By Linda Rex
This morning one of the members, Pat, and I were outside painting a sign at the church. The sun was slowly rising and the intensity of its heat was increasing as we worked to finish our project. Several people who live in the neighborhood passed by, either jogging or walking their dogs, and we said hello. Nearly all of them were friendly and responded cordially. It really was a pleasant day to be in the neighborhood.
I have been a pastor with Good News Fellowship for just about five years now, and this neighborhood has changed tremendously within that short period of time. A common sight are houses being torn down and new, multiple dwellings being put in their place. The neighborhood is in the midst of a gentrification process, yet in spite of all this change, neighbors are starting to get to know one another and look out for one another. And they are vocal about their desire to create and live in a safe, friendly community.
It’s good to see and experience the feeling of community growing around us. This neighborhood has only begun to feel that way to me within the last year or two. Perhaps the neighborhood seems different partly because I am actually in the neighborhood involved in some activity on some day other than Sunday morning or Wednesday evening. And I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the people who live on the street the church is located on, to learn their names and a little bit about them through the neighborhood association and community activities.
We have a few church neighbors who come over and participate in our weekly Community Café free meal. But these are not the neighbors I saw last night or this morning as we worked on the sign. I have met a few of these neighbors at community events or on the street, but not within our church doors. A few may attend other churches in the Nashville community, but most are uninterested in, and even opposed to, organized Christian religion. Christianity is being viewed more and more as the cause of disharmony and disunity rather than being seen as the solution to it.
One of the conversations we find ourselves having as a pastoral team is how we have a wide variety of people we minister to and who worship with us—all races and strata of society—but none of them are from this group of young adults who are moving into the neighborhood. These are talented and educated professionals who reflect a post-Christian mindset. They are very community-minded, but want nothing to do with organized religion. And I believe they have every reason to reject it when I take into consideration everything they have heard or seen about Christians and their churches.
What I have found since I moved to the South is a strong Christian culture in the Bible Belt—even more so than what I experienced while living in the farming country of Iowa. This Christian culture has its strong points and also its drawbacks. Nowadays in our ministry to people in our community I find I’m talking with someone who already has a lengthy experience with church and the Bible, rather than with someone who is biblically illiterate or unchurched. This means in the apostle Paul’s language, when I share the gospel with this person or preach the Word of God to him or her, I am building on another person’s foundation rather than building directly upon Christ himself.
Conversations with people who are churched can be challenging. What people may believe about the Bible or God might be drawn from the teachings of various televangelists or popular authors, and need some serious reassessment due to their lack of a healthy spiritual foundation in Christ himself and his written Word. But other times, some people are so sure they are right about what they believe there is no room for the Word of God to go to work to bring about renewal and transformation. The Spirit’s efforts to heal and restore are hampered by the haphazard building which has already been done on the foundation which may or may not be Jesus Christ.
This complicates our efforts to fully proclaim the gospel of Christ, as Paul puts it. We are dependent upon the Holy Spirit to minister the word of God to those who already have been built on Christ, and also to deconstruct and rebuild those who need to be reconstructed on a healthy foundation. We are utterly dependent upon Christ and his work by the Spirit in any effort to preach the gospel of Christ to anyone, whether believer or not.
Indeed, it’s a real challenge to reach out to those who are unchurched or who are adamantly opposed to church or Christianity in any form. There is only one option left open to us sometimes and it is a good one, actually. What is left for us to do is to share God’s love with each and every person we meet in tangible ways—we begin to be good neighbors to each and every person, sharing life with them, offering them truth and grace—and sharing in word and deed what it means to live in the truth of who God is and who we are in him.
Our challenge as a church congregation is to get out of the pews and get into relationships with our church neighbors. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable task for some of us, but it is one which God has placed before us. Yet it is not given without his promises and his real, personal Presence in the Holy Spirit to go with us.
The early church prayed for God to confirm his Word through signs and wonders, and to extend the reach of the gospel. And Jesus, by his Spirit and with his people, did those very things. We are called to pray and to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. We have not only because we ask not, and because we depend upon ourselves and our efforts instead of upon Christ. I would encourage those who feel the longing for Jesus to grow and heal this world and this community to pray, to ask, and to anticipate God’s generous outpouring of response.
God is not put off by a post-Christian culture. None of this is about Christianity anyway. It is all about each and every person growing up in his or her Christlikeness—of sharing the common relationship we have all been given in Christ by the Spirit with the God who made us in his image to reflect his likeness and to share his love. And our role is to participate in the process and to follow wherever Christ leads us. May we respond to his call to each of us by his Holy Spirit. There is much to be done.
Dear God, thank you for loving each and every person whether or not they know you, or love you in return. I am grateful you are not put off by our refusal to believe, but rather you continue to work unceasingly to change our hearts and minds and to bring us into deep relationship with you in Christ by your Spirit. We long for you to bring spiritual renewal and transformation to our neighborhood so each person can experience the reality of true community. Make it so, Lord, by your Spirit. Give us each the boldness and courage, as well as the opportunities, to share your Words of life and your love with our neighbors. And Holy Spirit, please confirm your Word by the signs and wonders which are appropriate in this day and age, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’” Romans 15:17–21 NIV
by Linda Rex
Last weekend I not only had a house full of company, but I also attended the Converge 2017 event, which was held this year at the Scarritt-Bennett Center here in Nashville. The venue was very pleasant, with its buildings of cut stone and stained and cut glass windows. The food was excellent, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to share good times with old friends and new.
The focus of this Generations Ministries event was encouraging to me. It was good to hear and see the emphasis on interlacing the ministries of camp and mission (and internships) ministries with those of local congregations. There was also much talk about building leaders, starting with our children all the way up through the generations. We can build leaders in any area of camp or mission ministry or in our local congregations, when we are intentional about the process and are actively involved in building relationships with God and one another in every part of life, and encouraging one another towards growing up in Christ.
While on the one hand I am very excited about the direction GCI is headed, I grieve the reality my children will most likely not be participants in these new initiatives, nor benefit from them. It’s sad to think there might not be a place for them where they can really feel at home in GCI. Perhaps in time God will prove me wrong. I hope he will.
It has been very difficult for me to watch my children grow up without the benefit of a group of young people their age within the church who enjoy doing the things they enjoy doing. I’m thankful they met a few friends in school and in camp, but for the most part they have lived without the benefits of a large church social group. It might not matter to them as much as it matters to me, since they are both shy, reserved people who aren’t really social butterflies at heart.
I think what bothers me the most is the price my family paid over the years for staying with WCG/GCI. This is not the denomination’s fault by any stretch of the imagination. It was more a matter of my personal choice. Many of my friends chose to attend a neighborhood church, even though they did not fully agree with their doctrines. It was more important to them that their children have the benefits of a group of friends and activities they could participate in.
Since I felt the calling many years ago to return to WCG because God had something he wanted me to participate with him in doing, I have attended with my children in a WCG/GCI congregation. I do not regret having responded to God’s call upon my life, but I am sorry it came at such a price. And yet, over the years, God has shown me ways in which he has redeemed the years of service.
When we lived in Iowa, we traveled an hour and fifteen minutes one way to attend services in Illinois. The benefit of such lengthy travel time was a captive audience with my children at least once a week. We could talk about things of importance because they had my full attention. We found ways to turn the travel time into a positive experience. No doubt they would rather have done many other things instead, but we learned a lot about sharing life with one another, and about bearing with what we would rather not have to do.
They didn’t have friends at church they could hang out with. But my son found friends at school who would travel the long drive to church with us and go to camp with him in the summer. I don’t think he ever realized how good he was at making disciples—or at least, at bringing people along with him to encounter Jesus. But these experiences have helped him to grow in his relationship with God and with other people as he has matured.
When we moved to Tennessee, the worship team graciously included my daughter, and she began to sing in the worship band. She has really grown over the years in her ability to sing and praise God through music because of this opportunity. And I don’t think she realizes how gifted she is at this. So recently, when she chose to step down from serving the church in this way on a regular basis, it surprised everyone, and they have expressed how they would like her to continue to sing in the band.
Maybe my children didn’t have a large group of peers to hang out with when they were kids and teens. But what they did have during all those years was family. This was a group of people, most of them older than me, who adopted my two as their very own, who loved them and wished them well. These members of our church family encouraged my children, sometimes irritated and offended them, but more often, remembered them on their birthdays, prayed for them, and listened to them tell their stories.
No doubt, this may not have been the kind of relationships my kids would have preferred to have, but these were the relationships through which my children learned how to be kind, loving and compassionate adults, with strength of character and strength of will. These adults modeled healthy (and unfortunately on occasion, unhealthy) relationships and behavior. They valued my children, and so taught my children to value themselves as God does.
I am grateful for each and every warm and loving person God placed in our lives through GCI over the years. He cared for us and loved us through the churches we attended whose members embraced us and held us during some very difficult and painful years. God provided many opportunities, especially with enabling my children to attend camp at Heartland Summer Educational Program in Illinois and The Rock summer camp in North Carolina. These experiences, which were both bad and good ones for my kids, were an important part of their education and growth as God’s children.
Today, in GCI and at Good News Fellowship, we long to see children come together to learn about Jesus and about themselves as God’s beloved children. We long to see them have friends they can share everyday life with, and share Jesus with. As we prayerfully seek God’s face about this desire of our hearts, we can love well those children God has already given us to care for, sharing with them both in word and in deed the good news of what Christ has done for each and every one of us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and in the gift of God’s precious Spirit.
And we can trust God will redeem the lost years, and the times of loneliness and struggle, turning them into opportunities, and growing our young people up in Christlikeness. God will never cease tending our lambs and doing all he can to enable us to fully participate with him in being good shepherds to our young people. And he will finish what he has begun, because he is a good God we can count on.
Abba, thank you for being faithful to watch over and care for the little ones who we participate with you in raising, teaching and loving. God, grant us the grace to love well those you put in our lives and in our congregations and in our homes. Work with and through us to grow them up into all you have in mind for them to be. We thank you that ultimately, you are the one who grows us each up into the image of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.
“So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Tend My lambs.’” John 21:15 NASB