In my Gospel and Cultures class while at Rochester College, Mark Love often reminded us that the gospel is born on the margins of society. Jesus was born in a barn to a “lowly” woman. His ministry begins in Galilee, not Judea. He chooses blue collar workers to join His movement and later lead it. He shares a table with thieves and whores, the broken and poor, the forgotten and abhorred. Finally He dies a criminal’s death. So yes, I think Mark is on to something.
And just as the life-giving, society re-arranging gospel is born on the margins, so it is with congregational renewal. Instead of offer a theological treatise as to why I believe this to be true, let me tell a story.
Three and half years ago when I arrived at Williamsburg Christian Church they were what some would call a “dying” church. Neck deep in “outreach programs,” the people had life, heart and a strong faith, but they were tired and shrinking in number. They were postured for something more than church as usual but their orientation was programmatic and activity-driven.
One Tuesday afternoon after only eight months with WCC, a stranger walked into the church building. Now, like any good wanna be missional guy I usually do work at the local coffee shop. But for some reason, not that day. This stranger began telling me his story. He lost his business due to a down economy and now he, his wife, their single daughter and six month old grandson were homeless. His story resonated with me for three reasons. For one, homelessness is an authorizing narrative in my life. Growing up my family spent several months homeless. Unlike this man we had family to turn to. Two, I’ve walked with many homeless friends helping them transition from homelessness to self-sustainability and shared in the joy of witnessing most of them enter into God’s kingdom. Third, over and over again I’ve met Jesus in my homeless friends. So I had to do something. I told him that if Jesus were sitting here, and He was, I didn’t believe He would let them go back to the streets and neither could I. I also told him that this was in no way a reason for his family to feel obligated to “come to church.” He needed to know that Jesus isn’t about instrumentalizing relationships in the name of “doing good.” He does good simply because He is good. As His disciple I was only following His lead.
My wife and I began walking with this family in a meaningful relationship. We grew to love them. As their needs became overwhelming I asked my shepherds and staff to join us. They did. Together we shared in their day-to-day needs, like car rides and helping with job searches. We also wrote many checks to cover their hotel room. At this point the family was yet to dawn the doors of the church building on a Sunday.
Even though the grandmother and single mom found work, it takes more than a few cents over minimum wage to make ends meet in our city so leaving the hotel was not an option. As our relationship with the family grew over time, so did their needs. I reached out to Donna, a woman dear to me who leads a ministry devoted to providing meals to people in our congregation suffering from sickness or loss of a loved one. Immediately she orchestrated a team of 30 families to hand deliver groceries each week, including baby items. Eventually almost the entire church was involved in their lives. Walking with this family affected the entire life of our congregation. Even my sermons were shaped by this ongoing narrative because we needed to understand what it meant to be a people of self-giving love living on mission with God.
After a year’s worth of challenges, disappointments and joys both grandparents were baptized into Christ and they began sharing in life with us from a different perspective. We celebrated as they renewed their wedding vows in light of their renewed life together. As a church we were finding our place in God’s mission.
Just two and a half years later this church of just under 150 is now a family of just over 300. We continue to walk with others living through homelessness toward self-sustainability within the context of relational community and God’s sufficiency. We are currently leading a 21 church interfaith collaborative and teaching them how to do the same for the last, least and left out in our city. By the grace of God working in the hearts of people making them more gracious, we are experiencing renewal as a church and have become a part of a city-wide movement only God’s missionary Spirit can create and sustain. Today we are growing as a multi-generational church filled with both the rich and poor, the housed and homeless, the bruised and healing.
What was once a homeless family drowning in the waters of bad news became a housed family rescued by the rushing waves of good news–of gospel. What was once a struggling church organized around “outreach programs” became a church organized around God’s mission. We used to say we introduced this family to Jesus. But as time goes by we are convinced it was actually the family that introduced us to Jesus.
I agree with Mark, the gospel is born at the margins. But now I know that at the margins a church can find rebirth. This makes sense to me because Jesus can always be found at the margins.
No doubt this isn’t the sum total of how missional renewal happens but for us it is where it began. In part 2 I will share how this experience allowed us to identify other missional impulses and detail how listening, piloting small movements, and public congregational celebration leads to cultural change and missional renewal.
Fred Liggin’s bio:
I am a follower of Jesus, husband to Alison Glenn, daddy to my little man Ian and one day soon our adoptive child as we await his or her arrival. I am a multi-vocational pastor for Williamsburg Christian Church, ethnographer, activist and justice seeker, founder and president of 3e Restoration Inc, Mid-Atlantic Coordinator for Mission Alive, and prematurely balding. I received my B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and Masters of Religious Education in Missional Leadership (MREML) from Rochester College.