Dreamers Meeting - Out Reach
Dave Clayton works with the Ethos Church in Nashville and he tells a wonderful story about their ministry to strippers. Some of their older ladies approached their leadership and wanted to go to the strip clubs so they could encourage and mentor these women who are working at these clubs. They wanted to provide a hot meal and a sympathetic ear since no little girl dreams of being a stripper when they grow up. When Dave told that story the folks around me were saying, “That’s wonderful! Praise God!” I was thinking, there is no way the ladies at my congregation are going to get in the church van once a week and head down to the local strip club and spend time with strippers.
We are supposed to talk about outreach, about church growth tonight. But we need to start by being a bit honest and answer this question: Do you really want Greenbrier to grow? Now, before you say yes to quickly, let’s take a moment and be honest. Because while we want the church to grow, we might be happier if it grew in Huntsville, Birmingham, or Montgomery.
In my years of working with congregations, I have learned that growth is scary, and hard to control. When a church grows the power brokers lose control. When a church grows folks show up that don’t know why we have to be quiet or not take a whole communion cracker or that texting is frowned upon during the prayers. When we grow folks who look different, sound different, and act different show up and take my pew. In my life I have noticed that church growth is always accompanied by chaos; which leads to fear.
I say always, because it’s a problem that we see again and again in the early church. After Jesus ascended into heaven there were approximately 100-200 disciples who were trying to figure to where to go and what to do next. Then in Acts 2 The Holy Spirit shows up and we read that 3,000 souls were saved. Then 5,000 souls, then multitudes, and then the church multiplied greatly. Sounds easy right?
Apparently not, look how Acts 9 starts: In Jerusalem Saul was still threatening the followers of the Lord by saying he would kill them. So he went to the high priest and asked him to write letters to the synagogues in the city of Damascus. Then if Saul found any followers of Christ's Way, men or women, he would arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem. So Saul headed toward Damascus
Saul was not a symbol of peace and comfort for the early church. Ananias struggled with his fear and didn’t want the church to grow if Saul was the next to be added. Look down in verse 10: A disciple named Ananias lived in the city of Damascus. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
Ananias answered, “Yes, Lord.” The Lord told him, “Get up! Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street, and ask for a man named Saul from the city of Tarsus. He’s praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias place his hands on him to restore his sight.” Ananias replied, “Lord, I’ve heard a lot of people tell about the many evil things this man has done to your people in Jerusalem. Saul has come here to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to put anyone who calls on your name in prison.
Can you imagine how overwhelming it would be to have God appear to you directly? For God to come to you and say I have something that I need you to do. There have been so many times that I wished, and prayed that God would make His will apparent to me. If I just knew, without a doubt, what God wanted from me, I would be chomping at the bit, ready to spring into action. Ananias get’s a personal invitation to join God in the work and he wasn’t excited when he realized who God wanted. His fear had overcome his desire.
It wasn’t just Ananias, but the whole church was struggling with fear. Let’s keep reading in Acts 9, verse 26: When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. Saul had a reputation that was appalling and the truth couldn’t have been much better. He had hurt or helped kill their brothers and sisters and he was gaining more power every day. I completely understand their fear. There are some folks that I am a afraid of and not sure that I want to be a part of our church. In order to grow need to learn how to deal with our fear. The truth is that a lot of us are afraid of evangelism, not so much the act of evangelism but who we will bring in and our personal safety becomes more important than adventure.
So, honestly are there folks who would not be welcomed, or wanted here? Can you think of folks that if they walked in the door would give you pause, or even worse scare you? There are all different types of broken folks who could walk into your door on any given Sunday: a prostitute, a man who was convicted and served time for violent crimes, a woman who was dying of Aids, a drug addict? Homosexual? or a Homeless family?
Usually when we think of church growth we think of the Doctors family that has three well behaved kids and can make large contributions in the work of the church. What we find is that there are a whole lot of Zacchaeus’ out there. Broken folks who desperately need a Savior.
That's the heart of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 9 when He said "People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says: 'It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.' I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”
I am intrigued that the Good News translates the word hamart?los (har-ma-to-las) as outcasts. That word outcast makes me uncomfortable. I mean from the very first day of Kindergarten we live our whole lives trying to be on the inside, to be one of the accepted and popular kids. At 43 years of age I can tell you there is still a strong desire to be one of the respectable folks. But in this upside down kingdom that Christ invites us to be a part of, we are called to go out and find the outcasts and bring them to the foot of the cross. And for many of us that is so uncomfortable we seize up in fear.
Randy Harris said, “We have gotten so comfortable on the inside we don't know how to function on the outside.” As much as it pains me to say, he’s right. Being uncomfortable has become a cardinal sin; according to Thom Rainer, eight of the most common complaints heard in America’s Churches have to do with our comfort level in everything from music, to order of worship, to the church building.
So while we talk about growth, and the desire to fulfill the great commission of going into all the world, we first have to figure out how uncomfortable we are willing to be for the kingdom.
When my family moved to Texas and started working with the Park Central family, we had reamer meetings. In those meetings the church dedicated themselves to working on their fear and being a place that was going to plant, water, and just wait for God to provide the increase. We had a pretty imaginative group, and the Shepherds were quick to empower the church to do ministry in the community. The result was that we did some pretty imaginative things.
We contacted one of this companies that makes those fund raiser coupon cards. We told them we wanted to give them away. So they sold them to us at a reduced price, put the church information them and we told our members to give them away. Were ever you were: Walmart, or HEB, or your place of business, or the gym, if you had a conversation with someone we wanted you to give them this card. The idea was that they would use it for a year, and every time they used it they would see our information.
We printed QR Codes on business cards that lead folks to our website where they would get an invitation to our church and tell them about the love and grace of Christ. I put a thousand of these little cards all over Port Arthur.
We had bottles of water with our information printed on the label. During the hottest part of the summer we would go to the parks and hand out bottles of water and ice pops to families.
We had parties for Firemen and police officers. We had block parties for the government assisted apartments that surround our buildings. Where we would cook hot dogs and hamburgers and set up tables for folks to come and eat a meal with us for free.
We had Trunk or Treat, complete with hay rides, giant inflatables, and hot chocolate. We had over 1,000 kids bring their parents and walk through our parking lot.
We made blessing bags, that had a toothbrush, deodorant, a disposable razor, granola bars, and a little card telling them about God’s love.
We adopted the local High School and every month we would take every teacher and staff member a candy bar and a little encouraging letter. We did a prayer walk around the school and would take homemade cookies during their teacher meetings.
We hosted a Thanksgiving meal for the families that had no family. We took folks who were struggling financially Christmas shopping.
It was wonderful for us, but there was something that just wasn’t right. We were doing all of these ministries but we were not making the impact that we had hoped to. Instead of people coming and learning about Christ we gained a reputation of that church who will pay your bill, or give you a bag of food, or that eats on Sundays and Wednesdays. We had become a place instead of a people. When people talked about Park Central they talked about a building with stained glass where folks gathered on Sundays from 9 - 11 on Sunday Mornings. Or worse, we were reduced to a landmark, go down Jimmy Johnson and pass Park Central then take the next left.
We were doing all of these wonderful things but we weren’t having the type of influence on our community we had longed and prayed for. I came to two realizations that day: First, we cannot out Disney Disneyland. We can spend all sorts of money and draw a crowd, but that is not going to cause the type of growth and discipleship we are trying to achieve. While I think we need to do things, spend a little money when we have the opportunity, coming up with another ministry, or outreach event is a losing battle when we have all of these other forms of entertainment in our world. While there was a time that people’s entertainment was found in the gathering times have changed. SO we needed to get out of the entertainment business.
Secondly, I went back to the ministry the Ethos Church was doing with Strippers. When I first heard Dave talk about the ministry, I saw one more program. I imagined what it would be like to approach the widow women in our church and try to encourage them to go into the seedy parts of town every week and meet with some women that were broken in some of the most devastating ways. I imagined what it would be like to encourage these women who raised their families in a little house with a white picket fence to go into some sleazy places for Jesus.
In this period of introspection I realized that I had missed the whole point of their ministry. By using their imagination, these women in Nashville were not seeing strippers, rather they were seeing folks who were created in the image of God. These ladies were using their imagination to see who these women that had fallen on some difficult times and were forced to sell themselves could be. Their reason for going into these clubs was to give these women someone who would listen and care about them. Someone who would show them compassion and love. I don’t believe these ladies though they were starting another program; they were interested in being the living breathing church that was a light in a very dark place and not afraid of imaging what could be.
That got me to thinking; what if the church quit seeing people by their worst decisions or mistakes? What if we saw everyone as an opportunity to be salt and light in a world that is crying out for a Savior. What if instead of coming up with a ministry and thinking about funding, logistics, and finding people to plug into those ministries just stopped and gave people the freedom to use their gifts to be Christ.
What if we asked our folks to stop seeing folks as they are, and start imagining them the way that God sees and created them to be. We asked them to imagine how they lives would change if they were the representation of Christ at their places of business, schools, neighborhoods, the grocery store, and their homes.
We got out of the program business because ministries and programs have so many logistics to figure out. You rate a ministry and program by the numbers they serve or bring in. Is this ministry still cost effective? Are we still getting the best bang for our buck? After all we need to be smart with the Lord’s money; does any of that sound familiar?
What we realized is that Jesus didn’t come to to establish programs and ministries, Jesus came to allow us the freedom to imagine how life will be in Heaven. Then we have the freedom to share that vision with those trapped here in this broken world. Isn’t that what He meant when He prayed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
When we allow our imagination to run wild we stop looking at why it won’t work and focus on what God is calling us to. If your church was a place where all broken people were welcome; what would that look like? We discovered that it would be a place that had lots of broken people sitting in the pews.
The Church was designed for the single mother who works two jobs to support her kids.
The Church is for the drug addict who can’t stop his habit.
The Church is for the young person who struggles with self esteem.
The Church is for the young couple who lives together and has never been exposed to the best way to build a home.
The Church is for the man who does not respect his boss, so he steals from the company and from his coworkers.
The Church is for the housewife who goes out searching for some excitement in the arms of a man that belongs to someone else.
The Church is for the alcoholic who is ready to admit he needs help.
The Church is for the boy or girl that is really struggling with homosexuality or gender confusion and they just need someone who is willing to show them some love and kindness.
The Church is for the person who is always there, always contrary, and just drives you crazy.
The Church is for all types of sinners and saints.
I am often drawn to Ezekiel 34:16 where God says He will, “Search for the lost, bring back those that stray away, put bandages on those that are hurt, and make the weak strong." Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ are the ones who God sends out to bring the lost home. God has given us the personal responsibility to reach these hurting people. We need to understand that the church above all else is a place for people who have problems.
I imagine that the church looks a whole lot more like an AA meeting, than we would like to admit. Have you ever been to an AA meeting? You don’t have to be an addict to attend, and it is eye opening. There are a few groups that have daily meetings at noon and 7:00 pm every day.
The basic premise of an AA meeting is that everyone is an addict and need support to get healthy. The basic premise of a church is that everyone is broken and in need of a savior.
In an AA meeting people are given a safe space to talk about their struggles, set backs, and victories. In a Church people should be given a safe space to talk about their struggles, set backs, and victories.
In an AA meeting people who have been on this journey offer help, assistance, and companionship.
In a church we are called to love, support, encourage one another.
So what can we do???
Realize that God wants the church to grow. It has always been His plan for the church to God and Paul says that He will make it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6). We just need to make sure that we are busy planting and watering.
Exude More Passion. There is nothing in this world more important than your relationship to God. If you are missing your enthusiasm then you probably need to get back into your prayer closet. In the month of July we are going to spend some time praying and talking about different types of prayer. We need to be people of prayer. We have the most amazing mission on planet earth. And we have a generation of young adults in front of us who want to give their lives to a cause that’s bigger than themselves. Yet it’s easy to believe that the only way to reach the next generation is by spending money on lights, gear and sound. That’s just not true. You don’t need a polished church to reach the next generation nearly as much as you need a passionate church. Because when it comes to reaching the next generation, passion beats polish.
Encourage People To Fall In Love With Your Savior, Not Your Structure. The reason change is so difficult in many churches is because members fall in love with structure, not with Jesus. A structure is a way of doing things: programs the church runs, the style of music, the architecture of a building or facility. Those are all simply methods that can and should change with every generation or even more frequently.The Savior is our hope, and He never changes. The more you focus on the Savior, the easier it is to change the structure.
Smile More - I know ‘smile more’ sounds trivial. But just look around you. Hardly anyone smiles. If the Gospel is good news, you would never know it from looking at many Christians. A smile can make a huge difference in almost any relationship. So smile more; honestly, this makes a huge difference in how people perceive you.
Stop Fighting - Both times this congregation experienced a split, it was during a time of fighting. I would guess that in-fighting has killed more churches than moral failure has. It’s hard to convince the world that God loves it when we constantly fight with each other.
Pay Much Better Attention To Fourth- Time Guests. We are a friendly church, as a matter of fact I’ve never heard of a church whose members claimed they were unfriendly. but there are two things we need to be honest about. Being a ‘friendly’ church can often mean you’re friendly to each other, not to guests. And if you are friendly to first time guests we need to make sure we are friendly the second, third, and fourth times they visit as well. Many folks try out a church 4-6 times before they decide if they want to become a member.
Let people have the time to mature - The moment someone becomes a child of God they are spiritual infants (1 Corinthians 3:1-5). Just like we would give a physical baby the time it takes to mature and grow, we must do the same with a Spiritual infant. A new Christian will make some bad decisions, say and do some things they shouldn’t. If we are interested in their spiritual wellbeing we will love them as they grow and mature in their faith,
Become Friends With People Who Aren’t Christians - Jesus never hung out with the religious folks, he was often found with the sinners. If we are going to be like Him then we need to get to know some folks who aren’t Christians. Be a friend. Hang out with that guy at work. Throw a party for the neighbors in your back yard. Talk to the other parents at your child’s school. Get out of the Christian bubble and into the world Jesus died for. If you’re at church 7 nights a week, you can’t be friends with non-Christians. So cut a few nights and go live the mission. The only way you can love a community is to actually be in the community. You can’t love people you don’t know.
Invite Someone - I know that sounds weird and earth shattering but we all need to personally invite a friend. I am amazed by how often most of us neglect personally inviting our unchurched friends to church. Many actually say yes when asked. If everyone invited one person next weekend, think of what might happen.
Finally, Make This Place Feel Like Home - There are things that we all like about home. It’s a place where we are comfortable to have our quirks, and share our feelings. One of the worse things we can do is turn the church into a Stepford Community, where everyone is expected to look, talk, and act alike. When you are at home you can be honest, be yourself, and still feel loved. People, all people, need to feel loved and accepted here. Even the creepy people.