February 18, 2014

Cover Story

Meet Michael Kelly II, Kris Eckenroth, Jose Cortes, Jr., and Carmela Monk Crawford. Their unique ministries remind us that God has a thousand ways to accomplish His mission, and though we may use different outreach methods, we each have a role to play, and we’re all working toward the same goal.

Kris Eckenroth: Connecting the Disconnected

On a recent Friday morning Kris Eckenroth gave me a rundown of his Sabbath schedule. “Tomorrow is second Sabbath, so that means it’s ‘Jean Sabbath,’ ” he said. “At 7:00 a.m. a group will cook breakfast for the homeless at the Opportunity House, a local shelter. At 9:30 there’ll be a time of prayer, Sabbath school at 10:00, then corporate worship at 11:00. Jason is speaking tomorrow—oh, and we have someone coming from Bridge of Hope.” Bridge of Hope connects church families with single mothers who are homeless or struggling. They give a short presentation during worship to pique interest and seek volunteers for a year.

My interest was already piqued, even before Eckenroth noted that first Sabbath is “Connection Sabbath” with a potluck after service, and on the third weekend of every month there’s a church party or event. “We might have a bonfire, a banquet, a pajama party (which they did at Christmas), or purchase, say, 150 tickets to the Reading Phillies baseball game for members to invite friends, neighbors, and coworkers,” Eckenroth explained.

On second Sabbath this 36-year-old senior pastor, his associate Jason Foster, and their ministry team invite everyone to come to church “ready to serve and get your hands dirty for Christ.” Members and visitors don jeans or slacks and red shirts that identify their church, “Grace Outlet,” and hit the streets of their hometown, Reading, Pennsylvania.

Eckenroth tells me that the city, population 88,000 and located about an hour west of Philadelphia, was once a thriving manufacturing hub where knitting was big money. After World War II business dried up, lots of people left, and the economy declined. Things got so bad that not long ago Reading was identified as the poorest city in America for two years running.

Yet here he is, raising his family, pastoring the Seventh-day Adventist church that he and seven others prayed into existence four years ago, and planning Jean Sabbath.

“I am Pennsylvanian born and raised,” he explained. “Reading and Berks County are my home. It has literally been the home of the Eckenroths for generations, since our ancestors emigrated from Germany.”

He then told me about an e-mail he recently received. “It was a picture of the youth group from the Reading church in the early 1920s. Many or most of the young people were Eckenroths. Today, few within my family are in the church,” he shared. “And beyond them, I know hundreds of people locally who aren’t going to church anywhere.”

While many of the people he referenced are young adults who went to Adventist schools with him, two of them were his dad’s cousins, sisters who recently visited his church. Kathy, raised and baptized in the faith, hadn’t been to church in five decades. After Bible studies with Eckenroth, she was rebaptized and organized Grace’s Superstorm Sandy relief effort with her sister, Bonnie.

All of this explained a lot. This is why Eckenroth has such a burden on his heart to reach inactive and missing members, why he started Grace Outlet in 2008 in a ballet studio in an old goggle factory in downtown Reading with the mission statement “to connect the disconnected,” and why he believes relationships are key to drawing and keeping members. “I’ve been part of so many churches where we go, sit through a sermon, and go home,” he said. “We are a community of believers who want to—through relationships—be a bridge to Jesus, whether you’ve never picked up a Bible, or used to be a church member.”

It’s happening. About 100 people attend each week, and 60 to 65 percent are Adventists who were once inactive. Now they’re part of a church family that’s engaging, supportive, and affirming; that holds them accountable and is helping them grow spiritually.

“We are a community of believers who want to—through relationships—be a bridge to Jesus.”

And tomorrow, after church, they’re not going home for “lay activities.” They’re going to the Boys and Girls Club to do crafts and play games; to the Children’s Home of Reading to spend time with teenage boys; to the Animal Rescue League to walk dogs; to the Villa retirement home to sing hymns and encourage the seniors to make a decision for Christ; and to set up a mobile soup kitchen, where they’ll give out sandwiches, water, hot chocolate, and carnations. In fact, that’s how they met Renee, who’s now attending regularly and starting Bible studies.

And Eckenroth, who can hardly believe what God is doing in Reading, says Grace Outlet’s leaders are now mentoring two other groups in Pennsylvania—Engage in York and Legit Worshipers in Easton.

“They’re trying to do something too,” he told me. Besides praying for guidance and acting on the burden God placed on his heart, Eckenroth says that’s all he did. Something.

Carmela Monk Crawford: Providing Access to the Message

Some people think it’s significant that Carmela Monk Crawford is the first female editor of
Message, a magazine published every other month. Others think it’s significant that she returned to the ministry based at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown, Maryland, 16 years after she left her associate editor role there. And still others find it significant that she’s following in her father’s footsteps. J. Paul Monk, Jr., a pastor, youth director, and conference president, edited
Message for five years in the 1990s.

But the 40-something wife and mother of three from Ohio believes it most significant that she’s the first layperson to head one of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s oldest religious publications.
Message, she says, which historically targeted African Americans (many of whom were newly freed slaves), was the vision of Ellen and James White’s son James Edson. Answering his mother’s call to develop the church’s Southern work, he famously sailed a steamboat called The Morning Star down the Mississippi River and engaged in “offshore evangelism.” He also founded the Gospel Herald in 1898, which Crawford calls the precursor to Message’s 1934 launch.

As she sees it, White was trying to provide people with access to the Adventist message. Now, more than a century later, in a different time, with a different format and with different challenges and needs, she’s trying to carry on his vision and tradition.

At her first meeting with the
Message magazine advisory, in December 2012, Crawford had only a few moments to address leaders of the church in North America charged with ministering to the Black community—and who are the major backers and users of the periodical today.

“When Jesus cleared the Temple, I believe it was premeditated,” she announced to the group gathered around lunch tables at Oakwood University’s Wade Hall in Huntsville, Alabama. Like the trained child-advocacy lawyer and skilled assistant public defender she became on her hiatus from publishing, she handily made her opening statement: “When Jesus cleared the Temple, He was concerned about the doves. And I kept wondering,
Why the doves? Why the doves? Some people could afford only doves, and I believe He was talking about providing access for everybody, even those who couldn’t afford it,” she said to a chorus of amens.

Message presents biblical truths connected to current events that we view through a prophetic lens.”

Crawford later shared this with me via mobile phone. “
Message provides access to God and His love. We are an evangelistic and outreach paper for the church, what Sister White called ‘the silent preacher,’ ” she said. “Message presents biblical truths connected to current events that we view through a prophetic lens.”

That will continue under Crawford’s leadership and that of her associate editor, Pat Harris; the designer, Ron Pride; and the periodical marketing director, Samuel Thomas—along with the popular meatless menus and recipes; columns on marriage, family, and other lifestyle themes; and the strong emphasis on disseminating truth. “We also want to share some of the distinctive Adventist beliefs, such as the sanctuary and how each phase of Christ’s earthly ministry matters to us and makes a difference in our lives,” she revealed.

Since taking the helm, she has introduced several new sections: The Experience, written by Atlanta pastor Rashad Burden, walks readers through a topical Bible study and then invites further discussion through social media. Myth Busters, authored by Los Angeles pastor Don McPhaull, looks at and explains verses in the Bible that people need to understand, such as the state of the dead and the “rapture.” Everyday Ethics, another new section, provides practical solutions for sticky situations, e.g., time management in the social media age. Eye on the Times spotlights good works and keeps watch on religious liberty issues that impact our world. Futurecast, a partnership with Breath of Life Ministries and its speaker/director Carlton Byrd, presents biblical prophecy in the context of current events.

“We’re talking about providing access,” she reminded me. “In the past, perhaps, we’ve relied upon the pastors, evangelists, or others to do that, but I want to work with them to mobilize laypeople like me and cast a wide net so, when possible, we can nurture a spiritual relationship where a conversation takes place. We can make the initial contact with that coworker, neighbor, friend, or family member, and then
Message—a nice, neat package that’s attractive to read—will give the talking points and cover the bases.”

One of last year’s “packages” targeted parents who really want to do better with, for, and by their children. Crawford says the issue was based on Luke 2:52 and touted 30 ways to protect your children and help them grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” The issue also looked at how animated films impact children.

This year Crawford plans to tackle health. “We’ll introduce the ‘guerrilla gardener,’ who is growing fruits and vegetables in his backyard swimming pool in South Central Los Angeles,” she says. “He’s challenging people to transform their health by any means necessary, even if—and especially if—they live in a food desert.”

In the annual fall family issue
Message will address the dilemmas of being single and living with a sexually transmitted disease; and will ask the question “Has abstinence become the new scarlet letter?” And later Take 6 member Alvin Chea will explore what it takes to cultivate a relationship with God like that of David, who had the heart of a psalmist and was said to be a man after God’s own heart.

Crawford says that the big push for 2014 is to get
Message into the hands of incarcerated men and women. “That’s another point of access to share our church’s message, which really does bring peace and freedom,” she said.

In sharing that message, she’s hoping
Message magazine will too.

Michael Kelly II: Tweeting the Good News

If you sometimes attend church in your pajamas, you’re not alone.

Michael Kelly II, senior pastor of the Mount Rubidoux Seventh-day Adventist Church in Riverside, California, says that while there are about 1,000 people attending his church in person each Sabbath, there are at least 20,000 more watching the live stream and archives online.

While this wasn’t an intentional approach to growing his predominantly African American but increasingly diverse congregation, it is now.

The 30-something married father of two, who’s been in the pulpit at Rubidoux for four years, says their cyberministry, rubitv.tv, took flight in 2010 when the church held a Revelation Seminar that attracted 800 to 1,000 people three nights a week for four weeks—and yielded 70-plus baptisms. “Four to five other churches picked up the feed, and so many people watched it online that the server crashed,” he recalled. That’s when they recognized the momentum and potential.

“Through this process, we’re learning that church is not a building, it’s the people.”

“We’ve [discovered] that a lot of people don’t go to church, and a lot of them are just watching the service. There are barbershops that [broadcast] the service, so while people are getting their hair done they’re watching our worship service,” he offered as an example.

Like a good pastor, Kelly wants to involve these viewers too. “We know that watching online feels like you’re outside a house watching what’s going on inside. So we’ve really been working to bring our viewers ‘in the house’ with us so they feel like they’re a part of what’s going on in the congregation.”

To that end, Kelly and his team work to make the program visually appealing by designing a set for each sermon series and dressing accordingly. Second, they try to engage virtual members in service. (For example, when they went to Haiti on a mission trip, some of the online viewers went along.) They also invite participation in the church’s ministries, including assistance from a graphic artist who designs projects remotely. Such efforts are paying off as they recently enjoyed their first baptism for online viewers, some of whom drove eight to nine hours to be baptized by Pastor Kelly.

Last year they launched a small-group Bible study series and used a program called LinkUp to identify the locations of registrants and connect them locally. “We have a member in Baltimore who watches from home because she has a special-needs child,” he said. “We sent her the same materials we gave our people here so she could participate in a small group there.

“Through this process we’re learning that church is not a building, it’s the people. Our goal is not to get people in our building, it’s the same as our mission statement: ‘to reach people far from God.’ Some people might not ever set foot in our building,” he continued. “We’re not different for different’s sake, but we understand that if we want to reach people nobody else is reaching, we’ve got to do things nobody else is doing.”

Relevance is a driving force and another reason Kelly is doing all he can to engage the 20,000 people watching online. And much like how he and his leadership team are stretching themselves to be relevant, he would like to see more Seventh-day Adventist churches develop ministries that address current community needs rather than trying to “forcefit” said needs into existing ministries.

Though he doesn’t do Facebook, he’s become “Twitterman,” connecting people who are far from God, conducting counseling sessions, engaging in theological discussions, asking questions, asking for prayer, and even “ranting” on the popular social media outlet Twitter. “Also, during the sermon I tell people to tweet whatever comes to mind to a particular hashtag such as #thepath, which was my last sermon series,” Kelly said. He’s got about 800 followers of his handle @pastahkelly and follows 500 people because “Twitter gives people permission to ‘stalk’ you. You’re letting people into your day-to-day activities. I see it as an opportunity to connect with people, meet new people, and try to engage people who aren’t Christian.”

Two things have happened as a result of his encouraging members to tweet during his sermons. “Their followers are checking out the church and even attending, and people who have no affiliation with our church are checking us out to see who we are. Just as people browse for clothes online before they go to a store, they now go online to check out your church. If they like what they see, they’ll show up.”

Consider it twenty-first-century window shopping.

Jose Cortes, Jr.: Moving With Compassion

Everyone talking about youth leaving the church should visit the Atlantic Union Conference, where a large portion of the membership (almost 112,000 in seven states and the islands of Bermuda) is reportedly under age 35.

It’s also the birthplace of a year-old movement for, by, and about—of all things—compassion.

“God used youth and young adults from this area to begin the Adventist movement, so perhaps God can use a large group of youth and young adults from this area to help our church become a church that is not only right, but full of love,” posited Jose Cortes, Jr., the union’s youth ministries director, at the commencement of his 2013 Compassion initiative. “Jesus often preceded His talks with acts of compassion, and His sermons were powerful because He had done something for the people.”

“Compassion brings generations, cultures, and classes together because people can’t resist helping someone in need.”

So doing something for the people is what Cortes, his local conference youth ministries directors, and their armies of youth decided to do, too.

I asked Cortes if compassion could be granted internally as well. He assured me that his love boat would welcome not only the poor and the unbelievers. “It’s for everybody—in the home, church, neighborhood, and city,” he promised. “We want this to become a culture within Adventism, among the young people and the entire church. We are hoping it will change us and become bigger than us.”

Last month—a year after they launched the compassion movement—I checked in with Cortes for an update:

To encourage the youth to adopt compassion as a lifestyle, his team created a Web site (www.compassion-now.org) with supporting materials and shared daily inspirations and Bible verses via text messaging. They published a blog with small-group lessons written by a myriad of contributors. They organized “Compassion Sabbaths,” and encouraged participants to worship, then work, in communities in need.

They also hit the streets, subways, bus stops, and stoops wearing red-and-white T-shirts—and unleashing compassion to grateful recipients.

First stop: New York City, where the NY13 evangelism initiative was ramping up. On a cool Sabbath afternoon in March, several thousand church leaders and members from 17 conferences in North America descended on “the big apple” to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. “Can you imagine thousands of young people marching and calling for New York City to be the capital of compassion?” Cortes asks. Despite the chilly Sabbath afternoon, the group’s activities warmed the hearts of the police, who accommodated the unusual request, and the public media, who featured the event on the evening news.

Participants cleaned up streets, delivered donated furniture to families affected by Superstorm Sandy, shared Communion with homeless people, and took part in 100 community service projects, logging more than 25,000 hours of volunteerism.

Second stop: Boston, which was reeling after a senseless April terror attack. “After the Boston Marathon bombing, young people started calling me, saying, ‘We cannot be silent, we must do something,’ ” Cortes says. So on the first Sabbath after authorities reopened the area to the public, hundreds of youth gathered to blanket Bostonians with compassion. They sang, hugged, encouraged people, and gave away thousands of roses with a card inscribed with the words from Isaiah 41:10. They also tweeted messages of hope using #compassion and #BostonStrong.

Third stop: Bermuda, where hundreds spent a May weekend distributing food and clothing, paying for parking, and doing 25 community service projects in and around its capital of Hamilton.

Cortes says these events and a number of others organized by Atlantic Union churches and local conference youth leaders in conjunction with the NY13 initiative shows that evangelism is not only preaching with words, it’s preaching in action.

And what did
he learn from his sojourn to compassion?

“It’s something that unites people,” he said. “There are many things and many issues in ministry that divide people, such as music styles, programs, etc., but compassion brings generations, cultures, and classes together because people can’t resist helping someone in need.

“It’s attractive. Every time we had an event, media showed up. . . . We also had no problems getting funding for our events.

“It’s contagious,” he surmised. “Several camp meetings held compassion events during the year, and I’m seeing that people and groups unaffiliated with ours are starting similar movements.”

It’s also not ending here. Cortes is getting calls from around the Atlantic Union, the United States, and beyond. “Compassion [is going] viral. We can’t contain it,” he said. “We will help people who want to take the compassion movement around the world because actions speak louder than words,” he concluded, quoting their motto.

Next stop: Portland, Maine.