By Ken Williams, GCI regional pastoral leader
The new GCI-USA motto, "From union to communion: Making disciples with Jesus," speaks to our active participation in what Jesus is doing in the Spirit to fulfill the Father’s mission. A growing number of our congregations are seeing how this participation includes joining Jesus in ministering to the unchurched community near their place of worship. By doing so, they are becoming community-based. Let me share some of what they are learning.
All the congregations I’ll mention are reaching out with God’s love to unchurched people in the nearby community—helping them experience God’s love, hear the gospel of God’s grace, and come to trust in Jesus their Savior. Because of this outreach, most of these churches are experiencing community-based conversion growth, evidenced by the baptism of new members from within their community.
In some cases, congregations have moved their place of meeting to be within the communities they feel called by God to serve. Grace Communion Fellowship (GCF) in Tampa, FL, and Community Christian Fellowship (CCF) in Houston, TX, are considering such a move.
Elder Elly Kurzawa leads GCF members every week in providing bag lunches and prayer requests for 50 to 80 homeless people in Tampa. Senior pastor Mark Mounts and his CCF team are consulting with Houston Urban Renewal leadership and other community services, seeking a place to meet near the homeless they serve in Houston.
Other congregations are already in the communities they have learned to serve.
Senior Pastor Sam Butler and his team at New Life in Christ in Grand Rapids, MI, provide a monthly personal care items pantry for their community.
Senior pastor James Lewis and his team at New Covenant Fellowship in Montgomery, AL, are providing weekly worship services for 15 children and some of their families in the community.
Elders Sarah Faulkner, Bonny McQueary, and Hugh Steiginga and the ministry outreach team of Abundant Grace Fellowship in Ft. Meyers, FL, serve meals and the gospel to scores of homeless every week.
Senior Pastor Harry Kall and his team at Good Shepherd Church of God in Cicero, IL, serve community youth during their weekly worship service and on Friday nights.
Senior Pastor Leonard Banks and his team at Abundant Grace Church in Rochester, NY, provide bi-weekly worship services and a food cupboard to the unchurched in the neighborhoods near their meeting location. (right: a Christmas service in Rochester)
Senior Pastor Frank Howard and his team at 24/7 Community Church in Newark, NJ, serve youth, homeless, elderly, and the unemployed in the neighborhoods around their place of meeting.
Outreach in New Jersey
The photos show the Newark GCI "24/7" congregation in three aspects of its ministry to connect with the surrounding community. The top photo is of a recent MLK work party, the one below is a nursing home outreach, and the third (below right) is a community coffee house. It includes an open microphone where unchurched and churched community members can share their musical talents.
All these congregations started as commuter churches, most meeting in locations central to their commuting members. While this was a valid approach at the time, these congregations came to see another need. It started when they began to consider what Jesus is up to in their communities and how they might participate with him. They assessed what the Spirit had given them to give to others; they considered who these "others" are, and then which communities these "others" reside in. They sought ways to make friends in that locale, with those people, by providing needed services using the resources given them by the Spirit. As God provided opportunity, they then shared the gospel with these new friends.
Following Jesus in this way is not a church-growth scheme, or a mere program. Rather, it is participation in the ongoing patterns of Jesus’ missional life—a life into which the Spirit draws us as followers (disciples) of Jesus. The deep desire of these congregations has been to help these children of God in tangible ways, and as God leads, to provide them with a church home where they can participate in the body of Christ.
The growth God has given has presented these churches with new challenges. Their leaders share with us that they now need a clear disciple-making pathway that enables new believers to become workers in the ministry that Jesus is doing in and through the congregation out to the community. All these congregations are praying for more workers as they feel stretched to the limit. Please join them in praying that the Lord of the Harvest will send more workers, some who will become leaders. It’s a continuing journey with Jesus!
If your congregation has similar experience with the unchurched community near your place of meeting, we’d love to hear about it. Please send your story to Ted Johnston at Ted.Johnston@gci.org. We’ll share these stories in future articles.