Are You Willing to Ask the Question?

We were a familiar story: an older unhealthy church in decline, apparently doomed to remain so. Our average age was 64. We had tried many “fixes,” but none of them worked. Or we weren’t doing them right, or both. We could not attract or keep young couples with children. And without young life, a church eventually dies out. Our church leadership began to pray.

“Lord, show us what You want this church to do and to be.”

We came to the realization that, despite our mission statement, we weren’t really “glorifying God by making fully devoted followers of Christ.” We weren’t making any followers of Jesus.

In fact, in the last few years we had not seen one person come to Christ. Not one. We once even went six months without a visitor. On Sunday mornings when we would dismiss our children to Sunday school, one or two children would get up to leave. Eventually, there were none. So a small church full of older and sincere believers began praying.

Asking ourselves tough questions

I think there comes a time in the life of every Christian, and indeed every church, when we need to ask what we truly believe about God. We knew that Jesus said that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2, New American Standard).

It’s the first part of that truth we struggled with. In Santa Barbara, Calif., a hostile place to be a Christian, the harvest didn’t really look all that plentiful. People seemed mostly resistant to the gospel.

As a church, we were all tired of new programs and gimmicks to grow churches. We longed to see lives changed by the gospel, including our own. So we began to dare to take Jesus at His Word, with the idea that Jesus either had to be either believed, or not believed. If what He said was true, there just had to be a lot of people in Santa Barbara whom He was drawing to Himself, and He wanted us involved in that mission.

No one denied that truth, but to take steps of faith in that direction were, decidedly, frightening. The only other option, however, was to bury the church slowly over a period of years.

First steps

The neighborhood our church was located in had changed over the last 50 years. It was now largely Hispanic. While we had always had an interest in reaching out as a congregation, it had simply never happened. Most of the people who attended Shoreline Community Church came from other places around town. It was like that project you always meant to start, but never got around to.

However, certain members of our church had been working in and praying for the neighborhood. We finally decided to join them, since that appeared to be where God was so obviously working.

We really wanted to reach out to the neighborhood children, so we decided on what was, for us, a radical idea: a Chronicles of Narnia-themed Sunday school. It was radical, in part, because we weren’t currently offering Sunday school. But it was also radical because it didn’t fit the traditional mold most of our folks had, of what Sunday school should look like. And these were the very folks we had to convince to take the risk, to lead the Sunday school.

Photo: Dan Schaeffer. Students from Shoreline Community Church’s children’s ministry.

In a great moment for our church, they eagerly bought in and signed up. Our older folks set about transforming one of our Sunday school classrooms into Narnia. We planned games, lessons, teachers and prizes, and shared the news with a group of local children. On the day we were to start, I was praying for at least eight children to come. Our faith was modest. Everyone prayed. That morning, 39 children showed up.

And years later, they are still coming. Every morning, our people walk over to the apartment complexes near us and walk them to Sunday school, and later walk them home. We have seen dozens of children come to Christ. Through this ministry, too, we began to meet their parents and started a Hispanic Bible Study on Sunday mornings. Then their parents began to receive Christ.

I am quite ashamed to say how surprised we were at this. The field was indeed ripe for harvest; we had simply been working the wrong field in the wrong way. What is interesting is that the passion for this ministry in our neighborhood initially came not from our leadership, but from laity. God had given a couple of folks a deep passion to reach our neighborhood, and we recognized it as being of God and so encouraged it.

Today, our church is probably 35-percent Hispanic. But, and this is important, we did not set out to begin a multicultural ministry; we set out to do what Jesus told us to do—to “love our neighbors.” These folks are simply our neighbors.

Enthusiasm spills over

Then we hired a youth pastor for a nonexistent youth ministry—needless to say, another step of faith. Could we believe God here?

God brought just the right couple: Jon and Jen Harris. They are relational and “on mission,” and we have learned that is all you really need. They just “hung out” with kids and “loved on them,” and today there are 15-20 kids (mostly Hispanic) meeting regularly every week. A lot of them don’t know Jesus yet, though a growing number of them do. God is moving powerfully in the lives of these young people.

The joy in our older congregation at seeing children, salvation decisions and new life on the church campus was palpable, but God wasn’t nearly done with us. We had noticed that the 18-35 demographic was missing in our church. We wanted to be part of reaching that group, even though we were the least likely to attract them. We claimed the truth that Paul leaned on: “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).

Concerned that they wouldn’t be attracted to our worship style in the main service (or all the white hair in the crowd), we launched theMANSION ministry. Most importantly, our white-haired folks prayed fervently for the success of this new ministry to younger people. We were faced again with the familiar question: Could we believe God here? Would He be faithful to involve us (a group of old people) in this harvest?

I don’t want to underemphasize how intimidating this was. “What if it’s an abysmal failure? What if no one shows up?” These were real questions we asked.

We learned that the unchurched 18-35 demographic was very interested in Jesus but had strong suspicions about church and the Bible, so our first messages were almost completely apologetic. We started with about 25 people attending, about eight of them at any given time either agnostic, atheistic or severely backslidden.

For the first eight months we prayed and shared. We could tell the gospel was mesmerizing them; yet, no fruit. They came every week but no fruit.

Month after month . . . no fruit.

Then, in one two-month period, five people gave their lives to Christ; a number got baptized, shared their testimonies and entered the Lord’s service. And we learned again that God had been very busy in the lives of so many people already, and at the right time He allowed us to share in the reaping of the harvest.

Just believing Him and following His lead

Our church is not large (150-180 on a given Sunday morning), but frankly, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to be a healthy church. For the last two years we’ve had a 10-percent conversion rate, across all age groups. Our entire church is now “on mission” for Jesus, and we all know what we’re about as a church—to help people find their way back to God. We are even going through the process to become an Immigrant Hope center, just another way God is moving in our church.

It doesn’t stop there, we have begun a yearly apologetic conference that touches hundreds, a community garden, a bread ministry and a clothes ministry; we provide dinners for many of our neighbors at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we’ve started a fund for helping our neighbors in financial distress.

God is on mission, and He has invited us to join Him. This we have come to believe. This is our greatest joy.

But it all started with a question: What do we really believe about God?

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