At Cornerstone Church Network, our intent is that one outcome of Master’s Groups is meaningful, God-honoring impact in the communities served by the participants in Master’s Groups. It’s a challenging goal but there is no question that Jesus calls us to practical, life changing ministry beginning in our “Jerusalems”. Not only are we as individuals and congregations called to this, but also it seems clear that the message of Jesus will become real to a community when all the believers in that community work together in unity toward that goal. Jesus prayed in John 17 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
It sure sounds like Jesus has linked the unity of the believers to the world’s recognition that they are loved by God! But is that a practical possibility in our church-separated and even church- competitive culture?
I spent yesterday afternoon with a good friend who is in the middle of a great example of how indeed it can happen! I can’t fully tell Sam’s story in the space of this article, but not too many years ago he was a world traveling Vice President with the PeopleSoft Corporation. Through a variety of circumstances he clearly felt called into ministry and that’s when I first met him. Actually, without knowing about his call, I challenged him to pray about joining our church staff team because we needed exactly the skills and abilities he exhibited. To my amazement, he said ‘yes’ immediately because he had already been praying about it!
Fast forward three years and Sam is engaged in his licensing and ordination study when the denominational office calls and tells him of a small struggling church in Ventura, CA. They want to give their building to the denomination if there is someone willing to be the pastor and carry on the ministry to the neighborhood. When asked if he’s up for it, Sam, of course, says ‘Yes!’ The church is located in an older residential neighborhood not far from downtown Ventura and the building is in need of lots of repair, but it’s paid for. Six people still call this their church home and they are definitely not able to pay a full-time salary for a pastor. God provides a part-time, well paying consulting job for Sam and he launches into life as a solo pastor. With his business background, Sam immediately starts investigating the neighborhood and discovers that there are lots of homeless people in the vicinity. Then he realizes that God is calling this little church to make a difference in the lives of those people. It’s not long before the church has grown to 40 people. They are a mixture of homeless people who are participating in the new weekday, daytime ministry to the homeless, the original six church members and a bunch of other people from all walks of life who want to be involved in a church that takes seriously Jesus’ call to care for the poor and disenfranchised.
The weekday ministry is now attracting 50 homeless people a day and has become a full service operation providing breakfast and lunch, laundry facilities, showers, job search help, assistance with finding housing, and of course evangelism and discipleship. Food and clothing start showing up daily from unlikely sources including several public elementary schools in a neighboring town. Someone told them about this little church and they decided to do a food drive and just drop off the donations unannounced. Of course, it’s messy ministry and not easy. There are plenty of crazy interruptions of Sunday Services by homeless people with issues. But Sam keeps the vision of God’s calling clear and the ministry grows until now there are 80 people attending worship on Sunday.
Sam knows there is also a potential problem. The church is located next to an elementary school and separated only by the church’s parking lot. That is a recipe for potential problems and the only saving grace is that the church is designed as a square building with an open-air courtyard in the middle of the square (it is, after all, southern California). That makes it possible to contain the ministry within the church facility and not have homeless people hanging around the outside of the building. But they still need to travel to and from the church. So Sam decides to have an open house for city leaders so he can explain what the church is doing. He sends an invitation to the Mayor, the police and fire departments, the principal of the elementary school next door and others. To his amazement, 45 people respond to his invitation including the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief and the school principal. He explains the weekday ministry to the homeless and being the good business man that he is, he gives them an impressive list of statistics about the number of people served, housing found, jobs found, children who are back in school, etc. He’s tracked everything! When he’s done with his report, again to his amazement, they give him a standing ovation. The Mayor tells him that the city has been trying for years to get the churches engaged with tackling the homeless problem and this is the first time it has ever happened. They pledge to do everything they can to help this ministry succeed. Even the principal relates stories about the children of some of these homeless families having become consistent in their attendance at school and beginning to make real progress as a result of the church’s efforts.
In the ensuing months, the Mayor personally brokered a meeting between Sam and three real estate developers (who happened to be Christians!) who had purchased an old, run down motel/hotel with the intent of tearing it down and rebuilding retail space on the property. Of course the economy tanked right after that so the property just sat there becoming a significant problem for the city because it was being broken into and used as a crack house and for prostitution. The Mayor had a vision that there might be a match between Sam’s homeless ministry and this place in the middle of town that desperately needed a purpose. There were a multitude of challenges to her vision becoming a reality not the least of which was the financial magnitude of the project.
One night God woke Sam up with the idea that the churches of Ventura could work together to make this happen! The rest, as they say, is history. What used to be a deteriorating, sin-infested eyesore in the middle of Ventura has become a place where lives are literally being saved and hope-filled futures are being rebuilt. While the details of how it’s all come together are too many to list here. The bottom line is that twenty one churches of all different denominations in Ventura have stepped up to each renovate a room at what is now called “The Kingdom Center.” After the room has been renovated by volunteers from each respective church, the church then supports the homeless family that lives in that room. They help get them back on their feet and include the family in the life of their church. As you might imagine, not only is the homeless family helped in this process but also the involved churches are being changed for the better, as they become the direct conduits for God’s love toward “the least of these.”
Is it impossible for the churches of a community to be unified in showing the love of Jesus to their community? Yes! The story of the Kingdom Center in Ventura is at but one shining example that it is indeed possible. May churches like these in Ventura increase and may Master’s Groups become more and more of a catalyst for pastors who engage in this kind of God honoring, risk taking obedience.