“Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows” (Neh. 4:14).
This past Sunday I taught the adult class and we looked at Nehemiah 4. Nehemiah is a book about the people of God rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem yet the rebuilding is more about the people than it is the walls. Like any good story there are the protagonists (Nehemiah and the workers) and the antagonists (Sanballat and Tobiah). Like any successful villain, Sanaballat and Tobiah try to thwart the workers from accomplishing their task. They try criticism, slander, ridicule, public shame and when all of those fail, things get violent. As we read through Nehemiah 4 one of my youth group parents made this comment:
“I love how they put people in the gaps to protect them.”
I honestly did not think about that. Then a brother made this comment:
“They put families there too which was smart because I might not die to protect someone else but I’ll die to protect my family.”
I didn’t think of that either. Nehemiah put people families in the gaps—the vulnerable spots in the wall—to protect the progress of the wall but ultimately to obey what God was blessing.
Standing in the gaps.
Who is standing in your gaps protecting you while you obey the task God has given you? Is it your spouse? A mentor? A confidant? A spiritual director? A group of ladies at church? A men’s group? A parent?
When I resigned from Main Street a few years ago I remember being in a really bad place. Folks who I thought stood in my gap suddenly stopped calling, texting or dropping by. I don’t blame them as people have to move on. Yet, I needed people to help. We attended a church for a few months and I can’t tell you how many times this church stepped up in helping us. In a time we were vulnerable they stood in the gaps.
Have you ever looked at pictures of abandoned buildings in Detroit? A website called Detroiturbex has hundreds of pictures of abandoned schools, churches and buildings that were once esteemed in beauty but now house nothing more than rats and bats. I love the tab “now and then” because it highlights this stark contrast between what used to be and what currently is. Here is an example:
I look at those pictures and I am reminded of many churches that have closed their doors because they no longer have enough membership. The reason many churches close their doors is that they simply have become irrelevant to the community around them. This was no surprise to many of them as dying usually does not happen overnight with churches. They ignored the signs and refused to change and so, like a slow cancer, the death took a while but it surely came. Below I share 7 signs that your church is out of touch with its community. These come from many articles read, being a minister for 11 years and having conversations with many people in leadership.
#1 Your church does not look like your community
I have spent plenty of time with this before but suffice it to say that if you are a church in a multi-racial and an economically diverse community yet your church is filled with a homogeneous race and economic group then you are out of touch with your community. In the leadership Jesus chose he had the rich (tax collectors), poor and everything in between. His leadership looked like a sample from first century Palestine. I know people disagree with me on this but I firmly believe our churches need to represent our communities racially and economically.
#2 Your church lacks young families.
How many twenty somethings are in your church compared to older folks? Are there a lot of children in your church? If our churches lack the young families we need to ask the question, “Why do we not have the young families attending our church?”
#3 Your church has an intractable, unilateral programming.
Meaning, your church only has programs that benefit…wait for it…your church. Two words: GOSPEL MEETING. I saw a sign the other day that read, “Come to our gospel meeting,” and I cringed a little. This is insider language that only a select group understands and the meeting itself is really geared toward those in the “know” anyways. Think about it for a second. How many unchurched, community people drive by and read a sign that says, “Gospel Meeting” and think to themselves: “Wow. That sounds amazing. I really want to go to that strange place and meet strange people because gospel meeting sounds really enticing.” That goes for many of the different programs that seem to benefit only those internally and not really appeal to those externally.
#4 Not many people from the community use your building.
Many churches are so protective of their building like it is the temple of David or something. If someone wants to use it for their wedding they have to give a background check, blood sample and if all of that passes they better not bring in an instrument. Because clearly an instrument in a building used for secular purposes is a clear sign that the mark of the beast is upon that church. Does your church allow AA, Al-Anon, Community Suppers (not the bait-and-switch kind), Charities or other organizations to use your building? If not, then your church may be more of a burden than a blessing.
#5 When a community event needs to happen your church is not called on to help.
Relay for life, 5k/10k runs, school support, blood drive, sports tournaments, community awareness meetings or anything along those lines. Living in Springfield, Tennessee there are a couple of churches that I hear who are always involved in community events. Whether it is hosting the hospitality tent at a state baseball tournament or having a booth and every local fundraiser these two churches are synonymous with this community. The cynic in me wants to say that it is more about marketing than the messiah but the realist in me says that they understand that if they are going to make a difference with the lost then they better make a difference in the community.
#6 Conversations in the church hover on the “good ole days” instead of today.
“Hey there Fred.”
“You remember when we used to have 450 people come to Sunday morning services?”
“Sure do, Fred.”
“We could get about 375 every night at the Gospel Meeting. Bro. Traveling Preacher would lay it on us thick each night.”
“Sure did, Fred. Stepped on our toes like we needed. They don’t make gospel preachers like they used to.”
“Heck no Bill. Man those were the good ole’ days weren’t they?”
“You ain’t kiddin’.”
Conversations like that in leadership and in the church are a clear sign that they do not have the pulse of the community in their minds and hearts. A blogger and youth ministry aficianado Adam McLane tweeted one day:
Your organizations best path forward is to stop investing in stuff that didn’t work yesterday. (@mclanea).
We have got to work on things that will improve our churches impact in the community right now and quit spending time on the hamster wheel of old ways of doing things. If we do it the old way it looks like this:
I understand this may be subjective especially if you live in a huge city or one with a bunch of churches.
“Hey my name is Sarah Churchmember and I go to First Church of Robertson County.”
“What church is that?”
“Oh…you know…First Church of Robertson County.”
“Not ringing a bell. Is it a new church?”
“No, we just celebrated our 100 year anniversary.”
“Whoops. Well I have lived in Robertson County my whole life and never heard of ya’ll.”
There are many ways to describe that conversation but a face palm seems to be in order. Does anyone in your community really know about your church? Can they tell you even exist? How? What tangible evidence exists to prove it? I am afraid many of our churches are pieces of brick and mortar that simply house our mundane worship because really we just want to be zapped up to heaven anyways.
Here’s the deal. My point and purpose of this post is to get you and your church moving to be a light to the community instead of a piece of property that pays the bills. To do that we have to be advocates for our community and super-involved from the leadership down to the pew members.
This past Saturday some parent volunteers, students, my two youngest kids and I raked a couple yards in our community. One was a lady whom we did not know but was recently widowed and another was a lady from our church who is also a widow. There are only a few times I brag about some of the service work we do as a youth group and when we help widows and orphans that is high on my list of bragging.
It was tiring work but we finished the job and I thought nothing about it. The next morning at worship the announcement dude got up and read a card and it was from the lady in our church. Below is a snippet:
Thanks to Robbie, adult volunteers, the teenagers and the Mackenzie children for taking and hauling off the leaves in my yard yesterday. It meant a lot to me and I appreciate it so very much. All of you are doing a great job with the youth. Robbie, I’m so glad you are our youth minister.
As I heard him read this card tears began to build up in my eyes and I just felt so affirmed. All of the late nights, the long text messages, the deep conversations, the traveling to ball games, the meetings, planning sessions, trials and errors, two classes a week and a host of other things makes it worth it when you hear two special words:
We are in a season of thanksgiving and it is convenient to think about being thankful for people. It is inconvenient, however, to let someone know specifically that you are grateful for what they do.
For example, take the garbage man who visits your house once a week to transfer your week’s worth of trash to a safe location where it can biodegrade with the same trash from everyone else. That is not a very appealing job to me. The smells alone are enough for me to opt out of never wanting to do that job.
But it must be done.
If not then trash would go in the streets and eventually disease and other issues would arise. So garbage man (or woman if that is more PC)….thank you. I want to challenge you to move beyond the Facebook month of thankfulness and actually (and audibly) thank people by either calling them or meeting with them.
An interesting study was done on the effects of saying thank-you.
In the first study 69 participants were asked to provide feedback to a fictitious student called ‘Eric’ on his cover letter for a job application. After sending their feedback through by email, they got a reply from Eric asking for more help with another cover letter.
The twist is that half of them got a thankful reply from Eric and the other half a neutral reply. The experimenters wanted to see what effect this would have on participant’s motivation to give Eric any more help.
As you might expect, those who were thanked by Eric were more willing to provide further assistance. Indeed the effect of ‘thank you’ was quite substantial: while only 32% of participants receiving the neutral email helped with the second letter, when Eric expressed his gratitude, this went up to 66%. (Source)
All you have to say is, “I’m thankful for what you do.” Here are some people to thank….
Thanking our kids
Ministers, Deacons, Elders (and their wives)
Those currently in military
Post Office Worker
Plumbers (and their crack J)
Tool Booth workers
Fast Food workers
People who keep Pandora Radio running!
Do you see where I am getting at?
Look them straight in the eye and say, “I’m thankful for you.” John F. Kennedy once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Authentic Community is a focus that should drive our theology. I am doing a series with the goal of having a theology on authentic community which should inform how we practice it. The late Stan Grenz said it best in his monumental work Theology for the Community of God:
“Community” is important as an integrative motif for theology not only because it fits with contemporary thinking but more importantly because it is the central message of the Bible. From the narratives of the primordial garden which open the curtain on the biblical story to the vision of white-robed multitudes inhabiting the new earth with which it concludes, the drama of the Scriptures speaks of community. Taken as a whole the Bible asserts that God’s program is directed to the bringing into being of community in the highest sense—a reconciled people, living within a renewed creation, and enjoying the presence of their Redeemer.
What does the Old Testament say about authentic community?
In the first sense we can ascertain that the original intent was that our community was to mirror and participate with divine community. The triune God created man and “did not want him to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The creator God desired that our community look like his community when he created man “from his image” (Gen. 1:26).
Secondly, this authentic community would have a certain ethos in how they would interact with each other and their neighbors. The Decalogue (10 commandments) along with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) would serve as reminders of how they were set apart to commune with each other. Phillip Camp notes:
Thus, these commandments [Decalogue – RM] are not timeless “principles” dropped from heaven for everyone everywhere. These are God’s words to his people Israel, telling them how to live as the people of God among the nations, thus, enabling them to live out God’s purposes for them.
Thirdly, authentic community meant the people were set apart from other cultures. “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming creature that moves on the earth” (Lev. 11:44; cf. 21:8). The Hebrew word qadosh (קָדוֹשׁ) used here for “holy” appears 20 times in Leviticus indicating the need for the Israel community to set themselves apart so that they were different.
Fourthly, authentic community meant they were to help and look out for each other. “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Prov. 14:31). From the Year of Jubilee, to various laws surrounding justice to cities of refuge the Old Testament is heavy on looking out for those in the community who are weak or in distress.
Fifthly, authentic community seems to center around the presence of God. From relying on God by cloud and fire (Ex. 33:7-11), building (1 Kings 5-6) and rebuilding a temple (Hag. 1:1-9) for God’s dwelling to longing for Zion where God would dwell forever (Jeremiah 31). For people to foster a sense of authentic community it had to center around the presence of God. Worship in Israel through sacrifice, to public readings and song were all efforts to bring the divine closer to the community.
Finally, the more sin is welcomed and tolerated the more authentic community is threatened. Sin’s grand entrance (Gen. 3) in the story of scripture permanently established the maxim that “in this world you will have trouble.” Where the community of God was most off kilter was where they lost their ethos (see point #2 above) and sought their own way. Each successive selfish desire on the part of Israel was another crushing blow to the divine initiative for community:
The people build the tower of Babel to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11).
The people murmur to God and wander in the wilderness (Num. 14).
The people do as they please and incur more judgment (Judges 21:25).
The people want a king forgetting the King (1 Samuel 8).
The people follow after gods and continue a downward spiral of sin and eventually become exiles.
The Old Testament bears witness to God’s intent of perfect community and man’s struggle at achieving it. It brings hope and meaning as we look toward the New Testament where God will send Jesus to again establish the presence of God even closer than before.
 Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994): 23-24.
 Phillip G. Camp, Living as the Community of God: Moses Speaks to the Church in Deuteronomy, (Castle Rock, CO: CrossLink, 2014): 30.
 This would include how they dress, worship, eat, speak and a host of others acts intended to look different then pagan nations.
This is a guest post from my friend Adam Callis. Adam was a former student of mine when I was a youth minister at Main Street Church of Christ. He works at Panera Bread and blogs at Adam Callis Writing. He wrote a compelling novel called, “The Nature of the Sea” which is available on amazon kindle for only $2.99!!! He is married to Melody and they both have a wonderful son named Oliver. I think you will be blessed with Adam’s post. He talks about some of the struggles he has had achieving authentic community.
When I was in high school, there was a group that met at a local Restaurant (Larry’s) for breakfast every Friday. It mostly consisted of members in the youth group of a Church in town, and while I didn’t attend that particular Church, many of the youth members were friends of mine. On one particular occasion, a certain girl from school caught word of the group and mentioned to me that she was planning on coming on the following Friday. She did come, and I believe she enjoyed it, for I distinctly recall later on overhearing her say to another classmate when I was around, “We go to Larry’s for breakfast every Friday.”
That ended up being the only time I ever recall her coming to eat with our group. So, what happened? Why did she never come back if she had enjoyed it enough to share her experience with another classmate? When she shared her experience, what she was actually doing was letting her friend know about a special tradition that she had been a part of. And while it never became a tradition for her, she did, in fact, take part in a real tradition.
So here’s the question: Why is it so difficult to start a new tradition?
Now, here’s an example of a failure to start a tradition.
A few months back, Robbie and I met for the purpose of planning a way to start a community. Our intention was to bring together a group of people who would truly engage in each other’s lives for the purpose of edifying one another. We planned a dinner, invited a few couples, and asked each couple to bring a dish that they could tell a story about. 15 people showed up and we shared a potluck dinner, with each person sharing a story about the dish they brought.
We then began to talk about the word community. We went around the table and discussed what the word community meant to us, and each person spoke about a successful community that they had been a part of. The evening was filled with great conversation, and everyone in attendance was clearly starving for community. We left strengthened and encouraged by each other’s fellowship.
And then we never met up again.
What happened? Why, after seeing that everyone had a desire to be involved in a community, did it never come to fruition? That is a big question that deserves a long answer. But for now, I want to focus on 3 ways I went wrong in forming the community.
When I planned the dinner, I had a pretty clear image in my head for what I wanted it to be like, and therefore, I knew pretty much what to expect. I planned for good conversation to occur, and I even expected moments of great conversation. And all of that happened. People told stories, like I envisioned, people shared insight, like I envisioned, and people got emotional, just like I envisioned. So is that a bad thing? That brings me to my next point.
When I was a boy, I wasn’t exactly to best hitter on my baseball team. When I went up to bat, I expected to strike out. And what happened almost all the time? I struck out. I was limiting myself because of my expectations. Now, you might be thinking, “You should have had higher expectations.” But even that can be limiting, because it bases success on what you expect to happen. If you meet your expectations, you succeed. If you surpass them, then you succeed even more. But this argues that we know everything there is to know about success and how to achieve it.
When I placed expectations on the group, I was not only restricting its possibilities, but I was also insinuating that I knew everything there is to know about achieving a successful community. This is where it gets dangerous, because this agenda can make us believe we are actually achieving success, even though we are really failing to grow at all. If we as Christians are going to grow at all, we have to stop believing that we know it all. That leads me to my final point.
Not recreation. Re-Creation, or trying to create something over again. This problem is deep-rooted. It runs down into the part of our soul that knows we belong in Eden, and we are looking everywhere because we’re desperate to find it. But here again, this insinuates that we have the power to recreate what only God can create. When we sing worship songs that take us back to a simpler time, or a happier time, or even a time we believe was more spiritual than the present, we are not worshiping God. We are worshiping a memory, a memory that we have sensationalized in our own minds. When we seek to recreate that feeling, we are stating that we know more about spirituality than the Holy Spirit, and that is an incredibly dangerous place to be.
A community is not something that we can achieve, attain, or establish. It is a byproduct of Christians who are filled with the Spirit and are living out the Gospel. That is why our group’s attempt at forming a community failed. We believed it was something that we had the authority to establish. And it’s a good thing it failed, too, because if it had succeeded, we would’ve become a group of Christians who came together to worship their successful creation. That community failed because we were too lazy to keep it going, but the true community would’ve failed either way. That is, unless we had come to realize that only God can establish a true, spiritual community.
When Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah in the synagogue in Luke 4:16-30, he exceeded the people’s expectations of what happens in a synagogue when he proclaimed that the Scripture was being fulfilled in their hearing. And since he exceeded their expectations, they were amazed. That is, until he flipped it around and rebuked them. He messed with their system of expectations, and they tried to throw him off of a cliff because of it. His agenda and their agenda didn’t match up, and they failed to see it.
Have we done that again today in the Church and in our strivings to obtain community? Have we allowed the Spirit of God to direct us, or have we declared that we know how to do it on our own?
To close, I want to share Paul’s words from Romans 12 in hopes that this will point to some practical application. Notice how everything is based on the faith that God has given to you (as opposed to something that we have done) and is meant for the purpose of serving the whole (rather than serving ourselves).
“3 For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith. 4 For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:3-8
This past weekend our church family had a retreat of sorts called Camp Bacon. Camp Bacon exists to bring together students grades 3-12 from our church and and our local community together to focus on developing relationships with each other and with God.
And we eat enormous amounts of bacon.
Thinking off the top of my head this is my 21st retreat that I have participated in and they all function in the same manner and seem to have the same goal in mind: fostering authentic community. I had a discussion with one of the volunteers this weekend and we were talking about people who develop unhealthy relationships with others based on a sexual desire. We both came to the conclusion that they were desiring community but what they got was not authentic.
Johnny Lee in a famous country song perhaps said it best:
I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
Lookin’ for love in too many faces
Searchin’ their eyes, lookin’ for traces
Of what I’m dreamin’ of
Hopin’ to find a friend and a lover
I’ll bless the day I discover,
Another heart- lookin’ for love.
What a decade of retreats have taught me is that churches, couples, friends and individuals all want authentic relationships where the goal of community is fostered. We serve a relational God who cares about his creation and wants people to know him in a very personal way.
Look around you and it is clear to see that we are relational beings. The advent of social media has brought us closer to each other than ever before yet it seems we have never been more lonely. One blogger put it well:
At times social media can create a dangerous illusion of being connected. We pay attention to numbers on Facebook and Twitter, and often fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve satisfied that need to form relationships with others. In my experience, people who I know who feel the most lonely, usually have a wide and active set of “friends” on various social networks, such as Facebook. They’re the ones who have hundreds of people liking and commenting on their photos, yet they feel that it’s not enough. Maybe technology has distracted us from the age-old truths of what is most important — true friends whom we can be ourselves in front of, rather than our carefully scripted online persona — soul mates who enjoy each other’s presence so much that shared silent companionship gives them both a warm feeling of connection.
So I want to start a series of posts discussing a beginner’s guide to authentic community. It is a core belief of mine that one of the driving forces behind the decline in our church’s membership is a failure to practice, promote and teach authentic community. We go to a place and hardly know people. Sure we know their names and some basic information but we have no clue who they really are. So here are some ideas of posts I want to do…
Defining authentic community.
An old testament snapshot of authentic community.
A new testament snapshot of authentic community.
What authentic community does not look like for the present church.
Some practices to foster authentic community.
I hope these topics spurn discussion and interest among those reading. If you have any ideas share them in the comment section.
We were interviewing at this particular church for a youth ministry position. The church was large with about 900 or so members and a youth group of almost 150. During the interview process and in conversations over the weekend they bragged about the facilities and the various projects occurring. Talking with the senior minister in his office he unrolled blueprints for a massive building expansion and at the point I knew it was not a good fit for me. This church seemed concerned more about building the church (literally) than growing the church.
You see there is nothing wrong with a building or expansions as they serve a function for the church. Yet it seems sometimes the church gets lost in mission and loses focus of what’s most important. I am reminded of the church in Ephesus that went from being such a vibrant family to them abandoning their first love (Rev. 2:4).
So how do you know if your church’s mission and Jesus’ mission are out of sync? These responses come from a desire for us to revive our effort in the communities to become a more externally focused church. It is my prayer that we change and do so for the sake of the unchurched.
You know your church’s mission and Jesus’ mission is out of sync when…
The majority of the church’s activities are inwardly focused.
Take a hard look at your church’s calendar and your youth group’s calendar. Are the activities focused inwardly or outwardly. Read this carefully: the growth of the church is directly correlated to how often your membership spends time with the unchurched. If most of the church’s activities function to serve only its members then our mission is not in line with the mission of Jesus. A side note tangent I want to emphasize: gospel meetings as they stand now are antiquated and function mainly to focus on the membership and not the unchurched. I dare you to make a list of the activities of your church and prove how they are externally focused. Go ahead. From worship to classes to bulletins to announcements to meeting times all seem to have the same subject in mind: inward not outward.
There is no real growth in the church.
I hear of churches that are growing and upon further investigation most of the growth that has occurred is from members leaving other churches. If Satan ever had a good distraction tool it would be pseudo church growth. How many baptisms have you had from unchurched members in the past year? I am not talking about sons or daughters of attendees but I am talking about people from your community where members from the church have poured into them with intense discipleship.
The church is distracted with inconsequential issues.
Look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of Paul and nothing distracted them from spreading the good news. Paul said, “Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Jesus was truth and a church that focuses on issues more than Jesus himself is one that is out of sync with the mission of Jesus.
People in the community don’t really talk about the church
Everywhere Jesus went people talked about him (despite his efforts to remain quiet). Both the naysayers and the followers probably had endless discussion at the dinner table about this new movement. Fast forward to now…
Do people in the community talk about your church? “Hold on just a minute,” you say. “There are so many churches in our county and so many people and not everybody is going to talk about the church.” True but I am not talking about everybody. I have said this before in another post but in our county there are a couple of churches that I always here people talk about. They are involved with this program and that school and this addiction recovery and that recreational league. Here is a fact…they are growing and it reflects in how active they are in the community.
Jesus prayed, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). The point of unity is for others to see that God sent Jesus. When our leadership is divided and loses track of vision (or does not have one) then our mission derails from the mission of Jesus.
What else would you add to this list? It is certainly not comprehensive.
I am not a Debbie Downer but sometimes I hear about some of the things churches do and I wonder if they even care about the communities in which they reside. More to the point, I wonder if the community even cares about them or worse, do they even know that the church exists?
I don’t know if I heard this in a sermon or a class or read it in a book but someone once asked: “If the church picked up and left the community would anyone even care?”
So thinking about the community I want to share seven ways in which a church can guarantee to lose influence in a community.
#1 – Spend more time and resources on foreign missions rather than local
I want you to understand something: I am not against foreign missions whatsoever. I believe in funding people to do the work of the kingdom globally but not to the extent that we neglect it locally. I am not creating a dichotomy of either foreign or local but want to merge the two and think local and global.
#2 – Make all of our ministries and programming self-serving
Take the gospel meeting for instance (While I disagree with the conclusion here is a good history of Church of Christ gospel meetings). It used to be an effective program to reach people in the community who did not know Jesus. That time is past. It seems that many churches have gospel meetings because they have always had them. Not just gospel meetings but all of the programs many churches do seem to function at accomplishing one task: making it about us. Should we not sift everything we do with the funnels of the unchurched? Would our sermons look different? Would our classes look different? Would our space look different? Would our terminology look different?
#3 – Shortchange the gospel
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2; NIV). Sometimes our theology just…well…stinks and when we shortchange the gospel we do a huge disservice to ourselves, to our communities and to our Lord. All around us are people who could care less about Jesus and are even visceral in their comments against him. So what do we do? Ignore them (see #2) and focus on a more “fertile soil” (see #1). Maybe we are not feeding our followers the right food and the gospel that is sold is one that is nice, smiles, is happy and simply waits (juxtaposed with anticipates) until they to get to heaven (read “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith” by Christian Smith).
#4 – Fail to Become Involved in Community Events
To the extent that we are involved in community events will we have an impact in that community. Many churches have a “come to our building” approach to helping when Jesus took a more hands on approach in going to the actual people. Plugging in at schools, assisting community projects, becoming voices for the disenfranchised in the community, working alongside of local government agencies and other avenues. One of the greatest things I saw was when Springfield, Tennessee hosted the Dixie Youth State Tournament a few years ago and one church from the community took care of all of the hospitality for that tournament providing food and water for teams and their families.
#5 – Refuse to cooperate with other local churches.
Nothing gives Christianity a horrible name in community like bickering with one another and refusing to cooperate. I am not saying we need to buy into everyone doctrinally and those discussions are important and necessary to have but instead of competing with other churches what if we blessed them. “Hey Robbie, did you here that ______________ church has almost doubled in size? They probably have ___________ (insert jealous comment berating their ministry in some capacity) and that’s why they are growing.” Instead we should say, “Hey did you see what that church is doing and how they have grown? What can we do to help them and also learn from them? God is doing some amazing work with them.”
#6 – Busy our calendars and not leave space for families to minister.
“The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12; NRSV). I see my role more so now than ever as one who equips (word means for parts to work together) others to minister to their own families but to others in the community. When we fill up our church calendars with this service, that bible study, that meal and that retreat (which are all good things btw) then we are not giving space and Sabbath for families. On the flip side when we schedule a huge event for our church when there is a community-wide event occurring then we are not leaving space for our community. We then compete instead of cooperate.
#7 – Become the moral police instead of the grace police
I am not going to get into the works versus grace conversation as I share sentiments with Richard Beck and also side with N.T. Wright in terms of justification. The point that I want to make is that people should know us by our grace which is a huge component of the gospel (see point #3 above). Having rallies to oppose the alcohol referendums (because alcohol is the problem with your community right?) or getting petitions signed to have the “10 Commandments” (not 613?) placed back onto school property are adventures in missing the point. Here is a way to be subversive in a culture gone awry: offer grace.
“Without a heart transformed by the grace of Christ, we just continue to manage external and internal darkness.” Matt Chandler, Explicit Gospel
“Repentance was never yet produced in any man’s heart apart from the grace of God. As soon may you expect the leopard to regret the blood with which its fangs are moistened,—as soon might you expect the lion of the wood to abjure his cruel tyranny over the feeble beasts of the plain, as expect the sinner to make any confession, or offer any repentance that shall be accepted of God, unless grace shall first renew the heart.” Charles H. Spurgeon
The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brother. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. Some have been the chief of sinners and some have come at the very last of their days but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support. It will bear me over as it has for them. Charles H. Spurgeon
These seven things I listed each contain antithetical statements. For example, to ruin our influence we busy our calendars up but transversely (or antithetically) we can free our schedules up to have a greater witness in our community. There is hope found in the local church my friend and an opportunity for us to bring in the kingdom of God to the deepest and darkest corners of our communities. Rob Bell said it best: “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be” (Velvet Elvis).
Her name was Jewel and she was a resident at a nursing home in Henderson, Tennessee. I was an undergraduate student at the time at Freed-Hardeman University and for some reason I decided to visit a nursing home once a week on my own. I remember randomly going into a room and meeting this lady named Jewel and talking with her a while and began to develop a relationship with her. We met every week and I would read the Bible to her and pray with her. She would talk about her family and point to the collage of pictures she had taped to the wall. “Miss Jewel,” as I called her, knew me by name and asked about how my classes were going. She really cared about me. I had to go home for the summer and so I said my goodbyes and the summer months passed away quickly.
I returned to Freed in August and made my way over to the nursing home to catch up with my new old friend. I went to her room and there she was. I said, “Hey Miss Jewel!” She looked at me with a blank stare and said, “Do I know you?”
Miss Jewel had Alzheimer’s and did not have a clue about who I was. We talked for a bit and I checked in on her one more time and she was catatonic at that time and could not speak. I wondered if it was even good for us to have met at all. Fast forward a few years and I found myself taking the youth group once a month to lead services at a nursing home. We did that for close to a decade until people from the church stopped showing up at the nursing home and eventually the ministry ceased.
People seem to get fired-up (as they should) about evangelistic meetings, campaigns to feed the poor, helping out with youth ministries and a host of other things but when it comes to helping out with nursing homes that seems to fall down the list a bit.
A couple reasons come to mind. First of all this type of work is not glamorous. One time we went into the nursing home and underneath a lady on a wheel chair was a fresh puddle of feces that had seeped out of her diaper. She had no clue. Another time we went in and a lady vomited all over herself and the table and she was waiting to get cleaned up. She had no clue either. Every nursing home I have visited has some of the worst smells this earth can muster and it is disgusting. Plus many of the residents do not communicate well (they can’t) and so worship (on the surface at least) seems to be one way. Secondly it is hard to see tangible results from the work that is done. Most of these residents are here for one purpose: to finish the course of their lives with dignity because they can no longer take care of themselves. These people will never make it to church. You will not see their money in a collection plate. You will not see their pictures on social media or the website and so the bottom line for churches is that this type of work could be seen as a waste of time.
So here is my question: Are nursing homes a waste of your church’s time?
I believe they are NOT for three very important reasons.
1. We are commanded to in Scripture.
“True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (James 1:27; CEB). Some might say, “Well what if we do not have any members in the nursing home?” James did not qualify the widows as Christian widows and Christian orphans. He just said widows and orphans. Just about every nursing home resident is either a widow or widower and we should reach them in their need. If there is ever a people who are the “neglected” in our society I would say those in the nursing homes are those people. The psalmist wrote, “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psa. 9:9). Isaiah shared, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). Moses shared Yahweh’s command in Torah: “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32).
2. We practice the Golden Rule
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). When Heather was in the hospital with each pregnancy I often thought that I never knew how important nurses were until we needed them the most. It is easy for us not to want to go to a nursing home because we have other things to do on a Wednesday or Sunday. Yet, if we could fast forward the hands of time and imagine, if you will, YOU as a resident and think about what it would be like. Your family can only come so much because they have to work. Who could blame them? Your suite mate does not talk and so you are left to watch hours of boring midday TV while eating plastic meals. Wouldn’t you long for some worship? Some attention? Some cards? Some prayer? Some bible reading? I know I would.
3. If done right (and well) you can’t can actually grow the church from this.
Stick with me here. Yesterday I was at a ball game talking with a friend about how we used to have so much fulfillment out of visiting nursing homes. Then he took me over to talk with a lady and introduced me to her. She knew me and said she remembered me going to the nursing home to lead worship services. My friend was talking with someone else and didn’t even hear this and it was surely a God moment for me. If I was in insurance I would have immediately set up a time where she and I could talk because we had rapport together. Instead I could leverage that and say, “Your mom enjoyed our worship and visiting with her and so you should come to church with us and experience who we are and what we do first hand.” You won’t get a ton of people to attend and stick but if a church invests their time into my mom and dad then I like them already. It will lead others into the building and inwardly it will create fellowship and sense of mission and purpose within your church body.
I hope this makes sense and my prayer is that it either invigorates a failing ministry to nursing homes or innovates a new ministry where one was absent.
I even have a sales pitch you can make to the leadership of a church.
There is a scene in Forrest Gump where he is in college at a University we don’t discuss on this blog playing football. The scene opens with the crowd roaring and Forrest just staring off into the stands in thew wonder 90,000 fans bring. It is a kickoff and then one of his teammates hands him the ball and says, “Forrest Run,” and he responds, “OK!”
Today was our first workday and there were so many kids ready to have and learn. Yet, they were rambunctious, eager to talk and not yet disciplined in the rules. We are the first campaign group of the summer and they are trying a new format for the entire year and our group is the first to learn what works and what does not. The two teachers who are working all summer are fantastic and the kids are going to learn how to read and it will be great.
But today I felt like Forrest looking in the stands with so much going on. Then we were handed the ball and it was time to go. Today we learned to listen to God where he is and not where we think he is. He spoke to us through conversations and of course a meal. We did the skit, some crafts and some games. They probably won’t remember much of what we taught them. They may forget our names and where we came from. I would like to think they won’t forget the person that came and did life with them for a week.
My observations from an ignorant outsider looking in is that they need people to do life with them who matter. Sure they have volunteers who plug in one day a week or maybe even more and they are needed but I doubt they have many people willing to come to their government house and do life with them.
You know what?
This doesn’t sound much different from our churches at all.
We see each other once or maybe a few times a week but we often struggle to really do life together.
I mean real life folks.
I had a person share with me the first time I met him yesterday that he stopped selling drugs and working the streets to give his life to Christ. I knew him for 5 minutes.
I attended church with people for a decade and knew nothing about them. Granted you don’t have to do life with everyone but I have a feeling many people in churches do not really know each other.