“How can we become the kind of church that would be deeply missed by our city if we suddenly ceased to exist?”
That was the question I asked on May 19, 2013, in my first message as the new pastor of Davison Free Methodist Church. Over the past five years, I have become convinced that one vital part of the answer to that question would involve finding ways to practically demonstrate God’s love to our community.
After a lifetime of ministry serving four other congregations across a span of 35 years, I was deeply concerned that we not fall into the trap of mission irrelevance. Together we had to make sure our church did not end up speaking mostly to ourselves and disconnected from our community. So we began exploring more and better ways to make meaningful ministry connections outside our walls.
Today, we partner with our local schools, service agencies, City Hall and other churches to serve our city. One of the neediest cities in America — Flint, Michigan — is only 10 miles to our west, and we are committed to be part of the solution to the multiple problems faced by its residents. We’ve collected and distributed bottled water by the thousands. Volunteer teams have partnered with neighborhood organizers on major cleanup days. Landscaping and painting are easy projects to organize and complete.
This has all been quite a change in my approach to pastoral ministry. I recall a time when I started out in the pastorate when I was warned against the dangers of too much “social gospel.” Back then soup kitchens, community service teams and recovery groups were typically the domain of mainline churches who were considered by many of my mentors to be “soft on the gospel.” For many years, I left social action and community service to others.
All that changed with one phone call in January 2011. Spokane, Washington — where I pastored at the time — had just made national news for all the wrong reasons. On Jan. 17, 2011, the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade was disrupted when a pipe bomb was discovered along the parade route just prior to the start. Thankfully, the bomb never went off. But Spokane, like many American cities, was forced to face the reality of a racist white supremacy movement lurking in the shadows.
The news of the attempted bombing led Karen, a young woman in our church, to pick up the phone and call Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center just to tell the director there was this church on the North Side of town that was so sorry for what had happened. In fact, she was certain that her church, Timberview Christian Fellowship, would like to do something to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
As a result of that call, I soon found myself in a meeting with the center’s director asking the age old question: “What can we do to help?” The answer surprised me: “Become our friend and partner. Don’t make us a project. Develop a genuine, mutually beneficial relationship.” With God’s help, that’s what we did.
Representatives from the center came to a Sunday service and shared from their hearts how much it meant to them that first Karen and then the pastor had reached out during a difficult time. Within weeks, we took a small advance team over to their facility and mapped out a few work projects both outside and in. Dozens of Timberview volunteers were soon landscaping, painting and doing interior carpentry in the downtown location. The transformation was amazing — not just to the building, but in us.
We got out of our comfort zone. We teamed up with volunteers both from our own congregation and from the center’s staff. We engaged in meeting the deepest hurt in our community, and it was good for us.
Outside the Walls
Six months prior to the connection with the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, our congregation had attempted our first ever “Outside the Walls” day of service. After much prayer and planning, we selected the Sunday before Memorial Day. That day, instead of gathering inside the church, we scattered to serve the neighborhood. For us, that was a radical step. Not only would our entire congregation not get to worship together, but we’d also miss out on several thousand dollars’ worth of Sunday morning offering. Our leadership team had accepted my challenge to make the shift from inward to outward focus believing that the Lord was in it and He would honor us for it.
I had been wrestling with the idea of becoming more engaged with the needs of our community for about a year prior to that. I had read the likes of Brandon Hatmaker and Hugh Halter who urged the church in America to become more radically committed to serving their community. These authors had begun to mess with my heart as I heard, “Just try it, and you’ll like it. God will be pleased. Love will be shown. Needs will be met. Your community will notice.” But it seemed a bit risky and complicated to me.
Richard Stearns’ powerful book “The Hole in our Gospel” (notice the title is not “The Hole in the Gospel”) added to my holy discontent. Stearns reminded me that God expects more from His people than going to church on Sunday, saying a few prayers, avoiding the big sins, and believing the right things. His conviction that “being a Christian, or follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God; it also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world” sounded a lot like something John Wesley had said centuries before: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”
Finally in the spring of 2011, I knew it was time to do something. I’d wrestled long enough with what our modest-sized suburban church could and should do about engaging with our community. We were not a megachurch. Our resources and volunteer numbers were limited. But clearly we were called to do what we could.
Our Vision and Leadership Board selected a Sunday morning in May when the weather would likely be nice and our attendance would normally be strong. We wanted our service to involve some sacrifice. Together we identified six doable projects — everything from painting the local Humane Society storehouse, to cleaning and organizing at a local Christian thrift store to offering free car washes at the neighborhood grocery store.
The response was immediate and positive. Locals couldn’t believe we wouldn’t take money for washing cars. Partnerships with local service organizations were thrilled to have a whole new cadre of volunteers step up. Some major good was done locally, and we felt blessed to be involved. Some skeptics remained in our church who felt shortchanged because, by serving on a Sunday, they could not gather for worship. Most of the critics, however, were quieted by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from both those we served and we who had served.
One important decision we made early on was not to seek publicity. We purposely didn’t call the local media outlets to let them know how generous we were being. To our surprise, they found out anyway. Word of mouth soon spread. After establishing the partnership with the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, our reputation as a caring and serving congregation quickly spread. To my surprise, in March 2013, I received official notice from the Spokane mayor’s office that Timberview Community Fellowship had been selected as one of three Community Service Award recipients that year. Through no direct action of our own, the serving culture of Timberview Christian Fellowship gained regional attention.
That learning experience in Spokane didn’t just change our church; it changed me. I had pastored more than 30 years in congregations from the prairies of Western Canada, to one of Free Methodism’s larger churches in the Midwest, to this dynamic newer congregation in the Pacific Northwest. Much of the time — despite some major growth and ministry success — I sensed the majority of our neighbors didn’t seem to care that our church existed and weren’t eager to find out what we did. But at Timberview, serving the neighbors began to change all that.
The value of leading a church to serve outside our walls is now a core conviction of mine. At Davison Free Methodist Church, serving is now part of our DNA. To quote an old Methodist saying (sometimes attributed to John Wesley but not found in his writings), “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
More importantly, Jesus said in His no-holds-barred takedown of self-absorbed religious folks: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). I’m convinced that every local church needs to prayerfully figure out how to make that happen.
From that first Sunday in Davison, we’ve been on a learning adventure in the school of servanthood. We’ve created our own “Serve our City” ministry partnerships over the past five years with local schools, City Hall, and a neighborhood action group in the nearby city of Flint. During the recent water crisis, we collected and distributed bottled water. In addition to our once-each-year Serving Sunday, we have developed partnerships year-round.
We’ve learned that schools, City Hall and agencies like the YWCA often have funding to renovate, expand and upgrade their offices, grounds and parks, but what they need most are motivated volunteers. That’s where we come in.
The leadership team gradually defines the scope and size of each serving project including the number of volunteers and specific tools and resources required. Some smaller projects focusing on individual private homes and yardwork only need six to eight workers. Others, like our recent neighborhood cleanup partnering with an inner-city Community Organization in nearby Flint require a team of more than 50. Some teams just need simple tool like rakes and shovels or paintbrushes while others require power tools, specialized equipment and the rental of dumpsters.
Pastor Shane Bengry was added to our pastoral team with community outreach as a major part of his portfolio. He has worked diligently to develop working partnerships with various service agencies and organizations in our community. Service groups and civic organizations are not used to having churches step up to help. Community organizations have their own schedules and expectations and can be leery of a church’s motivation. We’ve learned that we need to work hard at serving well.
We have now completed four consecutive years of Serve Our City events. Each year, we canceled our main worship service in favor of a short gathering for a commissioning prayer at 9:30 a.m. followed by two to three hours of volunteer service outside our walls. This weekend has become a missional boot camp for our entire congregation and has created a more missional mindset that gets more of our people more deeply engaged in serving our community.
The benefits have been tremendous. We now do more serving projects throughout the year. By shaking things up on “Serving Weekend,” we have discovered people in our congregation who want to help our hurting neighbors more than just sit in church. Along the way, we have identified new leaders and engaged previously passive attendees. We’ve built a greater sense of community and cohesiveness within our congregation by serving together. We created a more positive image of the church in our community by coming alongside and partnering with civic, educational and various service groups. Last June, our 250 energetic volunteers demonstrated the love of Christ in practical ways by landscaping a local elementary school, renovating a devastated inner-city neighborhood in nearby Flint, painting the interior of the regional autism center, planting a YMCA-sponsored social enterprise garden and prayer-walking downtown.
These annual intense plunges into the needs of our neighbors have produced several long-lasting positive effects. We’ve built solid ministry partnerships that extend year-round. Our church culture is being transformed from comfortable and inwardly focused to more compassionate and outwardly focused. Yes, I do believe if Davison Free Methodist Church ceased to exist tomorrow, our community really would miss us.
Glenn Teal is the lead pastor of Davison Free Methodist Church in Davison, Michigan.