In 2004, God convicted our church that we were not displaying the generosity of the gospel toward our community. During that season I was teaching through the book of Acts, and we came to Acts 8:6-8 where it says, “The crowds paid attention with one mind to what Philip said, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing … so there was much joy in that city.” I asked our church if there was “much joy” in our city as a result of our presence there. We believed the answer was no, and so we resolved that with God’s help we would become a blessing to our city — to demonstrate Christ’s love to them and to bring his healing to the places in our city that needed him most.
Shortly thereafter, God brought to our attention an underperforming public elementary school in our inner city. It was the worst ranked school in our county and was on track to be shut down within two years.
At the invitation of the principal, we led several innovative projects for that school over the next several years. Our people started tutoring children and some of our small groups adopted classrooms and teachers and met physical needs of families in the school. One soon-to-be-married couple in our church asked that any gifts for their marriage be redirected to a family in the school whose house had been destroyed in a fire.
By the fourth year of our involvement, the school had the highest percentage of kids pass their end-of-year exams of any school in the county. The principal officially credited the church’s efforts with helping to improve the school’s academic performance. At a subsequent teacher’s banquet, one of the teachers said, “I have always known you Christians believed you should love your neighbor, but I’ve never known what it looked like until now.”
In 2010 I was invited to speak at our city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally, a televised event sponsored by our local government for our city and county government officials.
I thought I was an odd choice for the MLK rally, and I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. As in, “Joel Osteen at an Acts 29 event” nervous. The county manager, sensing my anxiety, said: “J.D., we asked you to speak today because we couldn’t think of anyone to better embody the spirit of brotherly love in our city than you all at the Summit Church.” I was told “everywhere in our city there is a need, we find someone from the Summit Church there.”
This experienced galvanized our church in such a way that serving our city is part of church’s DNA now, with a significant amount of our church body involved. We summarize our philosophy in these 6 “plumblines.”
Plumbline #1: “Everyone is called.”
In Luke 14:12–14, Jesus presented His disciples with a question: If your life were a party, who would people say it was being thrown for? Following Jesus means throwing the “party” of your life for those who cannot pay you back. That’s what Jesus did with his life; those of us who follow him must do the same.
This is not a special assignment for an elite few. This is the calling on every single disciple of Jesus. Many believers are waiting for a specialized call to engage their community. That was included in the call to follow Jesus.
Our pastoral team had to ask how many of the ministries in our church were designed for people who could “pay us back.” Reaching suburban families meant bigger budgets, nicer buildings, and greater acclaim for the pastoral team. But what about those who may not make “profitable” church members? Were we serving them, too, with equal passion?
We identified five areas of particular need in our city: the homeless, the orphan, the prisoner, the unwed mother, and the at-risk teen. Since we require (as much as you can in a volunteer organization!) each of our small groups to engage in outreach to the community, we point them to 1 of these areas, and devote a sizeable portion of our budget to sponsoring ministries within them.
Reaching these groups may not yield a “high return” in the earthly sense, but they are the ones Jesus has commanded us to bring in. Make no mistake, suburban families without Christ are every bit as lost as those in material need, but when our entire ministry focus is on bringing in those who, in turn, can “pay us back” (quite literally), we have to wonder if we have lost touch with the Christ of our calling and the cross he bore to save us. And, as Tim Keller says, if we marginalize the poor in our community, God will marginalize us.
Plumbline #2: “People are the mission.”
Community-serving outreach projects are not just ends in themselves, but are catalysts for helping our people form relationships within segments of society they normally may not come into contact.
We know the greatest need of people in our community is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It would be both a dereliction of duty and cruel to not make their salvation our ultimate goal. This does not mean our love is conditional upon their openness to our message, just that any attempt to relieve human suffering that does not also consider “eternal suffering” is shortsighted and unchristian. Making disciples is at the core of our calling. So we set up each of our projects with this end in mind, and encourage our people to not make their project a foray into the community in which they do a random act of kindness and rush back to their lives.
One of my greatest joys as a pastor has been seeing these relationships take place. It all began with our relationship with one elementary school principal. Last year, we had 17 households move together out of a wealthier neighborhood into an under-resourced one so they could incarnate the gospel. Each week I see these families sitting together, usually with people from that neighborhood. I see small groups sitting together with rehabilitating prisoners they have incorporated into their group and others with unwed mothers, refugees, or at-risk teens.
Again, I am not saying that we only serve people to convert them. We serve them whether or not they ever show any interest in the gospel, and the good we do for them is a good, God-pleasing end in itself. But if what we believe about the gospel is true, we can never be satisfied to put shoes on their feet when their soul is in jeopardy.
Each of us as pastors must consider: Are our church members effective at making disciples on a personal, one-on-one level? Are we? If not, stop thinking about getting involved in the community and focus on that. Because until we are good at that, we should not be inserting ourselves into the community. After we do that, community engagement will come naturally. We have to get good at making disciples again. ‘Making disciples’ is at the core of every other ministry in which we engage.
Plumbline #3: “The church is God’s demonstration community.”
As I noted in #2, preaching the gospel is our ultimate goal. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord and he has satisfied God’s righteous wrath against our sin. But whenever the gospel was preached in the New Testament, it was always accompanied by signs. Sometimes the “signs” were miraculous: opening blind eyes, raising the dead, etc. Other times they were amazing for the heart of love they displayed. Tabitha’s making of coats for the poor was so touching to her community that when she died they gathered at her bedside and wept. Paul’s generosity to the Philippian jailor was so consistent and overwhelming that it caused him, in a moment of crisis, to fall at Paul’s feet and say, “What must I do to be saved?”
As we preach the announcement of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, we have to tangibly display the love of the gospel through the work of our hands. These “signs” are not the gospel, but they point to it. In the church, Paul says, the beauty and love of God are displayed for the world to behold and wonder (Eph. 3:10; Matt. 5:16).
By the way, these kinds of demonstrations persuade not only the poor, but watching skeptics as well, much like they did in my opening story about our encounter with the elementary school. As Francis Schaeffer famously said, “The final apologetic that Jesus gives is the love in the church.” Thus, we encourage our people to invite an unbelieving friend with them as they participate, for instance, in a Habitat for Humanity project.
Plumbline #4: “The church is not a group of people gathered around a leader; the church is a leadership factory.”
In John 14:12, Jesus makes a truly astounding statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do… greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
How could that be? How can we do greater works than Jesus? None of us could ever preach or pray with the power he had, and few of us have raised the dead or fed 5,000 with a Hebrew Happy Meal. What Jesus meant, of course, was that the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ followers would yield a greater collective power than for all of it to rest on just one, or a handful of, person(s).
Many of our churches have turned this principle on its head, choosing instead to build their ministries around a few gifted individuals whom crowds throng to hear. But that is not where the real power of the church is found. Did you know that of the 40 miracles recorded in Acts, 39 of them happen outside the church? God’s intention is not for all his power to flow from a few gifted individuals on a stage.
God called pastors not to do the work of ministry, but to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11–12). A church’s “success,” therefore, should not be measured only by seating capacity, but also by sending capacity. When church members are empowered, the community will be flush with the power of God.
This is not to diminish the weekend worship experience — our church puts a lot of energy into it — simply to say that a Spirit-filled church is not less than a weekend experience, but much more.
Plumbline #5: “The best ministry ideas are in the congregation.”
If Plumbline #4 is true, then we can expect that the Spirit of God will put the best ministry ideas within the hearts of the congregation, not just the minds of church staff members. Church members must be taught think this way and we (the pastors of the church) ought to take a servant role toward our members, equipping and empowering them to lead out in ministry. They are not “cogs” in our ministry machines; we are servants to theirs.
A practical way we have tried to foster this at our church is by distinguishing between three different relationships we have toward various ministries—those we own; those we catalyze; and those we bless. To “own” a ministry means we staff and resource it directly. Those we “bless” are those we know our members are engaged in, but as an institution we have little interaction with them other than the occasional encouragement.
But the third category, “catalyze,” is where we put most of our energy. When we catalyze something, we identify members with ideas and ask them to lead us. We come alongside them, adding our resources, networking power, etc. We serve them. And that means sometimes they don’t do things exactly the way I would prefer. But in the long run, an empowered church catalyzed to do ministry will do more gospel-good in the community than if the church owns and staffs all its own ministries.
We as pastors have to get beyond recruiting volunteers to serve in our weekend ministry machine. Simply staffing our ministries with volunteers severely limits the potential of the people of God. We need to not merely be recruiting volunteers but raising up leaders. Rather than asking people merely to get on board our ministry bus, we want to get on theirs.
Plumbline #6: “The gospel is not just the diving board—it is the pool.”
Saturating your congregation in the gospel is the greatest catalyst to their engagement in mission. It is as we learn how far God went to save us and how much he gave up that passion to reach the lost around us is inflamed. Where do we get the motivation to make uncomfortable changes, to give up our time, talent, and treasure for Jesus? We can only gain this sort of passion by first gaining a vision of what Jesus did for us. As a friend of mine says, “The fire to do in the Christian life comes from being soaked in the fuel of what has been done.” And the gospel creates not only passion, but also vision. The gospel shows us the lostness of our surrounding world and the willingness of God to reach it. His passion to save is measured by the cross and his willingness to do so is measured by the resurrection.
Most evangelicals see the gospel as merely the entry rite into Christianity, the diving board into the pool. But the gospel is both diving board and pool. As we grow in awe and worship of who God is and what He’s done for us at the cross, we begin to serve God naturally. Fervency and effectiveness in mission are the byproducts of saturation in the gospel.
So above all else, preach the gospel! Until people are saturated in the gospel, you can never create a true serving culture in your church. But when the gospel is deep in people’s hearts, they will burn for the mission — in their families, in their communities, in their country, and around the world.