Are we truly reaching the most desperate sectors of our cities?
CityServe: Your Guide to Church-Based Compassion
Edited By Dave Donaldson and Wendell Vinson
“Pastor, do you have a minute?” a woman asked. We were between services, and I was hosting a guest speaker representing an international compassion ministry, so one minute was about all I had. “Pastor, there’s so much need in our city; it just doesn’t seem like we’re doing enough.” To be honest, her comment irritated me a little, but I tried not to appear defensive. Perhaps this was another prodding of the Holy Spirit to engage the local church more effectively in healing social brokenness in our community, but I was already stretched thin and hoping someone else would figure out how to do that.
During that time of introspection, I couldn’t shake free from three observations: (1) The church in most communities lacks a cohesive strategy for working together to respond to social brokenness; (2) God has positioned the church as the infrastructure to bring healing to its city, but it seems outside groups are extracting more from it than resourcing it; (3) the church needs to change significantly in the way it helps people sitting in the pews to build relationships with hurting people both locally and globally.
To address these challenges, I knew we couldn’t continue to outsource compassion to people serving globally unless we were willing to reach out in compassion to our own city. From these observations, the Lord gave us the vision for CityServe and the strategy we now call “From the Neighborhood to the Nations.”
WHITE BLOOD CELLS
Rich Stern, former CEO of World Vision, met with our CityServe board of directors and shared this convicting word picture: “God has designed our bodies so that when there’s a wound or infection all the white blood cells move toward that infection to fight it off and bring healing. The church should do the same.” Rich elaborated by telling us that when there’s an infection or wound in our community, the church should move in unity to bring healing and wholeness. Yet too often we ignore it or, worse, run from it. While Rich was sharing this powerful illustration, my thoughts raced toward the entrenched needs in our community and the absence of the faith community.
Across America, if you look closely, whether in urban centers or rural settings, you’ll find a neighborhood church on nearly every major street corner. That church, no matter how humble it may seem, represents God’s infrastructure and agency of hope for its community. Too often though, these neighborhood churches are underresourced to address the scope of needs surrounding them and don’t know where to turn for help. They feel outgunned. It’s as though they have a first-aid kit to work with in the middle of a war zone when they need a triage unit. They need backup and reinforcement, but no one’s coming to the rescue.
At the same time, in most regions of our country there are large churches, even megachurches, that are thriving, adding new people each week, and growing in influence. Frequently, these churches aren’t located in the most blighted parts of our communities. As a pastor of one of these larger churches, I feel confident in saying to my colleagues who also pastor large churches that if every megachurch in our country doubled in size today, it would do little to bring healing to the most troubled parts of our communities. There are numerous reasons for this, but a major one is that the poor will never visit our churches because they lack mobility to get there. Their world is in another zip code.
But what might happen if the megachurches got underneath and lifted the neighborhood churches in these underresourced and socially fragile areas? What if we took to heart the admonition from Jesus in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”? This challenge includes both individuals and groups of people gathered in churches. Ask yourself: What might happen if instead of plucking people from neighborhood churches, larger churches raised the tide of all these boats? What if we encouraged these local pastors, served them and widened their church’s capacity to become the go-to place for help and healing? In the words of A.W. Tozer, “A scared world needs a fearless church.”
I’m all for credible parachurch organizations that are doing effective charitable service around the globe, but all their good work will never take the place of the transformative ministry of Jesus through his church to local neighborhoods. Nor can we be satisfied with episodic compassion events that, candidly, do more to make the participants feel good than lift people out of systemic poverty.
At Canyon Hills church, we decided to invest a lot of our leadership and financial capacity into strengthening smaller churches throughout our region. Yes, the decision to move this direction versus expanding our main campus tested our margins and commitment, but it extended the reach of Canyon Hills beyond anything else we had ever done. Now our team is investing daily to strengthen pastors and leaders of smaller churches in difficult neighborhoods. We don’t want to be over them but under them to enable them to more effectively minister to people in their neighborhoods. In most cases, pastors just need a trusted leader and friend to dream with them for student ministry to reach hundreds of children and youth or for a ministry to nurture single moms and impoverished widows struggling to make ends meet. So much potential is released when a pastor feels confident they aren’t alone because another church is standing with them. Spurring on larger churches to help raise healthy churches in one of the neediest areas of our community is another way God is supernaturally using CityServe.
One of these small rural churches in Wasco, California, had fallen on hard times and closed for several months. This little town, like many, had been severely impacted economically through the recession, and eventually this neighborhood church closed its doors.
Then a young leader, Emmanuel Hernandez, accepted the assignment of relaunching the church in this impoverished neighborhood. He gathered a team and, with the support of CityServe, began meaningful compassion engagement to hurting people in the neighborhood. The team distributed food, clothing, furniture, household supplies and even dog food. They made friends and shared the gospel. One by one, family by family, people started attending the church. Now, baptism celebrations are regular events each month and discipleship classes accommodate the new believers. As new people came to the church, they were immediately immersed in a culture of community compassion and engagement and, as a result, became effective soul winners. What they discovered is that operating in the compassion of Jesus makes soul winning easy.
COMPASSION IS SCALABLE
Sometimes we church leaders hesitate to respond to the needs around us because our focus is on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. For example, although our resources were extremely limited, out of obedience to the James 1:27 call to “visit orphans and widows in their trouble,” we started caring for the widows in our church and community. Years later, we had a thriving senior-living community on our campus serving widows and seniors all over Bakersfield.
Our initiatives to serve the poor began by giving away small amounts of food and household goods; now our programs operate out of a 165,000-square-foot former Montgomery Ward shopping center in the heart of the city. This building, which was a dilapidated eyesore, is now a symbol of community renewal. At CityServe, we believe we can rescue, restore and repurpose old buildings like this into Dream Centers and CityServe warehouses: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isa. 58:12).
God’s love and compassion have no bounds, but his strategies are scalable. Start where you’re at, with what you have, and God will bring the increase.
You may think I’m being trite when I say, “What God’s people need most is God’s blessing.” Frankly, it used to sound cliché to me as well until the principle of “blessableness” transformed my thinking, priorities and definition of success. How do we become “blessable”? The good news is that God has already provided the formula for his blessings in the Bible. Scripture repeatedly tells us that when we advocate and care for the hungry, the poor, the orphan and widow, the addicted, imprisoned, vulnerable, exploited, and unreached, God’s blessing will be upon us. You can get inspired by the latest gurus of leadership and read the best-selling books on church growth, but if you aren’t modeling servant leadership by responding tangibly to the cries of your community, you’ll never experience the full “blessableness” of God. “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor” (Prov. 22:9).