From the Inside Out: Sharing the Unchanging Gospel in a Changing World
[I wrote this about a year ago for a magazine and can now share it here.]
On the south side of Richmond, Virginia, the elderly couple holds their sign and waits fruitlessly. In a place where Saturdays mark fish fries and sidewalk gatherings, they beckon to a church yard sale. In an area populated by weather-worn buildings with rough, hand-painted signs for the “Apostolic Kingdom of Jesus Worshippers,” they offer a pristine mainline church with a name handed down for decades. Around them the community reflects a diverse mix of African Americans and Asians and Hispanics, but the parking lot of the church contains only one skin color—one completely dissimilar to those passing on the sidewalk.
It’s a moment that suits Richmond well, a city where pylons still stretch up out of the James River to hold a bridge that no longer exists, a casualty of the fleeing Confederate army. Here you’ll find many mainline churches with middle-class, aging congregations. Their homes retreat farther and farther away from the little islands they’ve kept up in the middle of rough neighborhoods. Tradition holds them there—but it’s doubtful they’ve seen a new believer in years.
Some area churches have already succumbed to dwindling membership. Only a few miles from where the couple waits, a tall steeple casts an impressive shadow across Cowardin Avenue, and you might be excused for thinking this growing mosque still housed a church. Other former mainline churches boast boarded-up windows, graffiti, and orange notices to keep out.
The River City changed, and when those churches wouldn’t budge, the city changed them.
Hope and a Drug Dealer
Walker’s not the type of guy who would care much about the history of such churches in the city he calls home. The drug-dealer-turned-Bible-smuggler spends his days telling people how Jesus spared his life from his former employer and how the Holy Spirit empowered him to tell Egyptians about Christ without a translator.
His nights only vary because of the location. Instead of speaking to the people in his apartment building, he’s talking about Jesus as a bouncer at a bar. He’s intimidating, and he’s enthusiastic. He’s also evidence of hope, a sign that some Christians in Richmond have realized the seismic shift that’s happening. Instead of boarding up and taking flight, they’re taking the gospel to the people outside.
Pastor Bryan Ogle of Enon Church of God knows something about the importance of this outward focus toward a changing culture. Twenty-five minutes south of downtown Richmond, the community around Enon continues to swell. “The church moved to this location eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “Where we are now is more of a suburb of Richmond. There’s a military base that’s supposed to triple in size. So, just the culture of the area that the building sits in now is much different.”
When he first arrived, however, the church had faced struggles. “The congregation had just gone through some difficult times. They just went through a transition of culture, and some people left. It was a low-morale type environment.”
In many ways, the first steps Pastor Ogle took reflect the purpose statement of the church: “Love God. Love people. Serve the world.” He opened his home to the congregation, inviting them to learn about the vision God had given him for Enon. From there, he’s leading the church through necessary change to better serve the community.
“We’re in the process of not thinking of the church as the way it’s always been. That goes from music to our discipleship approach to just having the church go from a smaller church mentality to a bigger church one. Changing the mentality of how leaders within the church lead. We are in the process of embracing the culture that will lead us into the future.”
From handing out Gatorades at the local Y to hosting a night of camping on the church grounds to special seminars and events, the outward gestures to the changing community are already having a big impact as the church grows.
Hope and a Hurricane
Few shifts in culture, however, have been as dramatic as what happened in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The vibrant community of Homestead Church of God collapsed from about 200 people to 27 following the devastation. Seemingly overnight, South Miami-Dade County shed 250,000 people who left the ravaged area behind.
Their example deeply influenced his desire to reach the “new” Homestead. “I’ve never seen such devotion and raw, pure, self-sacrificial ministry that close. I think most people would have left the community for normal lives. They didn’t. They deserve [much] credit for their tenacity and faithfulness.”
The church he began leading had around 32 dedicated members, but God gave him a vision to remove as many barriers as possible and to create a “gospel-obsessed community that loves God and man with reckless abandon.” Disaster had changed the city, economic adversity had hardened those in the area, but the need for the unchanging gospel is always the same.
Homestead, the post-Andrew Homestead, needed to hear that message, and Pastor Johnson wanted to make it happen. “We considered ourselves a church re-plant. We rebranded [as Life Pointe Church], sold property, re-opened, restructured, and relocated. But, in order to do all that, we had to have the buy-in from our church body and from the COG state office. The process for that [took] several years.”
Even seemingly small cosmetic changes had a significant impact. “As we talked about the future, we improved the facility. We simplified everything by throwing away anything that hadn’t been used in a year. We painted using Starbucks’ colored themes. We re-landscaped. We were broke. So, everything we did was with elbow grease and donated services from new members. The week we painted, we had families show up for the first time saying they had never seen the church before. The physical changes lent credence to and reinforced the vision. As small wins built up, we were able to tackle the greater pursuit of relaunching.”
A New World Outside
According to early results from the 2010 census, the world outside the church building continues to transform. Married couples with children account for only 22% of all households nationally, and “minorities” are no longer minorities in many places. Three million people have left the Northeast, and the Midwest shed another two million—many of them relocating to the South.1
Shifting demographics affect all churches, perhaps more now than in many years. To share the gospel effectively, churches must reach out to the changing realities like Enon and Life Pointe have. Otherwise, the community may increasingly ignore the church—and the message.