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The Gospel of Community Transformation

Seventeen years ago, Darryal Williams lived day-to-day for alcohol and—when he could get it—cocaine.

“I was going down like the Titanic,” the 33-year-old Houstonian recalls. “I was in and out of jail, on and off probation. I was tired of living like I was living, but, man, I didn’t know how to change.”

It was during a six-month jail term that Williams began to seek God for deliverance and eventually came to Christ. “A person does not have to believe to get sober but to stay sober he must find God,” he says.

Shortly after his release, Williams attended an anti-drug rally in the city where he met one of the night’s speakers—a pastor at a church in Houston’s Windsor Village area. That night, Williams approached Windsor Village United Methodist Church Senior Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell about starting a ministry to drug addicts. For the past 16 years, a sober and drug-free Williams has served as the coordinator of Windsor’s cocaine deliverance ministry, meeting with 10 to 30 people in recovery three evenings a week at the church.

Williams recalls Caldwell’s words to him: “When God saved you and blessed you, Darryal, He didn’t have you in mind; He had other folks in mind.”


Williams’ story is one of the hundreds pouring out of 15,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church’s vision to impact its community (WVUMC; kingdombuilder.com). Seven non-profit organizations have grown out of that vision, including the Power Center. The multipurpose complex designed to address the needs of the Southwest Houston community serves more than 9,000 families each month. Through the church’s 80-plus ministries and its associated non-profit organizations, WVUMC is transforming its community and, as a result, is seeing individual lives and families transformed both physically and spiritually every day.


Throughout the world, churches like Windsor are getting serious about connecting to their communities and reexamining how they do “church.” They’re thinking differently about what a church could and should be—taking to heart the biblical mandate to “loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (Isaiah 58:6-8).


It’s what second-century Christian writer Mathetes wrote about when he described the Christians of his day as the “soul” of their communities. WVUMC represents just one example of this new breed of churches that are practicing the Gospel through demonstration and proclamation—in word and in deed. These churches see themselves as part of the life, rhythms and conversation of the community.


No longer do they measure their success just by size, seeker sensitivity or the number of small groups. New standards are in place.


“The question ‘How big is my church?’ should be replaced with ‘How big is the impact our church is making on our community?’ ” says Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin of the Potter’s House Christian Fellowship in Jacksonville, Fla. (potters-house.org), a church that has transformed its community, life by life, through service. McLaughlin identifies one test of a church’s relevance: “Would your community weep if your church were to pull out of your city? Would anyone notice if you left? If you’re not making an impact outside your four walls, you’re making no impact at all.”


What’s the secret to becoming a church that makes a difference? No formula exists, says Caldwell. Community transformation is not found in programs, strategies, campaigns or tactics. But as we talked to churches of all sizes, denominations and locations about their beginnings, their challenges and their impact, at least four common characteristics surfaced repeatedly: Communitychanging churches think consistently and creatively about focus, purpose, empowerment and outcome.


Focus: Choosing a window seat over an aisle seat

For the average airplane passenger, the aisle seat offers comfort and convenience. You can do almost everything more comfortably from an aisle seat—except look out the window. Only a window seat affords the opportunity to see what’s happening in the world outside.


What about your church? Does it prefer an aisle seat, exclusively captured by what’s happening within its four walls? Or does it opt for a window view, focused on the world outside?


Choosing the window seat has almost always been part of the DNA of 6,000- member Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tenn. (hopepres.com). A large suburban church within earshot of Memphis, Hope’s focus is urban. Since its launch in 1988, the church has ministered throughout the city, meeting an abundance of needs, both spiritual and socioeconomic. For example, each week as part of Hope’s Read2Succeed (R2S) program, hundreds of elementary students sit down one-on-one with a Hope volunteer at one of seven sites to sharpen their reading skills.


But almost three years ago, Hope got serious about community transformation. The church adopted a 10-block area in inner-city Memphis, known as the Caldwell community, where “finishing high school is huge,” says Karen Durham, facilitator for the project named Oasis of Hope. In the past three-and-a-half years Hope volunteers headed by Durham (known as “Miss Karen” in Caldwell) have become an integral part of the 2,500 residents’ lives. The church runs its ministries out of a house in the Caldwell community, aptly deemed the “Green House” reflecting the painted green bricks. There, residents learn computer skills, take life education classes or just hang out with Hope volunteers.


“I can see the community pulling together since they moved in,” says Caldwell resident Laquoita Cunningham, a single mom who works part-time and attends school part-time.


Cunningham’s two teenaged daughters take advantage of Hope’s six-week summer job program that employs dozens of 14- to 16-year-old boys and girls in the Caldwell area as interns with local businesses. At these jobs, youth learn work ethics, skills and accountability, Durham says. Hope pushes the boundaries of conventional church by paying half the wages for all the participating youth, and volunteers shuttle youth to and from their jobs as well as meet with them for Bible study and prayer before and after the workday.


The program, Cunningham says, gives her kids “dignity” and helps her provide for her family. “Their jobs help me a lot because the girls can use the money they make to buy their own clothes.” The intern program is one of many of Hope’s efforts in the 100% African American community. In collaboration with Caldwell residents, the Minor League Memphis Redbirds, and a local community center, the church also provides coaches, equipment and uniforms for inner-city youth baseball and softball programs as part of the RBI (Return Baseball to the Inner-city) initiative. Hope also conducts year-round clothing and food drives and in the last 15 years has built 25 homes for residents.


How does a church acquire such focus? At Hope, it began with one person. Pastor Eli Morris, director of urban ministries, was touched while student teaching at the toughest, poorest junior high school in Memphis.


“That’s where my heart flipped,” he recalls. “The teacher I worked under was a pastor who made his living as a history teacher. His influence radically transformed me.”


At Hope, Morris speaks to every new members class, re-enforcing the church’s external emphasis. With the group seated in a large circle facing each other, Morris asks, “How much space is between us in this circle?” Then he asks them to turn their chairs outward. “How much space is outside the circle?” he says. “What you see is the focus of Hope. If you’re coming to Hope to get all your needs met, you are in the wrong place. The ‘story’ is out there—not in the church.”


But community transformation in Caldwell, Durham says, is not about Hope’s effort and initiative. Her 16 months in the community has changed her. She recalls her father’s funeral six months ago and seeing 13 African American faces—some of the same kids who sit outside waiting for her to drive up to the Green House each day.


“These kids came 22 miles, which isn’t easy for them, just to be there for me,” she recalls. “The whole community—the kids and their parents—daily nurtured me during that time. We’re living in relationship with each other and in turn seeing the Gospel lived out. That’s what this kind of outward focus is all about.”


Purpose: The difference in weight-training and bodybuilding

From the outside looking in, weighttraining and bodybuilding look nearly identical. But the two activities disconnect around each activity’s purpose.


For athletes, weight-training builds strength, balance and flexibility to go faster, higher and stronger in their sport. It’s part of the process—not the event. Not so with bodybuilding. Athletes train with weights for the sole purpose of perfecting their bodies’ appearance.


In the same way, community-transforming churches are building the body of Christ—not to show off its size and strength, but rather to build capacity for ministry and service. These churches understand their purpose as a training facility, not a performance stage.


The goal of church growth, Caldwell says, is not to fatten up church members for showing. “The church exists to equip people, according to their callings and gifts, to be salt and light in their churches, communities, family, workplace, media and government—in the whole society.”


For several years, Fellowship Bible Church (fbclr.org) founding Pastor Robert Lewis was content growing a successful suburban megachurch in Little Rock, Ark. By his admission, Fellowship was a “success church”—one that seeks to grow with attractive programs and offerings people can come to and participate in. But as he saw what little impact Fellowship was making on its surrounding community, Lewis grew increasingly dissatisfied with the church’s performance mode. He made an appointment with the mayor of Little Rock and asked, “How can we help?”


The church challenged itself with the question “What can we do that would cause people to marvel and say, ‘God is at work in a wonderful way for no one could do these things unless God were with them?’ ”

Over the past 10 years, Fellowship has shed its performance stage mentality and evolved into a training facility, joining with 100 other area churches and more than 5,000 volunteers to revitalize communities by building parks and playgrounds and refurbishing nearly 50 schools. Volunteers have renovated homes, provided school uniforms and taught life skills classes in banks and other public forums to more than 5,000 people.


When Creekside Community Church (creeksidecommunity.org) near Oakland, Calif., opened the doors of its first permanent building last year, the 450-member congregation defined itself as a “community center” instead of a church. The difference, says founding pastor John Bruce, allows Creekside to welcome community organizations to use its facilities.


“We’ve found that two things create a culture of service—regular teaching on God’s heart for people in distress and regular exposure to needs and opportunities to serve,” he says. Putting these insights into practice, Bruce invites leaders of local schools and community organizations to Creekside’s Sunday services to expose his congregation to the community’s needs.


He also encourages the church’s small groups to find ways to serve the blue collar, urban community in San Leandro. Recently, one such group raised $2,000 and donated it to a local organization that works with disabled children. The state had cut 70% of its funding, which meant no annual Disneyland trip. Creekside’s contribution made the summer event possible, covering expenses for several kids.

It was three years ago on a trip to Los Angeles that Bruce first grasped the significance of a church’s purpose. In the city, he visited three churches—LA Dream Center, West Angeles Church of God in Christ, First AME and Mosaic.


“That was a major eye-opener for me,” he recalls. “Although the churches were of different ethnicities and in different neighborhoods, I asked each pastor why he was so engaged in the community. Each one in his own way said that was how he preached the Gospel. It was like I was reading the fifth Gospel because I had never put good words and good works together—proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel. I had been trying to fly with one wing rather than having both wings to reach the world with good news and good deeds.”


Perimeter Church (perimeter.org), a congregation of 4,000, has also transitioned into a training facility for the many volunteers who partner with 20 area organizations that serve the needy and broken in Atlanta’s inner city.


The church links its resources to the community’s needs via its small group ministry. Perimeter has built community engagement into all of its small groups as each group works with one of the church’s ministry partners. On any given day, groups regularly serve together at a local youth detention center, minister to women in transitional programs or do work projects for the church’s apartment ministry to immigrant families. Some Perimeter families even host refugee families and help them transition to an apartment.


“We found that our people had a lot of pent-up energy,” says Perimeter’s Community Outreach Pastor Chip Sweeney. “They wanted to put into practice what they were learning in church and get out and do something.”


Is your church training people for service or is it merely engaged in bodybuilding?


Empowerment: A hand up vs. a hand out

To give someone a fish is a good thing. Often, a hungry person needs a fish more than a fishing lesson. But while giving someone a fish may temporarily assuage hunger, it doesn’t answer the question, “Why are they hungry?”


Acts of kindness and mercy can be effective ministry tools, but they don’t transform a community, says Caldwell. For that to happen, he says, churches must engage in capacity building to empower a community to feed itself.


Does your church talk about fishing, supply people with fish or teach others how to fish?

It’s an issue Hope Presbyterian talks about almost every day, says Oasis of Hope facilitator Karen Durham. She has learned that becoming a hand up instead of a hand out to the Caldwell community requires relationship.


“It takes a community to build a community,” she says. “It’s all about empowerment. So we let residents know we’re counting on them to volunteer at the Green House or when we host a community event. We give them opportunities to collaborate with us, and we provide avenues for the community to come together. If you don’t have community support, it’s just a bunch of people running around doing a lot of stuff.”


Through its extensive work with the Cox community schools—including an after-school tutoring program, teacher appreciation events and school supplies provision— Creekside in San Leandro has seen and heard firsthand the power in giving a hand up.


In April of this year, a teacher from Cox Elementary School stopped church volunteer coordinator Kathy Greer in the halls.


“We just finished a week of teacherparent conferences, and every parent with a child in your tutoring program was glowing,” the teacher told Greer. “They couldn’t say enough about how a person at Creekside had impacted their child this year.”


Other telling comments come from the kids: “Hey you’re with that church that gave us the backpacks.”

“Teaching kids to read is empowerment for life,” Greer says, adding that while Creekside volunteers can’t directly share Christ with the students, they are making a kingdom difference. Each day, the volunteer teams meet in front of the school in a prayer circle.


“We pray specifically about what will happen that day, and I feel we’re carrying this aroma of Christ into the school,” Greer says.


Like Greer, when Creekside member Dave Wolfer saw the needs, he didn’t ponder how he could ladle soup more efficiently for more people. Instead, the former CEO asked, “Why are there so many people in the soup line?”


Several years ago, he began a ministry called Career Hope, teaching the unemployed and underemployed computer skills, how to interview and write a resume, as well as essential life skills. Creekside is teaching its community to fish.


Outcome: The game—not the pre-game talk—counts

Most people would agree that a baseball coach who evaluates his success by his pre-game talk rather than by who wins the game wouldn’t be worth much. But many pastors do just that. They judge their effectiveness based on their communication skills rather than what actually happens in the community after they engage their congregations.


“I no longer measure my teaching by the people in the seats or the pats on the back but by the people loving and serving others outside our walls,” Creekside’s Bruce says, offering his version of the difference between the pep talk and the outcome.


Fueled by reading The Kingdom Assignment (Zondervan, 2001), Tom Shirk, pastor of Calvary Bible Evangelical Free (calvaryboulder.org) moved from pre-game talk to motivating his Boulder, Colo., congregation of 1,000 to serve the city of 95,000. On Father’s Day 2003, Shirk asked 50 people from two services to come forward for a kingdom assignment. Shirk handed each person $100 (provided by a local businessman who caught the vision). Then he urged each person to “go and multiply it for the kingdom.”


“For some of you,” he told his congregation, “this will be the most important thing you’ve ever done in your entire life.”


In three months the 110 volunteers multiplied their $11,000 into more than $50,000 collectively, giving money to individuals and causes in the community. One 11-year-old boy multiplied his $1 (he thought $100 was too much) into $271 and gave it to Sudanese refugees.


A second invitation from Shirk saw 200 people streaming forward for a kingdom assignment that raised $87,000 in cash. Calvary distributed the funds to three local agencies serving Boulder’s poor. The church gave $8,700 to two other churches as “seed money” to start the first kingdom assignment in their own congregations.


The first seed church, Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, Colo. (flatironschurch.com) parlayed $30,000 of “talents” into more than $300,000 in money and “in-kind” services for its community’s poor, school systems and human service agencies. Stories continue to abound. One group of physicians at Calvary used its $100 to start a foundation to perform pro bono orthopedic surgery for the indigent. A single mom with two children took her $100 and created a bank account for a friend’s young child with disabilities, then secured permission to pass collection buckets at arena football games to help pay hospital costs.


“This has been the best day of my life,” she said after collecting donations at the first game. “For the first time in my life, I’ve been more concerned with other people’s problems than my own.”


And that transformation, says Hope Presbyterian’s Morris, is his congregation’s new understanding of the Gospel.


“Our people have found that to spend yourself on the work of the Gospel is the most refreshing experience in your faith walk,” he says. “To come home tired and sore with blistered hands has proven to be their new definition of the Gospel. Historically, the Gospel has been this set of doctrines and theology, which of course it is, but the new definition for our people is the Gospel in sweat and blood and relationship and tears—pouring out their lives into the lives of others.”    

by Eric Swanson

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