Ask yourself, “If your church were to close its doors, would anyone in the community notice? Would anyone in the community care?” Church is where disciples are equipped, developed, educated, and sent out to local neighborhoods; the church is to make a difference in individual lives and in its immediate communities.
Justifying the Questions
Why have we asked the above questions? Perhaps because we the church of God must be careful not to forget our chosen status, as other people chosen before forget their chosen status. Perhaps to help us remember who we are to be: God’s recognizable, tangible, and visible sign—a witness and foretaste of His dream for the world.
Why are we here? What are we here to do? We do not always know what to do from moment to moment with this current life, but we do have a hope and desire for the life beyond: we want to live with God forever.
Given our future hopes, we should be asking, “What is God up to right now, right here, in this neighborhood?” “What are the ways we need to change in order to engage the people in our community who no longer consider church a part of their lives?” Christ’s earthly work was a lifetime commitment to the community—a matter of relationships. We, too, must establish a faithful presence for God in our communities until the second coming of Christ. Christianity is a progression; it is about connecting the church with the community through life-on-life evangelism.
Note Timothy Keller’s comment on the explosive growth of early Christianity: “Christians’ lives—their concern for the weak and the poor, their integrity in the face of persecution, their economic sharing, their sacrificial love even for their enemies, and the high quality of their common life together—attracted nonbelievers to the gospel.”1
It seems fair to ask: What are we doing as a church if not constantly improving our tools for impacting our neighborhood, community, society, and the world? if not growing, equipping, developing, educating, and enlightening our church members to be the light to the world that Jesus announces that we are (Matt. 5:16)? If we aren’t doing these things, why do we exist? Is it for striving for material possessions and social status? For Christians, financial success, external beauty, and career advancement matter only to the extent that they serve God’s purposes. Brennan Manning has said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”2
Every Adventist’s desire must be faithfulness in God’s service and for His mission. We must reach out to everyone—sharing, caring, and proclaiming the good news of God’s redemptive work, so that people can see us as a recognizable, tangible, and visible sign of the kingdom of God on earth. Adventism is not about being the best church in the community; it is about being the best church for the community.
God came from heaven to earth; He reached out. Therefore, we must reach out to our communities as our Christlikeness conforms to His: “The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has been God’s plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory.”3
God’s church was organized for service, community outreach. Church planting is just that. The church’s program, the items outlined in its bulletin, should be an expression of how God has reached out to us first. Jesus said:, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). We are created, saved, called, commissioned, and commanded to serve God and His people. This is our mandate, and this is the life we ought to live.
Jesus lived as a humble servant. The bottom line of our Christian journey is to be servants of God by serving His people—not just the “chosen” within the walls of the church building, but everyone within and outside the walls of the church.
John Stott wrote: “[Jesus’] words and deeds belonged to each other, the words interpreting the deeds and the deeds embodying the words. He did not only announce the good news of the kingdom; He performed visible ‘signs of the kingdom.’”4
The purpose of being disciples is not only to proclaim the good news, the word of salvation, but also to demonstrate the love of God to people who are in need. We must pray for God’s intervention in our lives and look for opportunities to serve and demonstrate His love by listening to people’s struggles and challenges. When we intentionally and sincerely approach people who are disenfranchised, disassociated, and marginalized in our communities, we will witness changes in their lives—and changes in our communities. The problem isn’t individual ability, but total availability, and availability for all we know God craves: active, working compassion to banish poverty; to stop world hunger; to end human trafficking; to help build happy homes; to live lives of integrity, humility, and peace.
That is why Adventist Community Services (ACS) has been focused on equipping church members to be engaged through critical service learning. By incorporating a conceptual framework of service-learning in four levels of engagement presented by Tania Mitchell,5 and four ways of social ministry opportunities presented by Sider, Olson, and Unruh, members are able to create a sustainable impact in their communities.6 The four are service, learning, service-learning, and critical service-learning.
Service is demonstrated in cleaning up a riverbank by picking up trash; or as a relief operation providing food, clothing, etc.: service is simply giving a hungry person a fish.
Learning is students in a science classroom looking through a microscope at water samples collected from the riverbank just cleaned; it is individual development, transformational ministries that empower a person to improve their physical, emotional, intellectual, or social status: learning is teaching a person how to fish.
Service-Learning is those students taking samples from local water sources, analyzing them, documenting the results, and presenting the scientific information to a local pollution-control agency; it is community development, such as providing day-care and after-school programs: service-learning is providing a person with fishing equipment.
Critical Service-Learning is those students using the science they’re acquiring to create public service announcements that raise awareness of the human impact on water quality; it is their learning in the service of better community attitudes and behaviors; it is structural change, which means transforming unfair societal, economic, environmental, and cultural institutions and systems: critical service-learning is helping everybody get fair access to the fishpond.
I want to belong to a church that empowers members to be change agents; that embraces differences and makes a positive impact on families, neighbors, and communities; that becomes the voice of the voiceless; that examines critically the issues of power, privilege, and oppression; that questions the hidden biases and assumptions of race, class, and gender. As the apostle Paul said: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the
freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). I want to belong to a church that is working to liberate people from physical, social, mental, and spiritual bondage. It is the church becoming a defender of people who cannot defend themselves: Church being real!
The church I want to belong to will replicate for the community what God did in Jesus. The beloved apostle John laid out God’s action in Jesus, the one from the beginning whom “we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, . . . looked at and our hands have touched—. . . the Word of life. . . . We have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1, 2). Through His church today, people must hear, see, and touch the God of love in tangible, recognizable, transforming ways.
In the midst of confusion and loss of identity, Adventists and other Christians discern the signs of God’s purpose being fulfilled and live expecting the soon coming of our God, our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. Preparing for that return means serving God and His people, working for the healing of human community as we wait and hope for the wholeness of God’s entire creation that Christ’s second coming will bring.
Honoring God means being so close to the people that they would miss us if they lost us. Ellen White wrote: “If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. . . . We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice. Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God, this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.”7
Not buildings in a community, but the engagement of individual church members constitutes the faithful presence of the kingdom of God. We must follow Christ’s methodology, focused on wholistic engagement for the well-being of the whole person—physical, social, mental, spiritual; whether through a “Showers of Blessings” mobile van, as in the Greater New York Conference, or a “Shower + Laundry” trailer, as with the Gulf States Conference.
Serving communities in Christ’s name is the ACS mission, one that keeps expanding the scope of services from relief to reform, from charity to social justice. We seek to equip the church of God for dedicated and committed service by all Christ’s disciples as we contribute together to God’s redemptive work.
Sung Kwon is executive director of Adventist Community Services for the North American Division.