“The barriers existing between people are nothing compared to the barrier that existed between God and myself,” says Tim Culling, pastor of Restoration Church in Long Beach, Calif. “Each of us needs to remember what it took to bridge that divide.”
The small church has an edge, its greatest strength: the ability to generate deep community. But when a small church becomes a home and members refer to one another as family, the church faces a choice: Do we protect our valued community for ourselves or do we extend it to others?
Differences and barriers between people magnify perceived dangers. A former felon, another skin color, a woman who uses drugs, or anyone else who does not think or look like other members of the prevailing church culture risks the perception of a threat to community and not its God-designed object.
This is the lesson Restoration Church in Long Beach, Calif., is seeking to learn.
In a religious and secular culture obsessed with statistics, the small church possesses unique opportunities to reintroduce the most important number of all: 1. The love of the one God for the one person.
For each pastor, anywhere, first and foremost, the equation must be personal. And as the church works out such an unlikely equation, the story begins, more times than not, with a name.
That’s the first name that comes to Tim Culling’s mind, looking back. As the pastor of a church of 45 in the city of Long Beach, Calif., he still pictures Selena pulling into the first service of Restoration Church, driving a beat-up Volkswagen loaded with other women and their kids from the shelter. Even before settling into a folding lawn chair in the backyard of Culling’s rental home, she knows some of the people from the church. As part of the church plant’s vision to serve the city of Long Beach, Selena first becomes familiar with Restoration through the church’s partnership with an impoverished elementary school her child attends.
The service begins and Selena says the bunnies and dogs running around the backyard are just too funny, her laughter striking Culling with a certain true quality.
As the relationship deepens, the church learns that Selena came to Long Beach shortly after discovering she was pregnant with her first child. At the time, the risks of moving from Mexico to the States as a soon-to-be single mom dimmed in comparison with continuing to live with her mentally ill mother and the damages Selena knows, firsthand, she inflicts. She remembers the desperation of a prayer to Jesus to save her, and, a short time later, moves in with an aunt in Southern California in the quest for a better life for her unborn child.
By the time Culling responds to Selena’s laughter over the backyard pets—you know, all creatures great and small—her own plans for redemption have mostly fallen to pieces. She now lives in a shelter, the third in a string, and loves another child from another unwanted pregnancy.
Selena’s arrival to the first service of Restoration coincides with Culling’s deepening vision of outreach. Already committed to unconditional service of the city through a local rescue mission, a preschool, an elementary school and a network of churches focused on renewing the community, Culling reinforces his perspective upon learning Selena’s story.
When planting the church in 2007, a primary motivation resides in the quest of his family of four (including twin toddlers) to experience kingdom life shaped through the context of diversity. Culling purposely places the life of his family and church in places of diversity. “The real challenge is loving the other. I would much rather look through a window than into a mirror. A mirror bores me. A window provides a perspective into someone else’s world.”
The window of Selena’s life provides Culling and his 15 core members a powerful glimpse of a world previously foreign to their own. As Restoration relocates from a backyard to a home to now a shared ministry space, Selena and the church—one person and one local body—transform into something new.
As the church serves Selena, they learn of the odd jobs she works, laundry and errands and housekeeping, slowly tucking away the $20,000 necessary for the nursing school she eventually attends—just one spark in the tenacity of a love banked against very long odds. But mostly, they experience the power of Selena’s faith. Through a persistent display of gratitude and service in what God has begun in her, the church witnesses the stark reality of a redemption born against the background of ongoing suffering and drops all remaining stereotypes.
Well before the church parties celebrating Selena’s graduation from nursing school or her recent move out of the shelter into an apartment, Culling recalls the most poignant memory of his relationship with Selena, which he still clings to whenever one of the frequent urges possesses him to quit. After one of the early church meetings, he remembers seeing his daughter and Selena’s daughter playing outside. “Seeing them sitting side-by-side on the porch made me realize my heart’s desire for the make-up of our church. A love that extends beyond racial and economic lines.”
The one person, Selena.
The one local church, Restoration.
And the participation in God’s work of redemption in a divine love, the great hope of us all.
What’s happening through Restoration Church is one of several stories told in the July/August 2011 Small Church America issue of Outreach magazine.
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