At a conference for church leaders where I was invited to teach, I was captivated by a message delivered at that same event by Pastor Ben Cachiaras from Mountain Christian Church in Baltimore. Ben said that serving is the new apologetic. In my years sitting at leadership tables at Willow, we boomers constructed a highly linear process for how we thought most people come to faith. In fact, we described a seven-step process. Now I see that the route many seekers take to Jesus is circuitous, unpredictable, and often messy. Ben described three different big-picture sequences that reveal the approach of churches in the past and then what he sees currently and in the future. It looks like this:
Christ. Community. Cause.
Community. Christ. Cause.
Cause. Community. Christ.
Sequence 1: Christ. Community. Cause.
We used to see the most common progression for an individual was first to come to faith, through a relationship and spiritual conversation with a follower of Jesus, combined with front-door accessible experiences at a local church. This approach is now known by many as the attractional model. A conversion then led to community (such as a small group) and then eventually to a person discovering their gifts and beginning to contribute to the cause, making a kingdom impact.
Sequence 2: Community. Christ. Cause.
Many faith communities began to see people first exposed to relationships as a response to their longing for community. Some would encounter followers of Christ through an Alpha group or book club or sports team. This might lead to spiritual conversations and then, after coming to faith, the pursuit of the cause was a logical next step, with the new Christ-follower asking, “How can I serve?”
Sequence 3: Cause. Community. Christ.
But now Ben suggests that what comes first for many people outside the faith is contributing in some way to help others. Have you noticed how easy it is to recruit a neighbor or coworker to help with a local work project, to serve food at a shelter, to rally around victims of a hurricane or fire or tornado, to stand in a line with a humbling hairnet on their head while packing healthy food for the hungry in the developing world? Most people in our world want to do something to make a difference, and they jump at the chance to help in practical ways. Their experience often leads to community, to the beginnings of relationships. And eventually, for some, this will lead to a step of faith and a commitment to Christ. The entire sequence is now often reversed, with serving coming first.
At Soul City Church in Chicago we rally around a firm belief that “church should be seven days a week, not just one!” I believe that every local church, no matter where it is located, should focus on meeting the very real and practical needs of the community around them.
This begins with listening to discern what those needs are, meeting with local city council members or someone in the mayor’s office, asking great questions, uncovering where the biggest hurts lie, and also learning about already-existing organizations that are doing good work and could use the support of a local church with both financial resources and volunteers.
In recent years I have been inspired by stories of local churches who have taken these steps and resist the tendency to be insulated in our holy huddles, only caring for the people inside our doors or people in far-away lands.
Adapted from Next Sunday by Nancy Beach and Samantha Beach Kiley. Copyright (c) 2022 by Nancy Beach and Samantha Beach Kiley. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com