If you had told me 9 years ago that the Bible study my wife and I started in a suburban apartment complex would one day be an urban church I would have thought you were crazy. It’s a LONG story how we went from a suburban church plant in an elementary school to acquiring a beat-up old building in one of the worst areas of Lakeland, Florida. It involves a 5-year calling by God, a very generous building owner and a fight with my wife that led me to walk through downtown in the middle of the night. To make it short – it was a God-thing! After years of praying it all came together in about 48 hours. Now that we are several months into this transition I thought I’d share a few of the opportunities and challenges we have encountered.
1. It ignites a passion in the church. – Being in the suburbs has a calming effect when it comes to ministry. Everything is nice. There are trees, green grass, nice shopping centers, modern-designed malls and middle-class families grilling out. It’s easy to forget that there are broken people in the world that have no hope and NEED Jesus. The move to an area where we are surrounded by drunks, homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes on a daily basis is a HUGE reminder that the Church has no time for a day off. Our core group of committed volunteers and leaders had their passion for reaching people for Jesus reignited in a way that I’ve never seen before in our church.
2. People leave. – The first time you hear, “Pastor, we’re leaving the church because we don’t want our family to be around THOSE kind of people” you just want to punch someone up side the head. After a while you get used to it – because MANY people leave. The greatest blow was when our biggest donor left. It takes a toll, but you come to realize that God never intended for everyone to go on this part of the journey. You come to embrace the assurance that if God called you to it, He will see you through it. My standard reply these days to the “THOSE kind of people” reason for leaving is, “Well God bless you. At least your honest and the Kingdom of God needs wimps also.”
3. Sunday takes a back seat. – Homeless people know the Gospel better than most seminary professors – they have to hear it 3 times a day just to get a sandwich at a shelter. They don’t need another sermon – or worship – they need AUTHENTIC love and caring. We learned the hard way that Sunday is important – for church people. It don’t mean squat to broken people trying to survive another day without hope. In our neighborhood you can have the coolest sermon series graphic, an amazing lighting system, a laid back atmosphere and a worship band full of virtuosos – but the folks are not COMING to church on Sunday. Church has to GO to them Monday through Saturday. Which brings me to my next point…
4. Leadership spends very little time in the office. – In days past our leadership spent an enormous amount of time in strategy meetings, Sunday planning sessions and leadership development retreats. I used to spend hours each week on sermon prep. Those days are long gone. The people around us are leery of “church people”. They see “church people” come down to one of the shelters, hand out food for an hour and then leave to go back to their upper-middle-class lives feeling better about themselves. In order for the folks around here to trust us we have to be out with them. We have to authentically live in their world before they will ever consider embracing our world. Staff meetings are now 15-minute-everyone-stay-standing-what-do-we-need-to-get-done-this-week meetings so we can hurry out into the neighborhood to hang with people. Much of the time each week I used to spend on sermon prep is now spent sitting on a street corner talking to my new friends or taking them to dinner. A few weeks from now I’ll be living on the streets for several days to see what it’s like. I was invited to do this by some of the homeless folks that sleep on our property – this is a great honor not bestowed on “church people”. That came as a result of less time in the office and more time on the streets.
5. Ministry is fun again. – Back in suburbia – week in and week out – we had the same meetings, the same Sunday set up, the same conversations, the same programs…the same…the same…the same. It had become boring. There are very few days now that doesn’t offer some level of excitement. From broken people in tears because God is moving, to the homeless guy tithing his panhandling money, to our folks bringing meals to local shut ins, to local businesses that donate goods and services without being asked. God is constantly at work here and no day is ever the same – or boring. For a while there ministry had become stale and monotonous – now it is fun with a capital ‘F’!!!