There are advantages to being a Christian and a pastor in the decidedly unchurched Northwest. It forces us toward more creative forms of ministry and deeper theological reflection. We cannot just do church as usual, and that’s a blessing.
I pastor a church in Bellevue, Washington. When people hear “Bellevue” they think of an affluent suburb, which it is, but it also has a lot of poverty, gang activity, and a host of other issues associated with urban settings. It is a place of enormous religious syncretism, where bits and pieces of eastern philosophy, and Judeo-Christian thought mix with a heavy dose of Oprah. The one thing that is not in vogue, however, is Christianity, at least what most people think of as Christianity, and that’s where our opportunities begin. In fact, because it is so post-Christian, I believe Bellevue as well as the whole Northwest is ripe for a new kind of revival, not tent-meeting revival, but an awakening where people come to know Jesus by observing how we as Christians live.
Evangelism in my mind is about changing assumptions.
Evangelism in my mind is about changing assumptions. The best way we’ve found to do that is to do things that provoke a question, the answer to which can only be Jesus. We provoke such questions when we live in a way counter to the norm in our culture. Some examples are, submitting our broken marriages for healing to the Lordship of Christ, having joy in hard times, or giving the poor the tools they need to break out of the cycle of poverty.
However, one of the best ways to surprise people with the real Jesus is to sacrificially serve. I say “sacrificial” because our service needs to be more than “giving back to the community.” It needs to be about coming alongside the community in a sacrificial way. When we do that, what we have discovered, is that people begin to change their assumptions about Jesus. They see beyond the Jesus of “churchianity” to the radical, revolutionary God revealed in Jesus — the God who didn’t stay comfortable in heaven, but came into the mess of the world to redeem it, and because the Northwest is so post-Christian the surprise is often exhilarating. I have heard many people say things like, “well if that’s who Jesus is and if that’s what church is about then I may need to check it out.”
Let me give some examples. Every summer 30 plus churches on the east side gather on a Saturday for what is called Jubilee Service Day. We gather to help teachers at Ardmore, Cherry Crest, Enatai, Lake Hills, Phantom Lake, Sherwood Forest, Spiritridge, Stevenson and Woodridge set up their classrooms, and clean to prepare for the first day of class. We also come alongside the community by landscaping for homeowners in the city of Bellevue who can no longer keep up their homes. The following day we close down our own worship services and worship together with the other churches in a downtown park. Many of these same pastors meet together monthly throughout the year to pray together, but also to work together, some even cancelling their own programs to support other programs in other churches. That blows away the stereotype that all churches do is fight with each other over trivial theologies.
There is a school for at-risk teens that meets in our church. We also have a Tuesday morning women’s bible study. Once a month, the women in the bible study cook breakfast for and eat with the at-risk teens. They play games together, like charades. (You haven’t lived until you see retired-aged Presbyterians trying to figure out who Snoop Dog is so that they can act him out, while at-risk teens wonder who on earth “Lawrence Welk” is.) The blue-haired crowd meets the pink-haired crowd. It’s not what you expect. More than that, these women have become mentors to many of the girls, and men from the church have become mentors to the boys. They show up at the jail cells, take the midnight calls and walk with them through the bad decisions they’ve made. As a result, the teenagers love the women and men who serve them. I got in trouble once at a talk I gave at the school because I said that Presbyterians weren’t considered cool. The kids were indignant because they thought Presbyterians were very cool. These students are open to Jesus because they’ve seen him in ways that have shattered the stereotypes of what church is all about.
One day I was talking to a man in my church, and he said he was late and had to leave. I asked him where he was going. He wouldn’t tell me. I pressed him until he reluctantly told me that once a week he goes into the Rainier Valley in Seattle, sits in a coffee shop, and helps people there, many of whom live below the poverty level, create business plans so they can get loans and start businesses. When asked why, he simply says, this is what Jesus wants to do with all my business experience. We have a team of people called Auto Angels who repair cars for people who can’t afford it, but need the transportation for their jobs. We started a center called Jubilee Reach that runs before and after school programs, tutoring, ESL, and a host of other programs to help people climb out of poverty.
We do all of this with no strings attached. We just serve.
All of these things open people up to Jesus. In fact, the Jubilee Reach Center was invited by the public schools to run the sports programs in the middle schools. The coaches are all Christian, and use a model of coaching that emphasizes character, integrity, perseverance, and respect. We do all of this with no strings attached. We just serve. The result is that for many of the kids involved, test scores have gone up two or three grade levels and gang activity has ceased. Everyone knows we’re Christians. We don’t have to say it. We speak through the way we come alongside our community.