make a “Great Commission” impact.

I liked that Compassion helped people not just practically, but spiritually as well; yes, Jesus said to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, but didn’t he also long for people to experience Living Bread, Living Water, the clothes of righteousness?

Soon enough, I was connected to a type of service I’d never known … holistic, trustworthy, long-term.

Sustainable Work

Not long ago, Gloria Dei brought The Compassion Experience to our campus. There, in addition to the families that were already sponsoring children through Compassion, 30 more came on board.

As we set the parameters for our Compassion Experience, one of our pastors, Ben, had the bright idea to focus our child-sponsorship commitments in parts of the world where our mission initiatives were already underway. Together, we encouraged families that showed interest in sponsorship to select children from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Peru. Now, when our congregants made visits to these locations on our church’s annual mission trips, they could meet the children they’d come alongside.

Relational Work

Around the church, people began speaking of their sponsored children as though they were theirs biologically. “My Jhon,” and “my Diana,” and “my Abigail,” and “my Miguel.” I must admit, pictures of “my Johanna” and “my José” (both from Peru) sit framed atop my desk, and whenever a letter comes in from either of them, I push pause on the rest of life.

There is a continuity to our partnership with Compassion that was previously impossible to achieve. You sign on to sponsor a child, thinking it’s a prudent thing to do with $43 a month, but you soon realize that there is a person behind that financial gift, living in a family, in a city, in a life. That person begins to divulge things about himself, herself—favorite colors, beloved pets, books that are fun to read, a love for Jesus and his word.

You’ll learn that with that extra $20 you sent for a birthday surprise, “your José” bought electric-blue basketball shoes, and your heart for the mission and your love for God’s children will deepen.

Meaningful Work

Over time, you’ll begin to get substantive updates: “Today, I received Jesus as my Savior!”

And then, occasionally, a prayer request that will bring tears to your eyes: “Would you pray for my mother, that she would know Jesus as well?”

You’ll realize at some point in this experience that the “great, big world” you used to envision serving is one person and one more person and one more person after that, each with a pulse, a story, a dream. And that by walking the bridge that Compassion provides, you get to encounter that person up close.

Blessed to be a Blessing

Recently, my colleague Ben and I took a trip with Compassion to see their work in the DR, and I was delighted to learn that the head of that child-development center grew up as a “sponsored child” himself.

During our conversation, he said, “I was blessed as a child so that I can bless others now.”

These days, I look around my life—at my wife of 30 years, at our four kids, at the people I do ministry with—and the image that comes to mind is a cup overflowing, a la Psalm 23:5. Why would God bless me in this way? I always come away wondering.

Of course the answer is always the same.

We are blessed to be a blessing. We have much, to give much away. Thoughtfully, thoroughly, intimately, intentionally, we get to give much away. Why Compassion? Because in and through the Lord Jesus we’ve been given compassion and so, in and through the Lord Jesus, we give that compassion away.