Back in the 1950s, St. John’s United Methodist Church was known colloquially as “the doctors’ church.” With close to 2500 members, it was prominent, affluent, and influential. Within the next two decades, though, racial tensions, neighborhood shifts, and white flight shrank the congregation to a shell of its former glory.
But, as is the trajectory of so much of redemptive history where death precedes ascension, resurrection was coming. By the mid-1970s, the UMC’s youngest district superintendent ever, Frank McRae, had assumed the pastorate at St. John’s and set about revitalizing the congregation through a missional makeover. Current associate pastor Scott Morris reports, “McRae preached a sermon, soon after he got here, called ‘The Queen is Dead.’ His point was that if St. John’s was going to survive, it had to give up the thought of being a queen church and become a servant church.” New community ministries followed: a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and, a few years later, an outreach to persons with AIDS. Gradually, under McRae’s powerful preaching and the church’s invigorated outreach, St. John’s began to regain its vitality.
Morris moved to Memphis in the mid-1980s, holding both an M.Div. and an MD. He’d written to Rev. McRae, asking whether the community oriented St. John’s would be open to partnering with him in his dream of opening a church-supported health ministry for the city. Morris explains that he had “always been interested in the church” and wanted to be professionally involved. “But the thought of preaching 52 sermons a year sent shivers down my spine,” he confesses. He’d developed a passion for healthcare from seeing stories of healing so prominent in scripture. Frustrated by what he saw as the Church’s seeming lack of attentiveness to healthcare, Morris decided to pursue both seminary and medical school. He contacted a number of seminaries to learn whether they could support this sort of wedded vision. “The responses were either ‘that’s a nutty idea’ or ‘we like the idea but we don’t have anything we could offer you,’” Morris reports. The one exception, he adds, was Yale Divinity School. An administrator there sent back a 10-page statement on the school’s view of combining medicine and ministry. His search over, Morris applied and was accept at Yale. He says the course of his lifelong vocation was set one day while sitting in the chaplain’s office at Yale Medical School. “On his desk was a pamphlet entitled, How to start a church-based health clinic,” Morris recalls. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Rev. McRae responded well to Morris’ letter, inviting him to join the staff at St. John’s as associate pastor. Shortly thereafter the church purchased a building in which to house the new health clinic. Today, roughly a quarter of a century later, the Church Health Center’s 200+ staff and volunteers receive some 39,000 patient visits annually, and it is has become the model for about 30 other faith-based clinics nationwide.
Morris continues to serve both on staff at St. John’s and as executive director of the Church Health Center. As Associate Pastor, he preaches at least every three months, and jokes that recently the current senior pastor “weaseled me into preaching once a month for the next three months.” Morris loves teaching adult Sunday School and he’s taught the same class at St. John’s for 27 years and regulates his travel and speaking schedule nationally so as to never miss more than two sessions in a row. When asked whether his teaching particularly emphasizes health care, he responds: “Yes, it does, in that it’s a straight-up Bible study. And a third of the gospels has to do with healing the sick. It’s on every page. You cannot ignore it.”
“The call to discipleship is to preach, to teach, and to heal,” Morris emphasizes. “It’s not just the preach and teach part. You don’t get to take a pass from the healing part. You can’t say, ‘Well, let the people in the white
coats do that.’ If you’re doing that you’re ignoring a third of the Gospel.”
Morris seeks to inculcate this message in a number of ways in his preaching and teaching. One is to emphasize stewardship of the body. “God gave us this body for a reason, and we have an obligation to take care of it,” Morris stresses. “How we ever came to believe that we connect to God from the neck up is beyond me.”
Another is to model a healthy lifestyle. He laments, “In the midst of the obesity epidemic in America, clergy are 20 percent heavier than the rest of the population. You cannot have a healthy congregation if you do not have healthy leaders.” One of Morris’ pet peeves is the calorie-laden binge that is the typical church supper. “Every church I know is built around communal meals, and yet the least healthy meal you can eat every week is at church,” he argues. “We have blessed the sin of gluttony in exchange for fellowship.”
The call to discipleship is to preach, to teach, and to heal. It’s not just the preach and teach part. You don’t get to take a pass from the healing part. -- Associate Pastor Scott Morris, M.D.
Morris has also helped St. John’s, and other congregations, to incorporate more body movement in worship. “Our bodies are meant to move,” he says. “Everything you do in worship does not need to be just sitting on your rear end with your head bowed. Find a way to move!” At St. John’s, parishioners have made use of several bible studies and 6-week devotional series that combine walking with talking. “You may have noticed that Jesus walked everywhere he went,” says Morris wryly. So the church offers studies called Walking with Jesus, Walking with Paul, and Walking with Moses. “We need to embrace the physicality of our existence within worship,” the preacher-physician emphasizes.
In his preaching and teaching, Morris encourages believers to imitate the ways of Jesus—for the good of their bodies as well as their souls. As an example, Morris tells his congregants that “We should eat the way Jesus ate. Jesus always ate close to the ground. He ate locally-grown. And he ate together with other people. I don’t think Jesus would ever have gone through a drive-through and eaten in the car.”
While Morris typically likes to preach from the lectionary and doesn’t have a particular passage that’s a favorite for drawing attention to questions of health, he did build the Church Health Center’s core values around Colossians 3:12-14. “Those virtues—gentleness, kindness, compassion, humility, patience, love—are what we think makes life worth living,” he explains. “They may not be virtues you’d normally hear about at a doctor’s office but they are what each of us needs in our life in order to live the healthy life.”
Morris doesn’t suggest that churches can replace doctors and hospitals. He just wants church leaders to understand the profound influence they can have in their parishioners’ lives when it comes to their health. “Only 10 percent of what your health means has to do with doctors and hospitals and such,” he says. “90 percent has to do with your behavior and the things brought into your environment. Those are all things we can actually change.”
In addition to providing direct patient care, the Church Health Center (CHC) also trains lay persons as “Health Promoters.” Marvin Stockwell, the CHC’s Director of Communications, explains that these are lay parishioners who learn how to identify strokes, give insulin shots, and educate their community about things like prostate cancer and STDs. “They are not health care professionals,” Stockwell says, “but they are given the skills to cultivate the health ministry within a congregation and just assist with providing correct information.” To date the CHC has trained over 1,000 health promoters.
Each year the CHC hosts a conference to teach church leaders around the country how to implement health ministries. As Morris told a reporter from the local Memphis Flyer newspaper, “We don’t question whethe
r a church should be involved with health care—that’s assumed. We focus on implementation, on the nuts-and-bolts of it.” The CHC also helps churches launch wellness centers as well as clinics. Its own Wellness Center was established nine years after the original clinic and has served over 120,000 visitors. CHC’s online magazine, CHReader, is a robust resource for pastors and church leaders desiring to learn more about the faith-and-health connection. It sports numerous practical tools and resources, including healthy recipes for feeding groups of 100 people or more.
At St. John’s, a core belief is that the Gospel restores people to health. Its own health programs include a recovery ministry called “The Way,” a twice-monthly dinner for patients with AIDS called “Feast for Friends,” a community garden, and the Wednesday night “Body and Soul” ministry. The latter is led by Nina Gourley and focuses on healthy eating, exercise, spiritual growth, and the disciplines that contribute to wholeness.
Morris believes access to healthcare is a justice issue. He chose to come to Memphis in 1985 because of its high rates of poverty and the medically uninsured. Today not much has changed. Shelby County is estimated to have some 145,000 residents without health insurance. Morris thinks even those disturbing numbers are too low since they don’t capture Memphis’ undocumented workers.
The CHC targets the working poor who lack insurance. Patients pay on a sliding scale that is based on income. Typically office visits range from $15 to $20. Staff believe this approach protects patients’ dignity. As staffer Mary Gilleland told a local reporter, “The poor don’t want a hand-out. They just want something they can afford.”
Morris is hopeful that the federal government’s health care reforms may help to reduce the number of uninsured families. “There is enormous potential to do good through the Affordable Care Act,” he says. At the same time, though, Morris doesn’t think the most important answers lie mainly with Washington. “That’s not a political statement,” he says. It just that he believes that reform of health care “can only come community by community.”
For Morris, the healthcare reform most needed is in the way we think about health itself—especially in two areas. The first concerns what Morris sees as an unbiblical dichotomy of the spirit and the body. “What we have come to do is put the body on one side and say it is the purview of science and medicine,” he argues. “We put the spirit on the other side and say it is OK for the church to mess around with your spirit, but it should never actually care about our bodies.” Such a dichotomy is not faithful to the biblical witness of humans as body-spirit unities.
The second concerns what Morris called our “unholy love affair with technology.” Too many people, he contends, believe that they can live however they want, and if they get sick, healthcare technology will be able to deal with that on the back end. “We want to take the easy way out. But we’ve got to learn to take responsibility; to find ways to live healthier lives.” For Morris, community is a vital key. “Nobody can live a faithful live alone—that’s why we have churches. And nobody can be healthy by themselves either, because we need each other.”
Ultimately, of course, it is God who is the healer. But for this minister-physician, “it is the duty of the church, with all the help of modern medicine, to participate in that work.”
“I’m bit by the materialistic bug. I like cars and I like nice things,” admits Michael Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio. One Sunday in 2004 he came across a two-page spread in the Sunday paper. On one side was an ad for a BMW (“lease it for only $800 a month”). On the other was a photo of a starving child by the side of a road in Darfur, Sudan. As he read about what was the first genocide of the 21st century (and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at that time), Slaughter wondered why he and other Christians “Knew so much more about the sedans than the Sudans of the world.”
So during a Sunday sermon in December, 2004, he told his congregation, “A million people could die in the Sudan this year if they don’t get seed in the ground.” The Janjaweed—violent, horse-riding militias deployed to terrorize the populace--had burned many in Darfur off their land. “Christmas is not our birthday, it’s Jesus’ birthday,” Slaughter continued, and he challenged them to consider taking whatever amount of money they spent on their family for Christmas and giving an equal amount of money to the Sudan Project. That is the kind of gift Jesus would be excited about.
That year the church raised $317,000 in their first “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” miracle offering. The money went to buy bags of seed and farming supplies for peasants in south Darfur so they could grow crops to feed their families. After a year of hard work and help from farming experts with UMCOR (United Methodist Committee On Relief, Ginghamsburg’s partner on the ground in Darfur), the farmers reaped a bountiful harvest. Says Slaughter, “For every bag of seed we gave out, there was a 19 bag return. It was like a miracle. We put 5,209 families back into the farming business that year. We supplied 23,000 folks with food.” The Sudanese families used some of the money they made from farming to buy back children (900 of them) who had been sold into slavery. They also had seed leftover for the next year’s planting.
Slaughter thought the children of Ginghamsburg would balk when their parents told them Christmas was going to be simpler so that they could help kids in Darfur. To his surprise and delight, the children heartily embraced the project. “Many were saying things like, ‘Mom, kids will die in Darfur if you get me anything so don’t get me any present.” Even beyond the Christmas event, some children continued to carry the message. They’d ask their friends not to bring gifts to their birthday parties, but to finance the Darfur fund instead. To this day, Slaughter reports, “Kids are coming up to me all the time with envelopes with $100-and-something dollars or $200-and-something dollars.”
In 2005, the church raised $535,000 more, which UMCOR used to train teachers and build and refurbish schools. That year 22,000 Sudanese children were able to get an education because of the money Ginghamsburg invested. UMCOR also started life skills training centers to teach young men and women who had grown up knowing only war to learn trades for supporting themselves and eventually their families.
“Water is peace,” say the Ginghamsburg-sponsored African staff, people who know what it is to be without clean water. In 2006, this lack of access to water made it difficult for farmers to grow crops and for herders to feed their livestock. It also made water-borne diseases a serious issue. So that year, the one million dollars Ginghamsburg gave was used to rehabilitate and construct water yards—locations containing wells and separate accesses to water for human consumption and for agricultural use—that gave clean water access to 75,000 people and lowered instances of disease. These water yards were purposely built near schools in order to support the health of Darfur’s children.
Now the members of Ginghamsburg are raising funds for Darfur in a variety of creative ways. Artists from the church and surrounding area donate artwork to be sold at a show called “heART4SUDAN.” Proceeds are donated to the Sudan Project. The kids host an annual Christmas Bazaar that sells “kid-powered gifts and presents like homemade baked goods, dog treats, candles, and jewelry.” This year, they raised over $18,000.
To date, Ginghamsburg and its 118 partner churches, schools, and businesses have invested about $5.6 million dollars in the Sudan Project. As of December 2012, more than 250,000 Sudanese have benefitted:
• 80,000+ have been fed via agriculture projects
• 243 schools have been built or rehabilitated
• 194 teachers have been trained
• 29, 243 students have enrolled in school over the course of the project
• 808 graduates have graduated from the three Life Skills Centers
• 19 water yards have been implemented
The project’s next phase, Slaughter reports, is to start new United Methodist faith communities in Aweil, South Sudan. These churches are envisioned as “empowering centers” in their communities, involved in growing disciples through long-term, developmental programs.
by Laura Merricks, with Amy L. Sherman
Michael Slaughter was 27 in 1979 when he moved to Tipp City, Ohio, to become pastor to Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church. He was the first full-time minister for the small, rural congregation in a mostly blue-collar area near Dayton, Ohio. Until then the church, founded in 1863, had been served by circuit riders and then part-time pastors studying at a nearby seminary. When Slaughter arrived, the flock numbered about 90 and its yearly budget was $27,000. Today, 34 years later, nearly 5,000 people attend Ginghamsburg UMC’s three campuses. Its budget now is in the multi-millions—and 63 percent of it goes out the door to support local outreach and foreign missions.
The numbers are impressive. But Slaughter’s far more interested in growing the church’s “gospel influence” than its numbers. His story of perseverance offers several lessons for pastors eager to nurture missional communities that love mercy and do justice.
The Early Days
When he graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with his M.Div., the Methodist hierarchy considered Slaughter a radical. They decided to send him to the rural Ohio church so he wouldn’t mess up a larger urban one. “They told me if I did a good job, in three or four years I could move to a town church,” the 61-year-old Slaughter recalls. “I guess I haven’t done a good enough job in 34 years to move to a town church since I’m still here,” he laughs.
Slaughter grew up in a Methodist church and had a conversion experience at age 18. “I’m a product of the Jesus Movement,” he says. At the University of Cincinnati, he studied social work and was discipled by Campus Crusade for Christ. But he was also reading widely. His discovery of some “prophets”--people like Tony Campolo, John Perkins, Tom Skinner, and Ron Sider—profoundly shaped his view of the Church and its work in the world. At United Theological Seminary, Howard Snyder was a mentor and his dissertation director while he worked on his D.Min.
Slaughter came preaching a new song to the congregants at Ginghamsburg, one that called the flock to imitate Jesus’ word-and-deed ministry of sacrificial love. It was a message many didn’t like. In his first six months, attendance shrank from 90 to about 50. Most who left were those Slaughter calls the “resistors.” These were folks who could trace their family’s membership at Ginghamsburg back into the 19th century. “They thought the church was theirs and the pastor was there to baptize them, preach to them, and give them communion,” Slaughter explains. But he insisted that the Church is a mission outpost in the world, God’s alternative community. To make the point, he spent his entire first year preaching through Acts.
He began with the concept of repentance from Peter’s sermon in chapter 2. The following week he tackled baptism, arguing that “to be baptized in the name of Jesus means to die to ourselves, to die to our Republican thinking, die to our Democrat thinking, and die to our American thinking so that the mind of Christ can be revealed in us.” The third week he turned his attention to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, reminding listeners that disciples can’t do the work of Jesus without the Spirit of Jesus.
That whole year, Slaughter cast vision for a radically new kind of church—one that would be the hands and feet of Jesus in the community. “Jesus’ first call is not to believe in Me, but to follow Me,” Slaughter proclaimed.
Mobilizing the church to move into this bold vision took more than good preaching. From the earliest months, Slaughter and his wife, Carolyn, sought to create lay leaders who would embrace the new paradigm. They selected twelve congregants who “were beginning to get it” and invited them into their home. “I truly believe that the revolutionaries are created in a relational home environment,” Slaughter explains. “We cut our teeth on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. These were the people who became leaders in the movement.”
Slaughter also shook up his finance committee. He told them that small churches with small budgets usually assume they can’t do much. But that attitude, he warned, had to be resisted. “As long as we do what we think we can, do it in our strength, [and] with our resources, then it’s walking by flesh and not the Spirit. God will never bless that.” It took time, but eventually, Slaughter reports, the finance board came to the point where its members agreed that “they would never vote ‘no’ on an idea if it was something Jesus would do.”
Cell, Call, and Celebrate
“Every missional leader has to have a clear vision of what God wants to do, a plan of strategic action to accomplish that [vision], and a continual practice,” Slaughter emphasizes. He summarizes his plan of action as a rhythm of cell, call, and celebrate.
Cell refers to “cell groups” or small groups of people meeting in homes. These are the heart of Ginghamsburg church. And as they did over 30 years ago, the Slaughters themselves are still hosting small groups in their own
home. Just last year they had about 30 twenty- and thirty-somethings meeting in their family room and “overflowing into the kitchen and onto the floor,” he laughs. They studied Slaughter’s books on mission, including Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus. Small groups are the lifeblood of an effective discipleship ministry, Slaughter says. “It’s not about the crowds, it’s about the community.”
By “call,” Slaughter explains that he means “helping people identify their ‘burning bush’ or ‘God destiny’-- and then throwing gasoline on it.” One example: a congregant who turned his love of tinkering on autos into a car ministry. This man linked arms with a buddy and they launched an initiative to receive donated cars from Ginghamsburg members, fix them up, and then enable people who otherwise couldn’t afford their own vehicle the chance to earn one through completing service hours.
By “celebration,” Slaughter means worship. He encourages not only Sunday attendance but the critical spiritual discipline of daily private worship. It’s only persistent practice over time that grows disciples, Slaughter argues. He thinks a minister can focus either on discipleship—growing the believer--or on growing the church. But he warns that if you emphasize the latter, you might increase your numbers, but “you don’t always get disciples.”
Repeating the Three “Greats”
Slaughter’s effectiveness in turning his congregation inside out rests in large part on the persistent consistency of his message over more than three decades. Three key texts have been his constant refrain: The Great Requirement (Micah 6:8), the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30); and the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19-20). “What I continue to do is repetition, repetition, repetition…. Before every board meeting or anything else…. [I ask], ‘What does it mean to be a missional community in the world? What is our business?’”
At Ginghamsburg UMC, living out the three greats has led to a series of externally focused, holistic ministries in the community: classes to help people obtain their high school equivalency degree, medical care, emergency food, financial planning, and job-and-life skills training through Jobs for Life. The church seeks to help people get out of poverty and into new jobs. Their aim through relational ministries is human flourishing, not just hand-outs.
Ginghamsburg’s commitment to the three greats is reflected within the four walls of the church as well as in the community. Early on, as Slaughter sought to reflect God’s shalom in Ginghamsburg’s worship, he realized that he needed to push back against Sunday morning being the most segregated time of the week. So in this 100% white church Slaughter began “putting people on the platform who looked like what the Kingdom was supposed to be--and not waiting until people were ready. I lost people when I brought in the first African American worship leader.” In the 1980s he brought in the church’s first female pastor for the same reason. And he continues to ensure that the diversity of the Kingdom is displayed up front.
The very room where Ginghamsburg’s Sunday worship occurs is a testimony to the church’s identity. They outgrew their physical space in the historic church early on. But Ginghamsburg has never built a sanctuary. The church’s creative director, Kim Miller, explains that the idea is to worship in a space that can be used in multiple ways, ways that say, “This is what’s important to God.” So today the worship room is used one night a week for a dinner and worship service that gathers food pantry clients. During the week it doubles as a preschool playground.
Over the years the church’s influence has spread outside of Tipp City. In 2008, when Forbes magazine named Dayton one of the country’s “ten fastest dying cities,” Ginghamsburg leaders mobilized to come alongside a tiny, old Methodist congregation in the blighted Ft. McKinley neighborhood of Dayton. They sent 80 “ministry servants” from the church to begin a labor of love focused initially on the Belle Haven Elementary School. Some tutored kids there weekly—leading to impressive gains on student achievement tests. Others launched a Jobs for Life class. They also started a community garden, GED classes, and eventually a new community center in the vacated firehouse. Today, the once tiny church is the Ft. McKinley campus of Ginghamsburg UMC. It boasts a thriving and racially diverse flock of about 400.
The Ft. McKinley congregation seeks to embody Isaiah 61:4, “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” Congregational leaders have identified an economically devastated, 15-block area once rife with prostitution and crack houses. Partnering with other neighborhood organizations they received a six million dollar grant to build 25 new homes in the area. The new owners—who will likely include graduates of the Jobs for Life program--will pay $400-600 dollars a month on a rent-to-own basis. At a recent Sunday service when Slaughter was preaching at the Ft. McKinley campus, a man came up him. “He told me, ‘Hey, last year I was doing drugs at your dumpsters. Now I’m in your church.’”
From Mercy to Justice
Slaughter believes that churches often understand mercy, “But they don’t understand justice as much.” He argues, though, that mercy and justice go hand in hand in scripture. So he has looked for ways to combine long-term, developmental mercy ministries with fighting against injustice and unjust systems. He found a perfect opportunity in 2004 when he read about the horrible humanitarian crisis in Darfur. That December he began the “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” initiative at Ginghamsburg. Its premise is that Christians treat Christmas like it is our birthday—giving ourselves heaps of gifts. Instead, Slaughter argues, we should giving gifts that bring joy to Jesus. He educated his congregation about the injustices being perpetrated Darfur and challenged them to consider taking whatever amount of money they spent on their family for Christmas and giving an equal amount to the Sudan Project.
The flock at Ginghamsburg raised $317,000 that first year. Partnering with The United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR), they used the funds to start a sustainable agricultural project in Darfur. The project helps families get back to farming the land that lay unworked due to civil war. This farming has provided income for families that they have used, in part, to buy back children (over 900 of them) out of indentured servitude.
Over the last several years, the church has invested $5.6 million dollars in sustainable agriculture, schools, and clean water projects in Darfur. But, says Slaughter, “Not only did we want to [provide] sustainable programs, we also wanted to work against [unjust] political structures and genocides.” So they sent busses of people to Washington to participate in a “March for Darfur” and sponsored a “Dayton for Darfur” rally. In 2011, when a referendum for independence for South Sudan was put forth for a vote, the church took busses of south Sudanese refugees to Washington and Nashville so they could vote on the referendum at the polling places provided. Back in Ohio, Ginghamsburg UMC members provided safe places for the children of the voters during the 48 hours it took the parents to travel.
Courage Over Compliance
When asked what he would say to young pastors and seminarians thinking through how they can preach and lead in ways that will effectively nurture their congregants as doers of justice, Slaughter’s answer is, “Courage over compliance. Every choice we make [as pastors] on a daily basis is either going to be based on courage or compliance to the expectation of people.” He points to Joshua as his example. “God says to Joshua, ‘Have courage. I’ve given you every place you step your foot. You just have to keep stepping.’… So many times I see young pastors go into a local church with a God vision, and then they downsize that based upon the expectations of people,” he continues. When Ginghamsburg’s attendance dropped by almost half in his first six months as pastor, Slaughter says it was scary. He understands what it is to worry about staff salaries and building expenses--and how to pay for them if people leave because he’s said something they don’t want to hear. “I have people leave here every week because something ticks them off,” admits Slaughter. But he’s convinced that, “We’ve got to worry more about truth telling and let God worry about the church.”
This Summer we have been preaching through Psalm 23 and I shared the series with pastors and directors on our staff to give a variety of perspectives on the six verses of Psalm 23. We also collaborated over the summer with series study, where the preacher shared his or her outline and others shared their thoughts, insights. It was a great example to me of team teaching and continuity throughout the summer series. The other thing about our message series is they are tied to sermon based small groups. Fall, winter and spring over 80% of our worshipers meet in small groups and use the outline and curriculum provided in the bulletin as the basis for discussion and spiritual practices. As a bonus, our people are growing, loving and sharing life together. We've been doing this for about 9 years. In the summer months we provide bible study and prayer questions for individual reflection. - Pastor Mike McClenahan
What happens to our knowledege of God and of God's purposes in the world if we re-conceive preaching, leadership and community on a Kingdom trajectory? What would be different if what we did in the Church was meant for those not in the Church? And what if the goal was not how to get "them" to come "here," but for "us" to be "there" as the light and salt Jesus says we are to be? These are the kinds of themes and questions considered by this conference.
Huntsville is home to the “flagship” unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which oversees the state’s 110 prisons. First Baptist Church is the Huntsville prison’s neighbor. Valentine, who served as pastor at the church from 2001 to 2008, recalls, “I could pick up a rock and toss it out my office window and hit the side of the Unit. That’s how close we were.”
“Huntsville is predominantly a criminal justice city,” the 47-year-old Baptist minister continues. Five other prisons in addition to the Huntsville Unit are scattered within Walker County limits. Additionally, Sam Houston State University, with nearly 20,000 students, offers one of the top-notch criminal justice training programs in the nation. Valentine says his “first thought” as a new pastor at the venerable First Baptist Church (established 1844) was, “How do we help our congregation reach people in our county? The largest people group I could find were people who worked for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” he recounts. “They have 5000 employees and if you add family members you’re looking at somewhere around 20,000 people.”
Shortly after his arrival in Huntsville, Valentine sent a note to Warden Neil Hodges at the Huntsville Unit. He described some of the church’s programs for youngsters and invited children of the Unit’s Correctional Officers to attend an upcoming Easter Egg hunt. “[Warden Hodges] had worked for [TDCJ] for 30 years and been a warden for ten,” Valentine remembers. He’d never had a pastor write him this kind of letter before. “It floored him so much he had his secretary call me right then and ask me to come over.”
Valentine accepted the invitation and slowly the two men became friends. “He was real skeptical” at first, Valentine recalls. But the two continued meeting a couple times a week for almost a year. “We developed a friendship and trust and then our Correctional Officer ministry was launched.”
When the term “prison ministry” is mentioned, most people think of outreach to the inmates—conducting worship services or Bible studies in the jails. First Baptist chose a different path. “Our first priority was the correctional staff because they lived right here in Walker County,” Valentine explains. Under the tutelage of two church members who were employees of TDCJ, he became educated about the needs of prison system staff, whose stressful jobs take a harsh toll on their families and marriages. One of these men was a major working at the Wynn Correctional Unit across town. He invited Valentine to come out for a tour. “He took me under his wing and taught me everything,” Valentine says. “I was ignorant. I had no clue of the stress levels. It was like a different world.”
Life expectancy for Correctional Officers (CO’s) hovers at around 59 years, compared to the U.S. average of 77. Suicide rates among CO’s are 39 percentage points higher than the average for the rest of the working age population. At the Wynne Unit, Valentine recalls from his inaugural visit, “you could sense the lostness. You could feel the stress.”
“We found out real quick that correctional staff and law enforcement [officers] lead in these four categories statistically: divorce, spouse abuse, suicide, and substance abuse,” Valentine says. He argues that churches need to see the criminal justice environment “as an unreached people group, but a silent one. You know it’s there, but you really don’t think about them or think ‘this can be a ministry field.’”
“We had 14 teams that covered the 14 shifts,” Valentine says. “We were touching about 1200 CO’s a week. We became familiar faces to them.” Valentine and his volunteers had to patiently win the CO’s over. “Offenders are constantly playing games,” Valentine explains, “always doing something because they want something.” The officers suspected that church members had ulterior motives too. But they just keep telling them: “We don’t want anything. We’re just being neighbors.”
Valentine recruited parishioners by preaching on outreach, servanthood, and compassion. He emphasized to his flock that every one of them is a missionary. “We cast vision from behind the pulpit,” he says. “We talked about how we believed that this was what God was wanting us to do, that this was our mission field. Just as God is calling some churches to go overseas and adopt an unreached people group there, we felt that God was literally calling us to reach the criminal justice system for Him.” He encouraged congregants to join God on that mission field, and many responded. “They’d never been challenged like this before,” Valentine says.
Modeling service was also an important key to mobilizing congregants. “Our staff did this ministry hands-on,” Valentine emphasizes. “But we invited people to go with us. The invitation wasn’t: ‘OK if you’re interested, see me after church.’ It wasn’t like that. It was where we said, ‘Hey Jerry, why don’t you come with me down to the Wynn Unit on Thursday at 10:00?” After taking a parishioner along, staff members would ask them how they enjoyed the experience. If the response was positive, staff would invite them to come the next time. After a few times, staff would ask whether the volunteers were ready to go on their own—and encourage them to find a buddy to tag along.
At the height of the ministry, about 100 volunteers were giving about 1000 hours of service each month. In addition to teams visiting CO’s at the prisons, the church unlocked its large multi-purpose facility at all hours for use by TDCJ employees. “We’d open it up 24/7 because the prison system runs 24/7,” Valentine explains. “We had Bible studies at midnight, 2:00 in the morning.” CO’s typically had to work many weekend shifts, so church leaders learned early that it was hard to reach them in a traditional church setting. “We had to start thinking outside the box to minister to them.”
Over time, as CO’s shared personal struggles with their supervisors, wardens would offer to bring in “outside resources” to help. When the CO’s asked for details, the wardens would explain that they were thinking of staff from First Baptist. “Oh, OK, we know them,” Valentine reports that they’d say. “We trust them.”
Although Valentine’s principal interest was in ministering to prison staff, his commitment to restorative justice also motivated concern for offenders. “We’d see some 150 or so each day as they walked from the Unit down the street to the bus stop,” Valentine says. He’d also spot family members awaiting those being released. This gave Valentine the idea of a new ministry, “First Contact.” He and his team had been building a network of contacts throughout the state among churches and faith-based ministries that sought to come alongside ex-offenders. So church volunteers began meeting with family members of inmates about to be released, collecting information on their home locations and religious preferences and helping them get connected to faith communities back in their locales. Later, this ministry expanded into “Welcome Back,” an effort to connect just-released offenders directly to churches and ministries around the state who’d reach out to help them re-integrate.
Meanwhile, ministry to the CO’s began having ripple effects on inmates. “Outside their family members, the largest influencers on the offenders were the Correctional Officers,” Valentine explains. “So if we could minister to the officers and they began walking with Christ, then that influence would be passed down to the offenders....That was our strategy.”
Balancing the CO ministry with help for offenders has been a very delicate dance. Within just a few weeks of the church’s outreach to CO’s in the Huntsville Unit, CO’s and their families began visiting the church. “We knew that we could not talk about offender ministry,” Valentine says. “You’ve got to remember, the lost are going act like the lost. Correctional Officers who are unchurched or lost are not going love offenders initially. And if you start doing offender ministry, the unchurched Correctional Officers will label you a ‘hug-a-thug’ ministry.”
The influx of employees from the TDCJ also disrupted life-as-usual at the traditional, affluent church. Though many congregants caught Valentine’s missional vision, others were “not very interested in mission,” Valentine says. “We had a few who said, ‘This church is about me; it’s not about the Kingdom.’” In addition, some old-time members were uncomfortable with visitors who were from a different socio-economic class. “That’s what eventually led to me stepping down and the church blessing us to start a new church in town,” Valentine explains. “Because we were going to reach a totally different people group than what they were aiming for.”
In May 2008, Valentine planted Covenant Fellowship with about 35 individuals. Four years later, attendance hovers around 250. The church is highly active in ministry to both prison staff and offenders.
Acting somewhat as a church incubator, Covenant Fellowship encourages the proliferation of LIFE (Life Is For Everyone) groups across the state, in the hopes that these tight knit small groups will become independent house churches.
Church volunteers disciple and minister to offender families and connect those outside of their reach to churches through the statewide Restorative Justice Network. In partnership with The Welcome Back, Covenant provides discipleship prior to and after inmates are released from prison. With Welcome Back, Covenant sees that each ex-offender is connected to a faith community and support group for their reentry.
Warden Vernon Pittman of the TDCJ Wynne Unit says that he personally has “been inspired to become more involved with the volunteer programs within the prison system based on the motivation I’ve witnessed among the [Covenant Fellowship] volunteers. They are relentless servants.”
Currently, about two-dozen volunteers from Covenant participate in the Sunday through Thursday activities taking place at the prison. Valentine himself ministers in the Units two days a week; he works with medium-custody prisoners who have discipline problems and are held in high security area. With more than a year of discipleship invested, Valentine has seen many of the 245 offenders with whom he initially worked be reclassified as minimal custody. Additionally, in the Units a number of gang members have converted to Christ—some even leading rival gang members to know Jesus. “Last month a black believer from the Cripps led a gang member from a white supremicist gang to Christ,” Valentine reports with wonder.
The Wynne Unit now includes a faith-based dorm, a faith-based row for medium custody offenders, and a faith-based wing. Recognizing the leadership potential of the Christians in these dorms, Valentine and colleagues have launched a “Church Planting School.” Currently, about 50 inmates are being discipled to be home church leaders when they are released.
By Amy Sherman Ph.D. and Mary Jo Hein
Newgate Fellowship United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas celebrated its seven-year anniversary in April. The church’s heritage, though, goes back hundreds of years to the powerful work and witness of the first Methodists. Though Newgate is small, with 95 members, it pursues a mighty ministry in what Pastor Marvin Hood calls restorative justice. Its approach to this mission draws its inspiration from the apostle Paul in his epistle to Philemon.
Rev. Marvin Hood’s church gets its name from Newgate prison in England, where John and Charles Wesley reached out to “the least of these” in the 18th century. Wesley first visited a prison when he was in his twenties. Following the experience, he wrote to a friend: “We were so well satisfied with our conversation there that we agreed to go thither once or twice a week.” Wesley went on to be active regularly in prison ministry for the rest of his life.
While in his twenties, Marvin Hood was an inmate of the Texas Department of Corrections, serving a lengthy sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Although in the commission of this 1976 crime Hood did not physically hurt anyone, his 11-minute ride in a stolen vehicle resulted in over 20 years behind bars.
Hood entered prison with only a seventh grade education. He says he “began to grow up” there not only intellectually but emotionally and spiritually. While behind bars he earned an Associates degree from Lee Jr. College and a B.S. in sociology from Sam Houston State University.
Since his mother died when he was just three, Hood was raised mostly by his sister and grandparents. Growing up in Houston’s tough Third Ward, he strayed from his grandfather’s early bible training and began a life of drug abuse, crime, and isolation. While at Wynne and Eastham prisons, though, he began attending the religious services offered by various church volunteers. He recalls asking them whether any of them were Methodists. He was appreciative of their service, but he longed to hear and feel his own Methodist heritage. He said, “I used to ask myself, ‘Where is my church?’ I wanted to hear the words of John Wesley.” As God revived Hood’s faith and began transforming him through Christ’s power, Hood says, he promised Jesus and his fellow inmates that he would return a Methodist voice back into the prison system. “Wesley” would speak inside again.
During this time, Hood recalled a prediction his mother had made many years earlier: that her son would one day be a preacher. As God worked on his heart, Hood resolved that upon his release he would “carry the Gospel message back into prison.” In the meantime, he sought to bear witness to Christ. He encouraged his fellow inmates to make good choices, and he “left honorably” with strong relationships with correctional officers and those in authority over the prison.
Within four months of his release, Hood determined to enter the pastoral ministry within the United Methodist Church (UMC). Though he feared rejection, he was instead embraced by the denomination and endorsed by the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC. Hood entered seminary at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and worked as an associate pastor at a couple of churches. Pastor Hood then spent three years working for the Conference as a Restorative Justice pastor. He was the first person in the new position. The job’s mission was to inspire and equip Methodist churches towards deeper involvement in the criminal justice system. Restorative justice includes ministering to offenders, but differs from typical prison ministry because it also includes reaching out to victims and to correctional professionals.
Toward the end of his time as the Conference’s Restorative Justice minister, Hood expressed his dream of planting a church—one that would reflect his heart’s desire to serve and nurture families involved in the criminal justice system. God allowed him to pursue that dream. Hood attended one year of church planting school, and then he and his wife Bonita gathered about a dozen friends in their home and launched Newgate Fellowship in 2005. The Texas Annual Conference of the UMC has continued to be a strong support for the Hoods. “What we have been blessed to do could not have been accomplished without their assistance and prayers,” he emphasizes.
Hood began studying the book of Philemon and discovered that it offered a thoughtful blueprint for carrying out the work of restorative justice. The one-page epistle about a runaway slave spoke powerfully to Hood, and from it he crafted a document called The Onesimus Journey: A Journey of Healing, Hope and Restoration. [For a copy, please contact: Claudette Singletary Busby at firstname.lastname@example.org] In The Onesimus Journey, Pastor Hood draws out four keys to an effective restorative justice ministry: faith, mentoring, forgiveness and community. These keys from Philemon guide how Newgate Fellowship ministers, and the church uses the text to teach and train other churches that wish to join the effort.
Since faith is the first key, Newgate Fellowship conducts in-prison services to reach offenders while they are still incarcerated. Pastor Hood calls these prison visits “Pauline Journeys,” and they are so popular that they book up months in advance via the church’s website. Hood takes 15-25 people from his church and other congregations into prisons. His worship services are often so packed that there is standing room only. While bringing faith to the offender is important, these trips also result in significant changes of perspective among those who visit. Hood says, “85 percent of our ministry is changing social perception….getting people into the doors of the prison is the key.”
Hood’s wife Bonita is the director of pastoral care ministries and mentoring programs at the church. Her 33 active mentors, all female, serve at the Plane State Unit for Women in Dayton, TX. Her program provides life skills classes and facilitates aftercare following the inmates’ release. Newgate also operates several other ministries designed to assist male and female inmates before and after their incarceration.
Hood describes Newgate Fellowship as a meeting place for families impacted by the criminal justice system. The church provides an “aftercare” ministry that meets every Friday night for men and women newly released from prison. [Click here for a short video report on Hood’s Friday night ministry.] Their families are encouraged to attend also. It is a safe place for those who have family members in prison, a place where they can be nurtured and receive validation free from worry about what others are thinking. It offers them a unique experience of warm community. As Hood told a reporter at the UMC’s Texas Annual Conference, “This ministry provides a vehicle for self-expression where [ex-offenders] can talk about or express any feelings of anxiety [they have] as a result of their incarceration.”
Newgate Fellowship also seeks to serve the most urgent needs of ex-offenders, correctional officers, crime victims, and all families and children involved. For example, Newgate helps exoffenders find housing, clothing, employment, transportation, ID cards, and other necessities for reentry into society. Hood has also developed employment programs for the previously incarcerated as well as life skills and conflict resolution classes and counseling ministries.
Restorative justice ministry is not an easy calling, but as Hood says in The Onesimus Journey,
Dr. Carolyn Gordon
Dr. Carolyn Gordon is the chair of the Department of Preaching and Communication at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she has taught homiletics and communication courses since 2007. She is dually ordained by both the Southern and the National Baptist conventions, and Dr. Gordon has more than a decade of pastoral ministry and preaching experience. She earned an from MDiv, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a PhD from Howard University.
Dr. Gordon is a regular lecturer at church-related conventions and conferences, and has served on the executive boards of the Center for Urban Church Renewal, United Inner Cities Services, and Baptist Women in Ministry. She has received numerous honors and awards, including Outstanding Black Alumni (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2004), Outstanding Baptist Chaplain Recognition (1997, 1998), Most Supportive Faculty (Black Image Award, 1992), Woman of Color of the Year (1990), and Outstanding Young Woman of America (1983-1988). Her current research interests include communication theology: what God intended for the spoken word, preaching to senior adults, preaching to those with disabilities, and vocal development and the maintenance of the preaching voice.
This month, we will feature some of Dr. Ogilvie's sermons from his time at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, CA. A complete video archive of Dr. Ogilvie's sermons is now available under the Resources tab.
Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie was honored when Fuller Theological Seminary established the Institute for Preaching that bears his name. He has the distinguished history of over 45 years in the pastorate, while also leading a national radio and television ministry, Let God Love You, for over a decade. After 28 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, followed by 8 years as the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate (1995-2003), Dr. Ogilvie has unique pastoral experience. He is consistently called upon as a speaker, writer, and resource consultant.
This month we will be hearing from three of the pastors from The District Church in Washington, D.C.
Justin Fung serves as associate pastor of The District Church. He is most definitely a city kid, having lived in Hong Kong; London, England, where he attended University College London and London School of Theology; and Pasadena, California, where he graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2009. Prior to joining the church, he worked as the Policy and Outreach Assistant at Sojourners in Washington, DC. Justin enjoys a variety of activities, related to sports, music, movies, books, God, friends, and sleep (he insists this is a valid pastime).
Aaron Graham serves as lead pastor of The District Church in the heart of our nation’s capital. The District Church is a quickly growing church with a heart to grow and multiply leaders who have a heart for the city. Before moving to DC, Aaron started the Quincy Street Missional Church in a low-income neighborhood of Boston where he served for five years. Most recently, Aaron worked as the Justice Revival Director for Sojourners. He is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School and is finishing up a doctorate at Fuller Theological Seminary. Aaron and his wife Amy live in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C. with their two adopted kids Elijah and Natalie.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When I was a youth pastor in my early 20s, a student approached me after I had just finished a sermon. With an amused smile on her face, she triumphantly informed me, “You said the word ‘like’ 47 times in that sermon!” And on her notes she had the tally marks to prove it. I was so embarrassed by this eighth grader’s keen attentiveness to my verbal tics that I successfully eliminated the word ‘like’ from my preaching thereafter.
But there is something deeper at work here. The event of preaching is more than just the words in the mouth of the preacher. It is also the ears of those who listen. No one remembers all of what they hear—we selectively filter and retain only tiny portion of what really interests us. That’s why in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-9), identical seeds produce such different results.
So it is not enough to just listen to the word of God; we must listen for the word of God. Let us pray that our ears might be keenly tuned to those aspects of the preached word the Holy Spirit is especially stirring in our hearts. This week let’s pray especially for our congregations. Let’s ask God to open our ears to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:22). In this way we will be able to grab hold of the living, active Word of God despite the shortcomings of preachers like me.
Williamson County, TN is one of America’s richest 25 counties. It’s also the home of Fellowship Bible Church, an evangelical congregation of 2000+ members. And the church is home to Dave Ramsey, the financial planning guru whose “Financial Peace University” is taught in hundreds of churches. Fellowship Bible—a daughter church of Fellowship Bible of Little Rock, AR—began with four key core values: worship, community, growth, and service. Not surprisingly given its context and unique assets, it has added generosity to that list. That led to a dramatic increase in congregational giving. And that has made possible hundreds of thousands of dollars in Kingdom investments with partner ministries in the developing world. Today many of Fellowship’s members are characterized by the radical generosity of time and money that Tim Keller argues is “one of the marks of living justly.”
Genesis of Generosity
A few years into the church plant, leaders at Fellowship recognized that without good teaching and modeling of radical stewardship they’d never achieve their mission “to mature people in the faith and equip them to give their lives away.” So the elder team resolved to intentionally focus several years on this critical theme.
It took guts. After all, many pastors shy away from preaching on money. It’s uncomfortable. It’s risky. It’s open to misinterpretation. At Fellowship, though, staff understand what Fields of Gold author Andy Stanley argues: that preaching on stewardship is about “focusing on what you want for your people, not what you want from them.”
“The genius of generosity is [that] it is always win-win,” says Teaching Elder Lloyd Shadrach. “Being generous is the most intelligent way to live. It’s the only way of life that makes any sense.”
Shadrach and Fellowship’s other key leaders, Bill Wellons, Tim Schulte, and Michael Easton, have preached multiple sermon series over the past ten years focusing on various aspects of stewardship and generous living. What that’s created is a congregation where generosity is truly embedded in the DNA of the flock. Fellowship’s members have reduced their lifestyles, upped their giving, and invested millions of dollars in gospel ministry among the poor and suffering at home and abroad. Here, pulpit leadership has changed a culture and catalyzed remarkable joy and impact.
The key has been preaching that has combined unapologetic exegesis of the Scripture’s persistent emphasis on money; blunt challenges to church members; and plenty of outside-the-box applications and experiments.
Fellowship’s Unconventional Applications
In one well-remembered sermon from the very first series, Shadrach taught from Luke 12 on the foolish rich man who built bigger barns for his crops, only to die before he could enjoy his prosperity. In it, Shadrach stated uncomfortable facts—like the fact that one third of the flock wasn’t giving at all. He then added to that bluntness some memorable one-liners, like “Generosity is to materialism what kryptonite is to Superman” and “Generous living protects us from our own stupidity.” Reading the parable, Shadrach asked the congregation: “What would Jesus say about our mini storage units here? Clothes, mattresses, coats, etc. all sitting in a 10x10ft square when some people don’t have clothes or beds. We use them to hold on to things that we can’t use but don’t want to get rid of. It is a stupid investment.”
But the real clincher came at the sermon’s end. Shadrach invited the ushers to pass out the collection plates—but not in order to collect. The plates were already full–of $10 bills. He invited each member to take one bill and figure out how to give it away wisely and well. He gave them three guidelines: “One, you cannot put it back in the offering plate—invest it; two, give it personally, don’t drop it in the mail; and three, you must prayerfully give it away.” Needless to say, this was a unique experience for members, and for the next week the church’s phone buzzed with calls from congregants wanting to tell what they’d done with their $10 bucks.
Then there was the crazy, unforgettable Sunday in 2005. That morning, Shadrach emphasized that generosity was TNT—something for “today, not tomorrow.” He was kicking off a 9-week preaching series called “Beyond Belief.” Focused on stewardship, the series really was more about faith—the kind of faith that so trusts God it approaches life open-handed, ready and eager to give and to bless. To help the flock go deeper in their own understanding, the series was accompanied by a small group study based on Stanley’s Fields of Gold . On September 18, Shadrach told the congregation about Dave, a Fellowship member. Dave had visited a distressed neighborhood in Biloxi, MS after Hurricane Katrina. There he met Tyron, who told him he needed shoes. Realizing that his feet were about the same size as the man’s, Dave took off his work boots right then and there and gave them to the man.
Shadrach walked down from the pulpit then to conduct a quick interview with Dave, asking him how it felt to give his shoes away. Dave said “he didn’t really think about it,” but it “was just the step right in front of me. He needed some shoes so I gave him my shoes.”
As Shadrach returned to the platform, a photo was projected of children from a school in Africa that Fellowship supports. The picture zoomed in on the children, and it was clear most were wearing very oversized shoes. “The kids can’t go to school unless they have shoes,” Shadrach explained, “so the parents give their shoes to their children.”
Shadrach then took a deep breath. “There are adults and children in Africa who need a pair of shoes,” he said. “There are adults and children here in Nashville who need a pair of shoes.” He continued, “God’s invitation for us this morning is to go beyond. We all know that someone out there needs our shoes. So let’s go beyond knowing and do something.” And he took off his shoes, and invited the congregants to do the same.
Some 1800 people left the church in their stockinged feet that morning.
The kind of persistent boldness Fellowship’s leaders have displayed in calling their flock to radical generosity is not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes congregants have gotten angry. Pastors have agonized over whether they’ve pushed too hard. Elder Jeff Schulte reports, “as we’ve talked about this as a church, we’ve been spiritually and emotionally rattled, challenged, and stirred.”
Modeling, Vision, and Celebration
After the first two preaching series, Fellowship’s staff conducted research to ascertain what the average amount of giving was among church members. They discovered that member households were giving about 5.6 percent of their income to the church. The leadership team mounted a campaign to encourage everyone to move up gradually toward the tithe (10%).
Leaders knew they needed to show the way by modeling greater generosity themselves. Shadrach and then-Executive Pastor Neal Johnson admitted to the Body that they were only tithing and publicly committed to greater giving. Leaders set a church-wide goal of increasing the average giving by households by 1 percent each year so that by 2010 it would be 10%. Jim, a Fellowship member, admits that the exhortations from the pulpit “rocked his world.” But he saw the preachers practicing what they preached. “They lived out generosity before our very eyes,” Jim says. “We trust them. We know what kind of cars they drive. There is authenticity to what they teach.”
In addition to modeling, church leaders cast an ambitious, specific vision for what would be done with additional dollars given. In the first year of the effort, Fellowship’s giving rose from an average of 5.6% to 7%. That freed up big bucks to invest in exciting projects abroad, including the construction of a new church and community/training center in Nigeria. Staff also tracked the ripple effects of the campaign on member families, gathering the stories of what people were doing and how they were changing their habits. The effort was capped off with a special celebration service at a local convention center that highlighted members’ testimonies.
Chris Willard, a staff member at Leadership Network who has studied the journeys of generous churches over the past several years, reports that celebration is a key element for effectiveness. “Celebration engages hearts in a way that’s different than instruction and exhortation,” Willard says. “People are enthusiastic about giving to their church when they realize their church is serious about being generous in the community and the world.”
Liz Swanson, also with Leadership Network, has identified factors that generous churches hold in common, and Fellowship Bible is marked by them all: unapologetic preaching and teaching; casting an exciting vision that elicits greater giving; modeling of generosity by leadership; and celebrating the stories of life-change.
But Swanson notes that another step is critical. “It is not enough to simply motivate people to greater stewardship and generosity through impassioned preaching,” she argues. “Once motivated, many people need practical instruction on how to get themselves financially healthy before they can truly live a generous life.”
With Dave Ramsey in the pews, Fellowship Bible certainly had a leg up in this arena. Leaders have encouraged parishioners to participate in Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” (FPU) and talked openly about the need for Christians to get out of consumer debt in order to free up resources for the Kingdom. The main application point in the church’s recent preaching series (titled simply “Steward”) is to attend FPU classes.
“One of the worst things you can do for a person who loves Jesus is show them a need, and them ask them to help meet it when they haven’t got any capacity to help meet it. All you’ve done is make them feel bad,” says Willard. Fellowship’s frequent encouragement for members to take FPU, he explains, was motivated by the leaders’ desire to “give their people the opportunity to say yes.”
Generosity and Justice
Once Fellowship Bible laid the theological foundations—with pithy statements like “God owns it all” and “you can’t out-give God”—they began directing the congregation’s attention to practical needs in the developing world. For the past few years the church’s Christmas project has connected the dots. Its slogan simply reminds parishioners, “Less under our tree means more for the world.” What churches like Fellowship Bible have done, Willard says, is help their congregants “ask a counter-cultural question: ‘What could God do with this money?’ not ‘What could I do with it?’”
In the third preaching series, Shadrach got parishioners thinking about the stewardship of their stuff. For two months the church parked a large tractor-trailer in the parking lot that would serve as a collection center. “Over the next eight weeks we are going to take all the unused things and put them into God’s economy to meet the needs of His people,” Shadrach announced. One hundred percent of the proceeds benefited local ministries.
Fellowship’s executive pastor Neal Johnson knew the motivational power of connecting the messages of generosity and compassion. He completed a financial analysis of the flock’s giving and ran some numbers on what would be possible if each household grew their giving to the Biblical tithe. Armed with that data, church leaders presented a bold vision. “If we all ‘raise the tide’ of our giving to 10 percent,” Johnson explained, “the opportunities to fund Kingdom work both here and around the world will be staggering.” With a community of tithers, he demonstrated, the church could invest over $60 million in projects to meet human needs, educate indigenous pastors, and plant new churches.
The Generosity of Front Porch Living
In December 2011, Fellowship’s Christmas project netted over $313,000 for its global partners. Clearly, wallets have been loosened at this congregation. But church leaders’ goals go beyond the nurture of financial generosity to whole life stewardship for advancing the Kingdom. The genuinely generous congregation, they realize, is one that is as openhanded with time as well as treasure. Cultivating that level of sacrificial living requires ongoing preaching on stewardship and generosity—as well as on the church’s other core values of service, worship, and community. Staff don’t believe they’ve “arrived” yet. The ultimate mission, Fellowship’s leaders stress, is equipping their members to “give their lives away” for the Kingdom. “It isn’t about the shoes or the stuff,” Lloyd Shadrach has said. “It is about God’s heart being formed in us.”
This continual emphasis has led not only to new levels of financial generosity but also to some remarkable life changes for some members. The Hazelip family is a good example. Today these former suburbanites live in a struggling neighborhood on Nashville’s northeast side. They live openhandedly with their time, giving themselves relationally to the community’s numerous fatherless kids. Their renovated home’s front porch has become a hive of activity and fellowship, a safe gathering place for conversations, games, popsicles, and counseling. Thom Hazelip reports it is a whole new way of life for his wife, himself, and their four small children. “We were back porch people,” Thom explains. “We had a pool and a pool house and we lived our lives out in the back yard. We were challenged and what’s happened is we’ve become a front porch family.”
The Hazelip’s adventure began back in 2004 when Thom was driving around McFerrin Park, one of the distressed neighborhoods on Nashville’s northeast side. Initially he was looking for potential investment properties, inexpensive units he might be able to purchase, remodel, and flip. But between Fellowship’s teaching, the Holy Spirit’s drawing, and the neighborhood kids he was getting to know, Thom’s heart started moving in an unexpected direction. He sensed God calling his family to relocate into the neighborhood to share its life and bear its burdens. When he first broached the idea with his wife Michele, she told him the idea was crazy. “I thought he’d lost his mind!” she says.
But God kept working in both of their lives until the call to urban living was clear.
“Living out on the front porch, in the front yard, is vastly different than how we used to live,” Thom says. “We know all our neighbors now. We know all the kids. We know what’s going on in their lives. We have people knocking on our door constantly.” The Hazelips’ home has become the hub of a new spirit of community and neighborliness on the street. “The change they have [brought] to the neighborhood is a blessing to me from God above,” says Armentria Kelly, who has lived in the community all her life. “They have touched many lives around here.” Another long-term resident, Sennithia Hendricks, adds, “Our community is closer now than it’s ever been.”
Michele Hazelip admits that sometimes the neighborhood’s needs can feel overwhelming. But knowing of God’s lavish generosity and abundant power and provision has cultivated her confidence to give what she can and trust God for the rest. “One thing we’ve learned is being available and being willing can be enough,” Michele reports. “We let God do the rest. He can flow the ability to meet the needs through us.”
(Thom and Michele Hazelip with neighborhood kids)
Few things are more inspiring than listening to a preacher who can share from a vulnerable place. Last week I had the wonderful experience of attending a conference for pastors. I was greatly impacted by the personal stories they shared in order to illustrate the scriptural point. As they shared their struggles, it was as if they were sharing my struggles. It served as a great reminder of how the life of the preacher and the life of the congregant are woven together. When one rejoices, we all rejoice. When one suffers, we all suffer. And it is the Word of God that brings our stories together.
Pray that our preachers would be bold enough to preach the gospel from a place of transparency.
Pray that they would show how their weakness is made strong in Christ.
And pray that our congregations would see their life in a similar light and be inspired to greater faith.
In February, we will be featuring a team of preachers from San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, CA:
Renee Coffman-Chavez has been the Children’s Sunday School Director at SCPC since 2008. Previously, Renee served as an intern at Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Columbus, OH. Renee earned her BA in Political Science and History at Converse College, and her Master of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is currently an Inquirer in the ordination process under the care of Los Ranchos Presbytery. Renee is married to David Chavez, who also serves at SCPC as the Director of Hispanic Ministry and Adult Discipleship. Together they have two handsome sons, Ian (5) and Rowan (2).
Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger has served as Senior Pastor at SCPC since 1997, having previously served ten years at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Tod earned his Ph.D. in Theology and a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of two books (It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian and Show Time), and speaks and consults with church, organizational, and business leadership groups with TAG Consulting. Tod also teaches at Fuller Seminary and Denver Seminary. His wife, Beth, is a marriage and family counselor in private practice, and they have two teenage children, Brooks and Ali.
Rev. Charlie Campbell has been on staff at SCPC for 2000, beginning as a Parish Associate and as a Counselor in Residence, and now he serves as Pastor of Worship. Along with being a pastor and musician, he maintains a private practice as a marriage and family therapist. Charlie has been married for twenty-five plus years to Tracy, who is also a therapist in private practice, and the two of them share life with their delightful daughters, Mary and Erinn, and their big dog (Holly the Leonberger). Charlie grew up in the Bay Area, went to college in Washington, graduated from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, and has served on the staffs of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and Hollywood Presbyterian Church. If he isn’t working, he’s with his family, or reading, or training to move extremely slowly in some absurdly long triathlon.
Jeff Smith has been in full-time ministry since 1988. His first eleven years were mainly spent at First Presbyterian Houston in various unordained positions. He felt called to ordained ministry in 1999 and began attending Princeton Seminary that fall. During his three years at Princeton he interned at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City where he helped vision and implement a contemporary worship service.
Since Jeff’s graduation from Princeton in 2002 he has pastored two churches, FPC of Pasadena, TX and, currently, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian of Houston. He feels strongly called to use the gifts God has given him in preaching and teaching to encourage the church to take discipleship more seriously so that we can be empowered to embody the missional life Jesus calls us to live.
by Kelly Givens and Amy L. Sherman
In the gospels of Mark and Luke, and briefly in Matthew, we are told the miraculous story of Christ healing a paralytic man. Not far into his earthly ministry, Jesus’ words and works had already caught the attention of critical religious leaders and eager residents of the area. Luke tells us that the Pharisees and teachers had come “from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” to hear Jesus speak. It’s no surprise, then, that a group of men carrying their paralytic friend on a bed couldn’t quite reach Jesus through the pressing crowd. Urgently desiring to get to the Messiah, they took the tiles off the roof of the house where Jesus was. And, in what must have been something to see, they lowered their friend directly to Jesus’ feet.
It’s easy to imagine Jesus in this situation gazing down lovingly at the paralytic—being filled with compassion and healing him. Pastor Tom Nicholas of Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC) in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, thinks something else may also have been going on.
“This is really a passage about advocacy,” Nicholas explains. The text, he recalls, says that when Jesus saw “their faith, plural,” then he healed the man. Jesus wasn’t just looking down at the paralytic; he was looking up at the guys sticking their heads through the roof!
Nicholas, whose mother has been crippled by Multiple Sclerosis for over 60 years, can relate to the friends in the story. “As a kid, I always imaged doing that for my mom,” he recalls. “They had a lot of guts. They really believed if they could just get this guy in front of Jesus, that would be enough….It wasn’t just this individual faith; there was this advocacy for this person. We’re not even told if [the paralytic himself] believed. He might have been totally embarrassed….I know my mother would have been like, ‘Don’t you dare! I’d rather be paralyzed!’ But they knew this was the right thing to do. And Christ praises them for their faith.”
Nicholas’ family history with disability has sensitized and softened his heart towards those with special needs. So, in the mid-1990s, when a series of events started propelling Reformed Presbyterian toward a more organized ministry for the disabled, Nicholas says he was “all on board.“
At that time, RPC had recently added on to their building, purchasing an old, three-story, community hall. “It was a disabilities nightmare,” Nicholas jokingly recalls. Although church leaders faced sticker shock when presented with the costs to remodel the facility to ensure handicapped accessibility, they recognized the need to ensure welcome for all. Once the building had been restructured with elevators, ramps, and other accessibility features, an influx of families with disabled members flowed into the congregation. Pastor Nicholas believes this was God’s providential timing. “Before,” he explains, “our facility wasn’t prepared to handle it. Maybe our hearts weren’t either.”
Around the same time as the building renovations, multiple members in the church gave birth to special needs children. RPC member Stephanie Hubach, whose son Timmy was born with Down Syndrome in 1992, worked with these families to help RPC develop a more organized ministry for the handicapped. Soon a Special Needs Committee was formed, which serves to equip and resource the rest of the congregation on how to minister to and alongside those touched with disability.
“[When we first started] our emphasis was primarily on congregational inclusion,” Stephanie explains. The ministry enlisted the help of other local disabilities organizations to train teachers and other church leaders on how to include those with special needs. Although the church is relatively small--membership fluctuates between 200 and 300-- the congregation had a significant number of families with special needs children. Realizing the particular need was for the kids, RPC first focused on children’s ministries. “You start out with who you have and where they are,” Stephanie says.
Over the years, RPC has watched their children with special needs grow into teens, then adults. The process has presented unique challenges. “Churches are good at crisis care, but we’re not good at situations that are ongoing,” Hubach says. “I think one area where we can improve is: How do we stay engaged with families that have long term needs, needs that change over time?”
Hubach is passionate about congregational inclusion for those with special needs. She leads the Presbyterian Church in America’s denominational focus on this and is author of Same Lake, Different Boat. It’s a manual geared toward helping churches understand inclusion of the disabled—and how such an emphasis is rooted in deep Biblical theology. In an interview with ByFaith Magazine, Hubach explained:
“…[A]s Christians, we need to practice identification that is like God’s example to us: one that’s not solely based on what we have in common, or exclusively on how we’re different, but identification that’s intentional … This approach recognizes that as human beings, we’re essentially the same but experientially different. So identifying with each other is a choice—a choice that can have tremendous blessing.”
Hubach says that Westerners especially can find it difficult to be willing to identify with the disabled. As she told ByFaith, “In Western culture, we’ve been pretty effective at attempting to sanitize our lives of any association with difficulty or discomfort. If we’re honest, we don’t like to deal with people with disabilities because it reminds us of our own vulnerabilities.”
The willingness to truly see others and identify with them is part and parcel of treating them justly. The biblical perspective shows us that disability is a normal part of a fallen world, Hubach argues. A result of the Fall, it touches us all to some degree. Yet that same biblical perspective reminds us of the essential human dignity of everyone, regardless of our condition, rooted in the Imago Dei.
Besides working to include those with disabilities into worship services, RPC also labored hard to educate the congregation in this sort of biblical grounding on the topic. Leaders have addressed this subject as part of a broader focus in the church on the sanctity of human life. RPC has held several special Sanctity services—all of which, to varying degrees, have addressed ministry to those with special needs. These services steer clear of the highly-charged debates typically associated with pro-life gatherings, and instead focus on “being pro-life in the fullest sense,” Rev. Nicholas explains. “I think the church hasn’t always been kind and loving in its expression of being pro-life…if we have a Sanctity of Life Sunday, it’s rarely about abortion. It’s usually more about celebrating life and the glory of God and the image of God.” (Click the link in the right panel to listen to a clip from one of Rev. Nicholas’ Sanctity of Life sermons.)
Nicholas’ characteristic teaching during these Sanctity of Life Sundays focuses on the value of all human life—regardless of disability—because of the glory of the Imago Dei . “What gives human life value?” Nicolas asks. “The Bible’s answer is clear. It’s God who gives value. The Creator. He created us, and just by the fact that he made us, we have value. Just by the fact that he made anything, it has value…Not only that, we have value because he made us in his image. The likeness of God gives us value.”
After Adam and Eve sinned, the image of God in man was marred, Nicholas adds. And yet, it was Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God,” who restores our value. “He restores the brokenness of our image,” Nicolas preached. “He begins to renew and make within us his image. He began to address the brokenness at all levels, not just on the inside of the heart, but the whole person—body and soul. That is the renewal Jesus brought.” The handicapped are in need of such renewal—and we are all handicapped to some degree.
In addition to holding such Sanctity of Life services, RPC partners with existing community organizations to reach those in the neighborhood touched by disability. For example, at the very onset of the ministry, Stephanie recalls the Special Needs Committee drafting a mission that they hoped in five years would lead to adopting a local group home. “Five weeks, not years, later, I got a call from the guy who was the president of Friendship Community (a local disabilities ministry),” she remembers. “ He said, ‘You know, we’re buying an apartment complex two blocks down from your church. Would you all be willing to be the sponsoring church?’” RPC jumped at the opportunity, creating “friendship families” that the residents could contact in order to get connected at the church.
More important that any programming the church does for the disabled, though, is the fact that church leaders have given this ministry focus such support and enthusiasm from the pulpit. As a result of it, Hubach reports, RPC has a culture of acceptance, of inclusion, one that doesn’t emphasize differences but sees the similarities in us all. “It’s really just the gospel,” Pastor Nicholas says:
I think our premise as a church is that we’re all disabled. We’re all broken, we’re all needy, we’re all disabled…there’s a brokenness in all of us, whether it’s from family of origin or how we’re born, things that occurred to us. We’re in a broken world. And disability is just part of being in a broken world. I think when Jesus came, His Kingdom ministry just immediately began to touch all kinds of brokenness, whether we call them special needs or disabled or sick, whatever. It was a full orbed, holistic view of restoration.
Throughout his time as head pastor, Nicholas has often used his time in the pulpit to speak into the hearts of his hearers about disability. Hubach, in her book Same Lake, Different Boat, lovingly refers to RPC as a model of excellent mercy ministry in this arena. Recalling the words of Pastor Nicholas at a denominational conference, she writes:
This ministry does require some flexibility. Sometimes when we sing, some of our members with special needs sway, or—horrors—even dance!...Sometimes I hear the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of seven-year-old Matthew’s metal walker as he ambles down the aisle during the prelude. Some Presbyterians may not like that noise. But we remember when Matthew could hardly walk, and to us it is a joyful noise. God in his grace has taught us these are the kind of worshipers that Jesus seeks. “Let them come, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Over the years, RPC’s disabilities ministry has slowly grown from a mercy ministry to one that also emphasizes justice. Pastor Nicholas testifies to the way the disabilities ministry has evolved. “The problem with starting with justice is that God doesn’t start with justice for us. He starts with mercy. But then we find out that his mercy is just. His grace is actually just grace…we always thought of this as a ministry of grace and mercy and compassion. Bu I think once we crossed the threshold into really consciously not just inviting and including people with special needs, [but] really [making them] part of our Body, part of our life as a church…to think of going back and not doing it that way would be unjust. It wouldn’t just be unmerciful, it would be unjust.”
1 Interview with ByFaith Magazine, Author: Stephanie O. Hubach, Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability . Accessed: September 2011
On Friday night, a couple goes to a movie. Afterwards they analyze it—he liked its subtle character development; she thought the plot moved too slowly.
The next day the same couple attends a college basketball game at their alma mater. They scream themselves silly for two hours, willing their team to a narrow victory.
On Sunday morning, they go to church. During the sermon, how should they engage? As consumers/critics of a movie, or as active participants desperately trying to influence the outcome of a basketball game?
As the Body of Christ, we recognize that the power of God’s word preached depends not just on the one who preaches. When we pray before and during the sermon, God uses our intercession to free up, call out, and bring to birth the event of the Word.
Missionary Frank Laubach, whose literacy programs reached forty million of the poorest of the poor, knew that wise preaching requires the entire church. May his words empower our prayers this Advent season:
“Pastors around the world in ever increasing numbers are testifying that their preaching has been transformed by asking people to lean forward and pray….Always, when congregations pray with great earnestness and unanimity, we feel lifted almost as though an invisible arm held us up; our hearts burn, tears lie close, and ideas come fresh and far better than any written address. Commonplace truth becomes incandescent, and burns like liquid metal. A congregation is three-fourths of a sermon!”
~Frank C. Laubach, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World
(New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1946), 33, 34.
Six years ago, on one of John Kwasny’s first days as director of Christian Education and Children’s Ministries at Pear Orchard Presbyterian in Ridgeland, Mississippi, a couple walked through his doors. They brought a question that in many ways would not only shape his ministry, but that of the entire church. “Are you,” they asked, “really interested in ministering to all of our children here, or just most of them?”
The couple—an elder of the congregation and his wife—had a 28-year-old special needs daughter. Like many families with a special needs member, they often felt as though more could be done to minister to families like theirs. They had come to John with a purpose, hoping this new ministry leader would see the importance of ministering to the disabled.
“Of course,” John recalls, “I told them I’m here to minister to all of the children of Pear Orchard. That’s when they got me [though], because then they said, ‘Did you know, in our nursery, we have three families touched by disabilities?’” Three young families at Pear Orchard did indeed have babies with Down Syndrome. That conversation led John to put together a special needs subcommittee of the children’s ministry.
This marked the very beginning of “Sonbeams,” a disabilities ministry that would eventually grow to impact all the ministries of Pear Orchard. When John and his wife Martie approached their Session (governing elders) with the idea of starting a disabilities ministry, they posed a question similar to the one that John had been presented years earlier. The Kwasny’s looked at their brethren and asked: “Do you believe that corporate worship is for the educable and the non-educable, or just the educable?”
Martie remembers the effect of that question. “It really challenged our elders as well as our staff on what that means. Who does God choose to have in corporate worship? It didn’t take long for us to all come to the conclusion that it’s not just for the educable, it’s for the [whole] Body.”
After leadership gave the green light to start Sonbeams, John and other interested volunteers kick-started things with a “Disability Awareness Weekend.” Partnering with the Joni & Friends International Disability Center, a speaker addressed the congregation on a Friday night, then met with the special needs committee and families. That Sunday, Pear Orchard’s senior pastor Carl Kalberkamp preached a sermon specifically on special needs. On Sunday night, church members heard testimonies from families touched by disability. “We hit the ground running,” John recalls. “People were excited.” In his sermon, Rev. Kalberkamp laid the foundation for what he hoped the church was beginning to learn and experience through the disabilities ministry:
We are learning a deeper side of the Lord’s character as the champion of the ‘least of these my brethren.’…We are learning what it means to bear another’s burdens and to see through another’s eyes in fresh ways. We are seeing afresh that ministry is rarely convenient, yet always joy-producing if the heart is humbled. We are learning that gospel fruit-bearing always requires identifying with those we would reach.
We are learning that launching new ministry avenues takes great patience, endurance, giving and extending forgiveness, etc. In other words, it can only be well accomplished in the strength of Christ, not the flesh.
We are challenged deeply to see that if we give all to the poor, have all faith and knowledge, but HAVE NOT LOVE, then we are only making noise.
With the encouragement and support of Kalberkamp and the congregation, the disabilities ministry outlined a vision and mission for Sonbeams. It focused on integration and inclusion, at first specifically within children’s ministry. Sunday school teachers were trained on how to integrate special needs children into classes, and an advocacy system was created whereby each family with a disabled child had an assigned advocate in the church. Advocates meet monthly with the family to see where the child is at and how Sonbeams could better serve and support the family.
On Sundays, volunteers serve on a rotation where they sit with children and adults with special needs through the corporate worship service, taking them out into a special room if there are disruptions. This system allows the family to worship freely, without the usual distractions. “We have many families that have come and they haven’t been able to worship together for fourteen years or more,” Martie explains. She remembers one missionary family that came to Pear Orchard for a time after serving in France. Their son, Michael, had a chromosomal disorder. “In Paris, [the ministry organization] really wanted to send [Michael] abroad and institutionalize him… That’s when they came off the field,” Martie says. “They stayed with us for about eight months before the Lord redirected them. They would worship with us [while we took] Michael and the family would worship together. It was beautiful, [the mother] had tears in her eyes when she said, ‘We are in ministry and we’ve never been able to worship together as a family.’”
As much as is possible, the focus of Sonbeams is on building and developing relationships and integrating special needs kids and adults into the life of Pear Orchard. They have worked hard not to make it about building programs. “These families are inundated by professionalism,” Martie remarks. “They don’t necessarily need professionalism at the church….so often we want to prepare a better program for these families and often we miss the family by replacing them with the program. And it’s not about a program; it’s about integrating them throughout the life of the church.”
After a while, the committee started focusing on respite care for community members. The best way they felt they could serve the community was by offering temporary relief to caretakers who often attend “24/7” to the needs of handicapped family members. These bimonthly “Sonbeams Night Out” have been a huge success in the community. The first night alone, ninety people show up. They average between 80 to 100 special needs kids or siblings, and about 150 volunteers from the church. Normally, more than half of the families that come are unchurched. It’s an event that ministers to the entire family touched by disability--the adult children who never get invited to parties or events, the siblings who never quite feel accepted or comfortable, and the parents, who are worn out from life’s daily burdens.
Rev. Kalberkamp notes these family difficulties in a video promoting Mission to North America’s (MNA’s) special needs ministry. “There are many challenges that those with disabilities face at the family level. These families have a daily-ness and a lifestyle that is impacted 24/7 by that need. Part of the unique struggle of beginning to move into that ministry with Christ’s heart, is to try to own what it means never to be able to walk away from that, and be able to come alongside folks and say, ‘How can we help you at that place?’
John and Martie both agree that church leadership, especially the leadership of Rev. Kalberkamp, has been crucial to the success of the ministry. “From what we hear [from] other churches,” John says, “the most disappointing thing for them tends to be a lack of embrace by the church leadership.” This has never been the case at Pear Orchard. There, elders, deacons and ministry leaders not only embrace the ministry; most are actively involved in it. John remembers one deacon who felt a strong call to reach out to a family in the congregation who had a disabled son. The mother was a single parent. The church had hired her to work in the nursery on Sundays. Because of that, her son couldn’t come to church. The deacon realized that the boy could really benefit from a male presence in his life, and so he and his family offered to sit with him at church, take him to Sunday school, and even take him to lunch with the family after church each week. “They did that for years,” John says. “We saw the change [it made] in his life.”
Rev. Kalberkamp, along with many other officers, will often show up at Sonbeams night out, helping out in different capacities and just loving on the kids. “[Rev. Kalberkamp] just has a heart of mercy, and so from the pulpit he really exudes that heart of mercy and that heart of grace,“ Martie says. Rev. Kalberkamp often incorporates the special needs ministry into sermons, highlighting how, because of the Fall, all of humanity is broken. “Some are just more broken in the physical sense,” John observes. For Pear Orchard, this emphasis on “getting the theology right” is one of the reasons the ministry has thrived. “Sonbeams gives us the opportunity to apply that which we know,” Martie says. “What I find in this ministry, as well as any other ministry, [is that] your knowledge always precedes your ability. That’s important. Our knowledge will always precede our grace.”
Through the Roof Ministries: Helping Everyone “Fit in” to Church
by Kelly Givens
We often complain about not “fitting in” in certain situations or with certain groups of people. Maybe we dress or speak differently, have different interests or ways of thinking. We long to be a part of a place or group of people who make us feel welcome, where we feel like our ideas, personalities and gifts are useful and encouraged. Certainly, churchgoers feel this desire—a new person comes into a local congregation and sees how he or she might "fit in" with the activities and worship going on at that church.
Imagine, however, literally not being able to “fit into” a church of which you long to be a part. You are wheelchair bound. You can’t get through the door, much less reach the water fountains or comfortably use the restroom. Or imagine you are deaf. You can’t hear the songs in worship or understand what the pastor is saying in his sermon. Now imagine that this happens over and over to you, at every church you visit.
These are the heartbreaking stories that Margaret Matasic, a doctor of physical therapy, heard repeatedly from her patients. Crippled after accidents, they often told her that they could no longer fit into their church. Reaching out to these people became a passion of Margaret’s, and eventually she went to the senior pastor of her church (The Chapel, a nondenominational fellowship in Akron, OH) with the intent to start a ministry. Margaret’s enthusiasm was contagious, and it wasn’t long before the entire church was behind her and “Through the Roof” was born.
Crippled following accidents, handicapped individuals told Margaret they could no longer fit into their church.
Margaret recognized that in order for her ministry to be effective, she needed the support of The Chapel staff. Head Pastor Knute Larson allowed Margaret to come to a staff meeting where she held a “disability awareness” training. She hoped this would show the staff in a tangible way just how difficult it was for the disabled to worship at their church. After fitting everyone with blindfolds, earplugs, wheelchairs, etc., Margaret asked them to do a series of simple tasks. “We had them go through the church, or go and get a cup of coffee, or go into a restroom, or try and get through…hallway doors [that] at the time were closed.” Her training was effective— staff realized just how hard it was for a disabled person to maneuver around. The Chapel soon began making modifications to their building, adding automatic door openers, adjusting the height of fountains, adding large print bulletins, and adjusting the pews to accommodate wheelchairs. Little changes that, over time, helped make the church a place where anyone could worship.
Margaret knew it wasn’t only the building that needed to be disabilities-friendly. She and her team spoke in front of the congregation, and they also invited people with disabilities to share their testimonies during worship. As the congregation became aware and convicted of the need for a disabilities ministry, they began to volunteer. The disabilities ministries inside The Chapel now include multiple “Assisted Learning” classes, where volunteers “buddy” with a disabled person to help them join in on lessons. They have an interpreter in worship services and frequently hold large training events at their church, to help equip other churches for disabilities ministry.
Reaching out into the community, Through the Roof has a Fellowship of Friends outreach, targeted to local group homes and families in the community affected by disabilities. They sponsor fun activities like bowling or visiting local zoos and museums, which those with disabilities might not normally be able to participate in. Because of the work they are doing both within and outside the church walls, The Chapel has over one hundred people affected by disabilities attending their various classes and community outreaches.
Today Through the Roof functions as an auxiliary of the church; it has its own nonprofit status. Margaret serves as Executive Director. The ministry has both a local and international focus, all centered on its mission: to make the message of the Gospel available to all people, “doing whatever it takes to bring people to Jesus.” To serve Ohio, Through the Roof currently offers an online Bible Study and a speaking ministry led by Shanda Grubb-Gobeli—a young woman with cerebral palsy. Internationally, Through the Roof sponsors a “Wheels of Hope” program that helps bring wheelchairs to those in impoverished areas, as well as mission trip program that reaches out to those affected by disabilities.
“Salvation is indeed the greatest need of every person,” Margaret affirms. “But the Great Commission includes more than evangelism. We believe it is also our responsibility to disciple and equip people with disabilities to use their gifts to expand the body of Christ.”
Rev. Len Tang is the founding pastor of Sherwood Presbyterian Church in Sherwood, Oregon. He currently serves as a New Church Development Coach in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and chairs the New Church Development Team of the Cascades Presbytery. Sherwood Presbyterian is a church built on small groups that is reaching out in Christ's name through a community garden, a homework club at the nearby elementary school, and a 5K run/walk for clean water in Zambia.
Our life together is founded on the truth of gospel, that God loves his creation so much that he actually lived among us in order to restore it. The Scriptures teach us that when we let that truth settle in us, love will pervade our community. John's third letter gives us a glimpse of what this love looks like.
Love that is based in the gospel looks like each of us praying for the needs in our community. It looks like encouraging fellow Christians to continue walking in the truth of the gospel. It looks like doing everything in our power to empower others to preach the good news about Jesus. It does not look like coveting position and social status at the expense of others. A gospel-based love looks like desiring to be in communion with each other.
May our life together be founded on the truth of the gospel, and may that truth lead us to a life of love.
In 2005, Joseph Barkley and his wife helped plant a church in Hollywood in just five days. It was almost twice as crazy as it sounds. At the time, Joseph was working as a musician, touring with a band called Plumbline and writing music for television shows. He had never preached a word in his life.
When Ecclesia Hollywood first started, he helped lead music and worship and picked up odd jobs to support a life with less touring. Ecclesia soon grew in the heart of Hollywood and, after 7 location moves in 2 years, landed in a 100 year-old theatre built by the Warner Brothers on Hollywood Blvd. Joseph was still leading music, but was able to devote full-time attention to the church.
Somewhere in there, he was asked to teach one morning on the topic of worship. He found joy in it and the church connected with it. What was not expected was that within a year and a half, the founding pastor would step down and the church would appoint Joseph as the new Lead Pastor. His first morning teaching in this new role was his seventh sermon...ever.
Since the Fall of 2009, Ecclesia has experienced miraculous growth and Joseph has fallen in love with the city of Hollywood. In addition to this, God has birthed in him a new fervor to see people of all ages find what he found: a dream interrupted by a mission.
He wants people to meet Jesus, trust Jesus and find their true life in Jesus and thinks this is the most revolutionary thought that could captivate a heart.
Every preacher has had the sinking feeling in their gut that what they have to share is uninspiring. Sometimes preachers think they are not witty enough, or fresh enough, or intellectual enough. They may feel alone in their endeavor, believing it falls solely on them to convince their congregation of God’s word. Although these feelings are real, they could not be further from the truth.
Pray that our preachers would be settled in that which is true.
May they be reassured that the gospel is always relevant and inspiring.
May they be encouraged that when they openly share how the gospel has
touched their life, that is always enough.
May they believe deep down in their hearts that every time the gospel is
preached, it is the Holy Spirit that will draw people to God.
May they feel supported in knowing that God is speaking to the congregation
as much as God is speaking to them.
The Rev. Dr. Richard R. Kannwischer is Lead Pastor of the 3,000 member St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. A native Texan, Richard graduated cum laude with a business degree from Trinity University. He also graduated with a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate from Fuller Seminary. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of both Trinity University and Princeton Theological Seminary. Richard met his wife, Kelly Beckham Kannwischer, while at Princeton Theological Seminary. Kelly serves as Vice President, University Advancement at Vanguard University.
Following seminary, Richard served as an Associate Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Houston and as Senior Pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church of Summit, NJ. In Summit, he led the 1,200 member congregation through the wake of the September 11 tragedy. From 2004–2009 Richard was the Senior Pastor of the 4000 member First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, Texas. He joined St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in September, 2009. Kelly and Richard spend much of their time chasing their two precious daughters, Danica (age 8) and Ashby (age 6). Richard’s other active pursuits include snow skiing, hiking and playing golf.
On September 19, Andy Crouch led a very stimulating webinar for the Ogilvie Institute's Micah Groups on issues of faith and culture. We had watched a number of videos Andy has done and then had this chance to talk with him.
After the webinar, several Micah Group members said they were eager to talk more about an issue Andy raised: Does preaching (any preaching and our own preaching, in particular) breed a kind of congregational passivity? Is the form, or our way of using the form of preaching, forming a community of people who sit and listen, then think that at the end of the service they have done all they need to do? Is the content, style, and approach to preaching that we are using in our congregations forming a community of inaction, even though we may be trying to do the opposite? If we measure this not by intention but by actual evidence in the culture of our congregation, what do we see? If this needs to change, how might we go about it?
Let's talk about these questions and other related ones that may have occurred to any of you who were part of the webinar. I will jump in from time to time and share in the conversation. Please also feel free to offer additional questions you may wish to discuss.
Jesus’ gospel deals not only with personal salvation, but also with systemic issues of race and class. Saint Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
According to new census data released this week, over 46 million Americans live in households of four people where the combined annual income is less than $22,350. This is merely the latest of a plethora of reports that reveal that the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen at alarming rates. Furthermore, the poverty rate is highest for Blacks and Hispanics and lowest for Whites and Asians. So we’re living in an America that is economically and racially more divided.
To the God we worship, these are not just statistics but lives, and lives he knows and loves. We see and hear in the Old and New Testament God’s great heart for those at the margins, especially the poor.
For the sake of preaching the whole counsel of God, please pray that our churches would become increasingly more aware of these disparities. Pray that our gospel presentations would be big enough to include these societal fractures. Pray that we would be open to hearing the stories of others. Pray for wisdom, that we would know how to act justly. Pray that we would come together.
Pastor Felix Gilbert is a native of St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands. He was licensed and ordained at Trinity Missionary Baptist Church of Tucson, Arizona. Pastor Felix holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science, from Colorado Christian University, and a Master of Divinity from Denver Seminary and is currently matriculating his Doctorate in Ministry degree, at Denver Theological Seminary.
Pastor Felix has served as Senior Pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sierra Vista, Arizona; and Lowry Community Christian Church in Denver, CO. Presently he is serving as the Senior Pastor of Restoration Christian Fellowship, a church planted by he and his wife in Aurora, CO. Restoration Christian Fellowship is a multiethnic non-denominational ministry whose mission is to restore people to their rightful position in Christ.
Under Pastor Felix’s leadership Restoration has grown from a core of 40 members to a thriving ministry which ministers holistically to several hundred parishioners on a weekly basis. Pastor Felix is instrumental in networking Restoration with other ministries throughout the metro Denver area, and founded a Community Development Corporation named Operation Nehemiah. Through Operation Nehemiah, Restoration is able to provide after school tutoring, computer training, summer enrichment programs, mentoring programs, a counseling center, and other programs that provide the redevelopment necessary to transition residents in the community to becoming self-sufficient, and productive members of the society.
Pastor Felix’s primary spiritual gift is teaching, evangelism and pastoring, each enhanced by his warmth, humor, humility, intellectual rigor and vision. He has been married to his lovely wife Kotane since 1982. Together they are blessed to have three children and two grandsons.
Prior to his involvement in ministry Felix worked in the corporate world as a Software Engineer for companies such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, and also worked as an Electrical Engineering for Photometric, and Denzer and Wilson Engineers, as well as National Semiconductor of Tucson, Arizona.
On the 50th anniversary celebration of College Avenue Baptist Church in Indianapolis, IN (now Oasis of Hope Baptist Church), senior pastor Frank Alexander preached a sermon that came to be seen as a prophetic reminder of God’s vision and mission for the congregation. This August 1988 sermon centered on Zechariah 4:1-14. There God spoke through his prophet Zechariah to governor Zerubbabel concerning the dilapidated condition of Jerusalem. God urged Zerubbabel to continue rebuilding the Temple, a project that had been abandoned after fifteen years due to opposition and persecution. The Israelites had redirected their focus to building their own homes and businesses, concluding that since there had been so many hindrances, God must not want them to build the Temple. But they were wrong, Pastor Alexander explained to his listeners. God still desired the Temple to be built, he said, but He recognized how weary the people were. And so He sent word through Zechariah in order to keep Zerubbabel “from becoming discouraged in the face of problems and opposition.” [Not By Might Nor By Power, But By My Spirit, Pastor Frank Alexander, Oasis of Hope Baptist Church, August 14, 1988.]
Looking up from his text, Pastor Alexander challenged his flock. “Let me ask you: Do you know anything about that? Do you, College Avenue, sometimes find it difficult to move in ministry—to build physically and spiritually for the glory of God?” He went on to note how similar this church body and the Israelites were. The congregation had been talking about potential community development projects for several years. In this anniversary message, Pastor Alexander gave a call to action. The vision he cast was audacious:
Picture, if you will, on a 40-acre tract in an area of our city [that] is often looked upon with scorn and as a ghetto, a facility for worship and a ministry housing a sanctuary, a Family Life Center, a Parent-Child Development Center, a Family Counseling ministry . . . a K-8 school, a child care center, athletic and recreational facilities and programs . . . senior citizens’ housing, [and] a center for the promulgation of African American culture.
Just as Pastor Alexander imagined Zerubbabel looking incredulously at Zechariah, he likewise imagined his congregants’ reaction to this ambitious dream of community renewal. He anticipated congregants saying, “Wait a minute, Pastor, don’t you realize that the ministry you just described is going up against the political, economic, and societal powers that be in Indianapolis and the USA? And you say, ‘Not by might, nor by power?’”
Indeed, that was just what he was saying.
Frank Alexander believed deeply that this bold challenge to minister in the distressed Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood was God’s personalized call for College Avenue Church. “God is saying to College Avenue that there are certain needs that people—that African Americans—have which cannot be ministered to by the power of the Pentagon or by the resolve of the Department of Health and Human Services. God is saying that there comes a time when certain things, certain ministries, can only be done by the power of God and God’s own grace working through His anointed ones. And this is one of those times.”
Soon after this powerful sermon, College Avenue relocated to the Martindale Brightwood community. The church was renamed Oasis of Hope Baptist Church and quickly started to get involved in the neighborhood. This included establishing two new Community Development Corporations (or CDCs), through which Oasis has:
♦ Run a Youth Employment Program for church and neighborhood teens;
♦ Acquired and completely refurbished a low-income housing complex,
called New Bridges;
♦ Built a Senior Housing facility called Hopeside I for 35 low-income elderly
♦ Broken ground for Hopeside II, providing additional housing for seniors.
Through perseverance, God has used Oasis over 35 years to bring about socio-economic revitalization in the Martindale Brightwood neighborhood. Their accomplishments have been impressive, but Pastor Alexander isn’t slowing down. He continues to keep a bold vision before his flock. “We want to be so integrally a part of the community,” he explains, “…that if we ever decide we wanted to relocate, the community would come and say, ‘Please don’t go.’ That’s been a big part of my teaching and preaching.”
Recently I sat down with Pastor Frank Alexander to learn more about his journey as a pastor who has rejuvenated his community. He shared a number of lessons he’s learned about strategies for getting a congregation mobilized for this kind of commitment.
Sherman: Not every minister is as passionate for the surrounding community as you. What would you say has motivated your own heart for church-based community development?
Pastor Alexander: Oasis is the only pastoral ministry I’ve ever had. I [came] into pastoral ministry from the world of local outreach ministry—I directed two Christian community centers before coming to Oasis.
Sherman: So, unlike a lot of pastors, you came into pastoral ministry with a lot of practical, hands-on experience in community and social service ministries. I imagine that has shaped your own work at the church and the CDCs.
Pastor Alexander: Right. My work in the Christian community center made me acutely aware that I needed to do more than just preach to people, in order to get them toward more holistic living. We needed to have some of them move out of an impoverished mindset, out of a hopeless kind of attitude, and even motivate them toward some marketable skills and that sort of thing. . . . I think that’s one of the things that moved me toward the pastorate, because I felt, if I’m the pastor, then I can lead that church into trying to work with people holistically. And, coming out of my background of community ministry, my preaching was missional and “others-focused.”
Sherman: How would you describe your approach to mobilizing the church for action?
Pastor Alexander: I think early in my preaching, 25 years ago, I was so fresh out of the Christian center ministry that much of my preaching tended toward that, quite frankly. . . . I began to preach in my third or fourth year about serving. I must have preached about eighteen sermons on spiritual gifts; [emphasizing] how we are all gifted and supposed to be involved in ministry of some sort. I also would try to do my Bible study [in a way where I would] talk about the importance of ministry and I’d use a lot of illustrations of ministry outside the walls of the church.
I [believe] it’s more the church’s responsibility to minister to the needs of the hurting, the broken, and the poor, than it is the government’s. So that’s why I preach on our responsibility, and try to lead us to get involved in meeting those kinds of needs. And I teach that we can partner with the government to try to do it, but, I’m constantly saying to my people that it’s not going to be government that’s going to change things. Because if we don’t change the hearts of people, it won’t do any good.
Sherman: Has this always been a church with a “DNA” focused on outreach, or have you had to nurture that “externally focused” sensibility?
Pastor Alexander: My predecessor had done some things about feeding senior citizens from the community, and he had started a community Sunday school at an outreach post about a half-mile from the church. He had also tried to lead the congregation into some housing ministry. But the housing deals failed and I think that kind of scared the church some against that sort of outside-the four-walls focus. So it was really a building process when I came.
I think my bringing [the congregation] around started with what I called our summer missionaries. What we did was raise funds and hire some of our own young people, who were college-aged, to run backyard vacation Bible schools and do different little projects in the community. So I think that was a “safe” program, if you will, to get congregants thinking outside the walls of the church.
Sherman: What are some of the significant community ministries that the church has taken on in Martindale Brightwood?
Pastor Alexander: One of the first ones we had [was] a child learning center in the old Parkview Place Apartments. This was HUD-owned low-income housing with around 125 to 150 families. The apartment building [which is located just a few steps up the street from Oasis] was in decaying condition. We started with the child learning center, to work with the parents and support the kids in getting them ready for school. And then for a year, we also had a youth employment program, putting teens from the community to work with the Parks department. Later we began a summer day camp program. We’ve also been involved for several years in running something my colleague, Gina Lewis, calls the Mustard Seed program. [This is a summer initiative for mentoring teens and developing their leadership and marketplace skills.]
Sherman: And then you founded the two community development corporations. What were your reasons for setting up those separate corporations?
Pastor Alexander: Primarily, I wanted a vehicle that I could use to do economic development in the community that would be independent from the church. This was important for two reasons: one, so we could solicit funding for something that was independent from the church, and secondly, it would not make the church, per se, liable, if there were any mishaps with the CDC. So I wanted to put a firewall between the two.
In 1997, we started the Oasis of Hope Development Corporation to oversee a variety of social services. Then we launched the Oasis Christian Community Development Corporation in order to purchase and renovate the Parkview Place Apartments. We renamed the complex “New Bridges” in 2000.
Sherman: I remember you telling me that the name “New Bridges” represents the vision you have for the families there: to work with your staff and volunteers on life and job skills so as to get stable financially and eventually be able to move into even better housing.
Pastor Alexander: Our ultimate aim is to help them move into home ownership. Unfortunately, we have not done as well with that as we would have hoped to do. But there have been about six families that we have helped to move from there to home ownership and we’re grateful for that.
Sherman: Quality housing for senior citizens has also been a passion for you, hasn’t it?
Pastor Alexander: Yes. We started construction on the Hopeside I project in 2007 and finished it the following year. Hopeside II opened earlier this year. [Both residential complexes are located on land owned by the church and within very easy walking distance to the main church building.] We have various activities [there]. The residents have a crime watch program going on; they organize little trips out for shopping; and there are movie nights and stuff like that.
Sherman: How do you keep the congregation motivated to maintain enthusiastic support of these community outreach ministries and initiatives?
Pastor Alexander: I like to share stories and successes and that kind of thing. Like the other day [I told church members] we’re going to be in possession of some additional properties here. That was the first time that I told them and the congregation was enthusiastic about that. I like to use those methods to motivate and encourage the church. I [also] share with them, from time to time, that the police department and the fire department have told us that we have made a difference in the community, because Parkview Place Apartments used to be almost a drug “cartel,” if you will, and we’ve been able to transform that. It’s those kinds of things that I try to share with the congregation, sometimes in sermons, sometimes in just my pastoral comments or teaching.
Sherman: Are there any other strategies you have for keeping the congregation motivated, besides letting them know positive reports?
Pastor Alexander: We try to have at least one day a year where we celebrate our community ministry. We have an annual community development day where we talk about what’s going on and what we’re doing. And I guess the other thing that makes it possible is that this church is so involved in the community that there’s not hardly a week that goes by when something from the community’s not gone on here. And so the [church members] see that all the time here too. Habitat for Humanity meets here and have their training here. Weed and Seed—I’m chairman of that initiative—meets here. And other different community interest meetings take place here. So the congregation is constantly seeing the church being used in this way, so they have that awareness. Like when they come for choir rehearsal, but they see something else going on.
by Amy L. Sherman
Ten years ago, the Kansas City public school district became the first district in the nation to lose its accredited status, failing all of Missouri’s performance standards. In response, Pastor Adam Hamilton of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in KC stood before his flock and said bluntly, “This is a huge, big, hairy problem to wrap our arms around.”
Earlier in the year, Hamilton had decided to preach a sermon series on what it meant for the body of Christ to live out its faith in the real world. To help his congregants understand what was going on in their city, he partnered with local news station KNBC 9. Every Monday, the station handed Hamilton and his worship team a packet of news stories. The team spent hours studying and researching one particular issue each week, considering together, “What is God’s Word in light of this one story?” When the difficulties of the Kansas City school district came to their attention, Hamilton knew God had something to say.
Facing his congregants that Sunday morning, May 6, 2001, Hamilton proclaimed, “This is the greatest issue facing the greater Kansas City area right now. Nothing is more crucial to the future of our metropolitan area than this story.” He then showed a broadcast from KNBC 9 describing the dilemmas plaguing the local schools. “I did not know how hard it would be to foster change,” one of the interviewed community members said into the camera. Another interviewee added, “Schools are the most vital thing in our country. They predict our future.”
“What does this have to do with the church?” Hamilton asked his congregation. He acknowledged that some of his listeners might be wondering just that—thinking that church is the place to talk about “spiritual things,” not about something “better dealt with by the Kansas City Star.” And he admitted that he’d felt that struggle himself. But in considering whether he should devote a whole sermon to the topic, Hamilton explained to his parishioners that he had had to ask himself two questions. Did God care about the issue, and if so, what would He be doing about it?
“Is God concerned about the 34,632 students being raised up in the Kansas City Missouri Public School system?” Hamilton asked. “Does He care about the 5700 teachers, administrators, and staff members facing difficult circumstances? I realized, if God doesn’t care about that, I can’t imagine how He cares about anything.”
Answering his second question, Hamilton argued that God would want His people to be part of the solution. “How would God go about making a difference?” he queried. “The answer is: God uses His people--Christians, who are open to the work of the Holy Spirit, who listen for God’s voice and who are ready to get their hands dirty in the world. That’s how God accomplishes His purposes.”
While Hamilton knew the call to seek answers to the school district’s problems was clear enough, he admitted he was not sure what those solutions should be. “I would have loved to have come here, and in one 30-minute sermon, solved the whole problem,” he said. “But it doesn’t quite work that way. . . . There is no one simple solution, no one sermon that is going to fix it.”
But he was confident about one response: intercession. “One thing I know God is calling us to do is to pray.”
This call—given its predictability—might have fallen rather flat. But the team at Church of the Resurrection (COR) had determined to make the invitation to intercede as concrete and actionable as possible. They obtained a list of the names of every one of the 5700 employees of the school system, as well as their job descriptions. Each one was written down on an index card. As soon as Hamilton issued his call to prayer, ushers began distributing the cards to the congregation. He asked each member to take a card and to commit to do two things that week: to pray for that individual and to mail them a card with a note of encouragement.
“Can you imagine what it will feel like to get a note like that when you feel like no one appreciates you, and no one cares?” he grinned.
The sermon turned out to be a landmark in the church’s history. A decade later, it’s clear from interviews with numerous parishioners that the seeds Hamilton planted that day have borne much fruit. Today, COR boasts a thriving Education and Life Skills Ministry. It is deeply involved in six district schools. Volunteers from COR have opportunities to read to kids, mentor children and adults, and serve as Lunch Buddies and classroom assistants. For the past four years, COR has partnered with the district in massive “Bless the School” events. Through these, an estimated 1,500 COR volunteers spend a few weeks in the summer going into selected elementary schools to help rebuild and restore the facilities and grounds. They paint classrooms, auditoriums, and cafeterias, create murals, install classroom equipment and shelving, construct new playground equipment, and donate all sorts of balls and toys for recess. After the army from COR transformed Troost Elementary, teacher Terrie Perry enthused: “When I saw this building and saw these hallways, I was amazed. My spirit went this high . . . [The kids’] hearts will be filled.” Principal Judith Jordan Campbell, her voice shaking with emotion, added, “This is what it means to work in the community and really have a heart and desire to make a change.” (Click here for a short video on Bless the School at Troost Elementary.)
Bless the School is an entry point into the Education and Life Skills ministry, explains COR’s Jeanna Repass. She serves as Director of Kansas City Mission Programs. It’s a great first step intoministry, one that can be done as a family or with one’s small group. Volunteers who want to continue their engagement can join the Backpacks for Hunger initiative, through which COR packs and supplies kids’ backpacks with nutritional snacks for the weekends, and delivers those to schools each Friday. “We run about 1200 backpacks every week,” Repass reports.
For Hamilton, COR’s engagement in the local public schools is part of a long United Methodist heritage. “Many churches are involved in offering private schools, and they do a terrific job in educating children, but United Methodists have historically had a commitment to public education,” he explains. “In Kansas City the first public schools were started by Methodist missionaries and churches.”
The experience has been eye-opening.
Ann’s friend Paul Yarick has led the Bless the School initiative the past few years. He says Adam Hamilton’s dynamic leadership and inspirational preaching get people up out of the pews and into the community. “I can just tell you,” he says, “that whenever Pastor Hamilton speaks in the pulpit, people react.” Cheryl Jorgenson, COR’s school liaison for Wendell-Phillips Elementary, agrees. “Basically Adam plants many, many seeds. And it’s up to the person to take advantage of those seeds . . . and to help them grow into fruition. He’s an amazing speaker. He’s very motivational. You know, you listen to these things over and over and you just think, ‘Why not me? I could do this.’”
Importantly, Hamilton’s motivation includes a call to own the city’s woes. Each year when the city’s school test results are published in the newspaper, Cheryl explains, Hamilton references them. “He says: ‘This is our problem, too. This is our city. We need to take ownership of this problem and somehow help out.’”
She says she has learned from COR that “If we really want to change the lives of people in the community, [service] has to be on-going, it has to be shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face.”
Many church leaders around the nation say that they want to make a positive difference in their community. Not so many, though, see their very first step in that process as one of listening. The leaders at Second Baptist Church in Springfield, MO are among the exceptions. They engaged in a nine month listening process before they moved forward.
Starting in 2003, the church began hosting a monthly breakfast. It invited clergy members and business leaders from around the city, and at each session hosted one public official. Each official—the mayor, the sheriff, the school superintendent, and others—was asked to speak briefly on a few key questions. What did they see as Springfield’s greatest need? And what did they think the churches of Springfield might do to help?
Lead Pastor John Marshall from Second Baptist was the initial driving force behind the listening sessions. He’d gone on a mission trip to China and there felt like God broke his heart for his own city. He returned and sat down with his staff. Bob Roberts, the Minister for Springfield, recalls that Marshall told his team simply, “We need to be more mission-minded.”
“That’s when we sat down and identified all the individuals who influenced this city and some 15 churches that we needed to chat with,” explains Roberts. Not only was Second Baptist more ready to engage its city, it realized that it should move forward in partnership with others rather than alone. “Pastor Marshall wrote a personal note to all 15 of those church leaders, inviting them to get together for a [brainstorming] lunch.” Roberts acknowledges that it would have been easier for Second Baptist to just get something started on its own—and enjoy taking the credit. “It would have been easy to put all the feathers in our hat,” he says. “But it would have been a short term [thing], six or eight months. It wouldn’t have affected our city the way it has.”
At the end of nine months of the “listening breakfasts,” Second Baptist hosted a discussion time where they reviewed with attendees the major themes that had come out in the process. In the end, representatives of a few dozen churches agreed that the central action they should take was a multi-church, city-wide, in-school tutoring program for at-risk 3rd graders. This was an initiative that felt both ambitious and feasible and was relevant to what they had learned. The sheriff had explained during his breakfast presentation that one of the key factors state planners used in forecasting how many new jail cells would need to be built was the percentage of 4th graders who couldn’t read. That factoid galvanized the group to focus on helping such children. The new tutoring program grew to engage some 75 congregations. Within two years some 725 children were being served.
Today involved congregations collaborate with 23 elementary schools in the district. Some churches have “adopted” a local elementary school, getting engaged in clean-up and repair efforts, throwing appreciation parties for teachers, and sponsoring book drives. While tutoring remains important, the Churches of Springfield’s principal focus now is on afterschool “Good News” Clubs that engage hundreds of kids. Most recently, some congregations have started helping local schools to establish raised bed vegetable gardens.
In the past two years, the churches’ team effort on behalf of the schools has spawned a new multi-church initiative—this time, to address the needs of Springfield’s homeless. “We learned to work together as a group under the umbrella of Churches of Springfield,” Roberts explains. “Now,” he continues, “between 40 and 50 churches are working collectively to affect homelessness in our city.” The churches take turns hosting homeless residents during the winter, providing shelter, food, and mentoring.
Today, Second Baptist continues to sponsor a quarterly breakfast for church and Christian business leaders. As new public officials are elected or appointed, Roberts explains, “We introduce them into the faith family.” Church leaders continue to ask their questions of public officials, and to listen to their responses. “We make a mistake when we think we’ve ‘arrived,’” Roberts counsels. “We never ‘arrive.’ Things change. That’s how we got involved in the homelessness [initiative].”
No single invitation from Jesus is more intimate or astounding than that we are meant to seek and ask God for what we need. This is remarkable. The notion that the God of the universe is willing, able, and ready to listen and respond to us may be so familiar to us that we might fail to absorb what a stunning thing that is. God, the One who brought the universe into being, listens to us, cares about us, and answers our prayers.
We urge you to practice this privilege! To realize it is not presumptuous to come boldly to God in prayer, it is rather God’s invitation. Seek God for the ministry of preaching, that the preacher and the people alike, might hear God’s Word and live it out in the world. Prayer and preaching are integral to one another and neither can be what it is meant to be without the other.
What are we praying for when we pray for preaching? And why should we do so?
What are we praying?
For the preacher…to be a channel for the Living Word of God to speak through the Written Word of God to the people of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now that is a lot to ask for! We are praying for God to speak for the sake of our salvation and for the implications of that salvation to be worked into and through our lives for the transformation of the world.
So we are NOT praying that the preacher won’t be nervous…if there is any reason that deserves getting nervous for, it is preaching!
And we are NOT praying that the preacher will be prepared and ready…we are assuming a preacher will do the basic work to be thoughtful and ready to proclaim the Word.
And we are NOT praying that they will be funny, entertaining, clever, impressive. They may be those things, but those are not the reason they are preaching.
We ARE praying that the preacher will be an open channel, a divinely appointed and gifted person, amidst a community of divinely appointed and gifted people, who in strength and in weakness seeks to help God’s people hear the Good News and to dare to live it out in the world.
For the congregation…to be open to hear, consider, respond, integrate, and live the Word of God together for the sake of one another and for the sake of the world. Again, this is really asking a lot. Our lives are bombarded by words. Those in the life of many churches are further hit with endless biblical and theological words. But words per se may or may not change us. Hearing God’s Word “is sharper than any two edged sword,” and that makes all the difference.
So we are NOT praying for people merely to hear the words, but to open our hearts to hear the Living Word.
And we are NOT praying for people to be engaged per se, but to be transformed by what they hear.
We ARE praying that the fruit of God’s work shows up in the courage and risk of faith that they make as they go to their families, friends, schools, offices, workplaces, neighborhoods, school board and city council meetings, and every where they go to love with the heart of Jesus Christ and to be an embodiment of wisdom and justice.
Why should we pray? Because only God can do all this.
Eugene Cho doesn’t want to be all talk and no action when it comes to global poverty. He launched One Day’s Wages (ODW) to make that commitment real. The nonprofit raises funds for community based organizations in the developing world. “My wife and I knew the statistics about global poverty but we wanted to do more than just talk about it or blog about it,” Cho says.
The concept is simple: you calculate 0.4% of your annual salary—one day’s wages—and donate it through the website. One hundred percent of the donation goes directly to a project you choose from among ODW’s offerings. ODW partners with charity:water to bring clean water to the destitute, with Not for Sale to rescue girls from sex traffickers in southeast Asia, with HEAL Africa to help Congolese women get a fresh start in microenterprise, and with a handful of other worthy, usually small, nonprofits.
To get ODW off the ground, Cho and his wife put their money where their mouths were: they donated their entire 2009 salary. The first $50,000 came from their savings; the rest (another $18K) from scrimping on expenses, selling Cho’s Mazda Miata, and, eventually, subletting their furnished home to renters for a season. The sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed. News outlets no less grand than the NY Times, CBS, and NPR have all carried stories on the initiative. The Cho’s weren’t trying to toot their own horns by going public about their contribution, Eugene explained to a news reporter. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t asking people to do something that we weren’t willing to do ourselves.”
Cho’s passion for tangible action in the face of global need is rooted in part in a concern he has about himself—and the current generation. He described that concern at a gathering of some 600 high school students in Knoxville last year, wondering aloud whether he, and other Christians, had fallen in love “with the idea of loving and serving our neighbors” rather than “actually loving and serving our neighbors.” True, there is much talk about justice in Facebook entries, blogs, and tweets, he admitted.
But: While talking about it over those mediums is part of the process of doing good work, my fear is that we stop right there, and then we pat ourselves on the back as people who have great social consciousness. We have to realize our resources, our time, our talents, our treasures need to be inclined toward making changes in our larger system and in ourselves.
Cho credits members of Quest for helping him to move beyond words to personal action and sacrifice. He’s seen one couple reach out to Burmese refugees in Seattle. Several teachers from Quest have chosen the hard route of working in needy inner-city schools. One Quester spends her Friday nights ministering to street-walkers. Those examples, and then Cho’s face-to-face exposure to global poverty on trips abroad, galvanized his desire to act.
The beauty of ODW is that it provides such a feasible opportunity for ordinary folk to move into action. For most people--even the 20-somethings Cho is especially gifted at reaching--donating 0.4% of your salary to fight global poverty is doable. So is creating a Facebook group to spread the word, or hosting a birthday party at which you get your friends to donate to ODW instead of buying you a present.
Money isn’t the sole answer to international poverty, Cho admits. But he’s eager to show that small contributions can have a big effect. Before launching ODW, Cho traveled to Myanmar (Burma). There he visited a jungle school on the border with Thailand that served impoverished Burmese kids. The head of the school told Cho that his biggest challenge was teacher retention: many left to take better paying jobs in the neighboring country. When Cho asked him what was needed, the director replied, “$40.” Cho thought he meant $40 per week—or perhaps per month. But he meant $40 per year. “It hit me,” Cho recalls. “$40 can make a huge difference.”
So when a class of first grade students from Whittier Elementary School donated $44.38 in collected coins to ODWs, Cho was quick to calculate the benefits on ODW’s website. That modest sum, he explained, was enough to provide clean water for two children for a whole year, or to pay a child’s annual school tuition in some countries. “I love Mother’s Teresa’s wisdom,” Cho wrote. “‘If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.’”
Dig Deeper: Starting a poverty fighting nonprofit while pastoring a congregation has proven very difficult. Although the values of Quest and ODW align beautifully, Cho discovered that he could not communicate enough with the church’s leadership and members to reassure them that, despite his busyness with the new endeavor, his heart was still with them. Read Cho’s reflections on his journey here.
"We are far too frequently prone to push the most vulnerable to the end of the queue."
In this interview, Desmond Tutu speaks on his perspective of human nature in light of the world's marginalized.
"I believe very very fervently that evil and wrong will not have the last word."
Anne Rice has been much in the news because of her announcement that she is leaving Christianity. No more church for her, she says. Not that she is abandoning Christ—just the institutional church. “I refuse to be anti-gay,” she says. “I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.”I found Anne Rice’s 2005 spiritual autobiography, Called Out of the Darkness, where she chronicled her return to Catholicism, very moving. It was clear that she had come to a genuine faith in Christ. When I read her comments about homosexuality—very personal comments, expressing her devotion to her gay son—in that book, however, I said “Uh oh!” to myself. Not because I was ready to question her faith commitment on that score, but because I worried that that sort of strong advocacy she was expressing would alienate her from Evangelicals and conservative Catholics—the folks most likely otherwise to celebrate her marvelous testimony of profound Christian commitment. It is clear now that the alienation has gotten to her. Some folks obviously wanted to use her to support their agenda, and she has refused to play along.
I am saddened by her decision. At the same time, I am encouraged by her clear testimony of a continuing commitment to Jesus Christ.
The fact is that she is only a much-publicized version of something that has been happening a lot in recent years. The growing movement of Christians who love Christ but can’t find spiritual nurture in “church” is a phenomenon that we—those of us who love “organized” Christianity, warts and all—have to reckon with. Maybe her manifesto is in fact God’s call to start doing the reckoning.
It is easy to decry her decision—as some have done—as yet another manifestation of a “Lone Ranger” approach to the spiritual life. But that is too easy. (And not fair to Tonto either!) The fact is that many representatives of the church who are most critical of a yes-to-Christ but no-to-the-organized-church approach don’t seem to have the same hostile attitude toward, say, a Thomas Merton, who ended up spending much time as a hermit, because he found that more spiritually enriching than active involvement in a community of monks who spent most of their time maintaining lives of silence. Or toward the men and women of the past who lived alone in desert caves, writing prayers and meditations.
Some people forsake organized Christianity for superficial reasons—even stupid ones. But there are others who separate themselves from Christian community for what I suspect are profound motives. I say I “suspect” here because it all remains a bit of a mystery for me. And then there are those who may not be right up there with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but neither are they acting on stupid impulses. They constitute a challenge that those of us who care about both Christ and his church need to begin to take more seriously.
Originally posted on Dr. Mouw's blog here.
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Yung poses the question: If much of Western theological thought has been domesticated by modernity, how will we truly learn from the supernatural experience of the churches of Africa, Asia, and Latin America? He asserts, “A 21st-century reformation will demand reinserting the supernatural into the heart of Christianity. Click here to read the full article
Sagamore Institute for Policy Research is an Indianapolis-based nonpartisan research group ("think tank") that brings policymakers and practitioners together to turn ideas into action. It was founded in 2004 by Jay F. Hein. Sagamore’s portfolio encompasses national and international issues, with a special focus on applied research seeking wise answers to contemporary social problems. Read more about Sagamore Institute here.
The Langham Partnership desires to see Majority World churches being equipped for mission and growing to maturity through the ministry of Christian leaders and pastors who sincerely believe, diligently study, faithfully expound and relevantly apply the Word of God. Connect with The Langham Partnership here
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Mark Labberton recently spoke at First Presbyterian Church of Rome, and we were able to snag him to speak candidly about his recent series called "A Study on Good News."
Referencing Colossians 1:9-23 (NRSV), guest pastor Mark Labberton concludes our study on The Good News.
Mars Hill Audio is committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement. Connect with Mars Hill Audio here
Drawing from the example of Jesus Christ and the historical Church, Renovaré encourages people to develop renewed, sustainable, and enriched spiritual lives. Connect with Renovaré here.
MY MASTER GOD,