I have witnessed something I will put in the category of phenomena. In April I attended 4 weeks of Sunday services at 2 mega-churches that captured the attention and the hearts of its people for serving needs around the world through a modern approach. For me, an updated missions conference was born.

Getting church people to become passionate about winning people to Christ outside our borders, the issues of poverty, and needs in the world is a tall order. We, North Americans often want to cloister in our safe places. We desire to only get as close to international issues as the evening news or maybe an extra few minutes of CNN coverage. But something happened in the month of April to help me learn that a church can shepherd its people to care about people around the globe and even the most pressing issues in the world.

Our youngest daughter’s church, Church of the City in Franklin, TN was the place I experienced watching a church decidedly choose to challenge and educate its 5000 members about Children at Risk. This is how they did it in 3 weeks. The first week (April 3) the pastor introduced the title of the emphasis, “What If?”, the concept of taking on a different subject every year and asking themselves, What if they could make a difference in a huge world issue in Jesus’ name. The pastor used Acts 1:8 to teach the concentric circles of outreach…local, regional, and international in direction and scope. We are familiar with this strategy that Jesus spoke of when it comes to missional outreach.

This year the congregation would learn about children at risk and how to help meet the needs of children orphaned by war, AIDS, poverty, and family crisis. The first week the church brought in two church partners from Malawi who operated a school and an orphanage. The congregation could be proud of what their church was doing there. After a great introduction by the senior pastor, they sat together on a couch and he interviewed this couple about the facts, complexities, and stories of the progress in caring for hundreds of kids. God was given the glory for the wonderful ministry that we heard about.

I asked myself, is this hour long experience enough to ignite the energy of 5000 suburbanites? The answer is, I’m not convinced in would be done in just one week alone. This is how it continued.

  • There would be 3 weeks to process this subject.
  • There were projects to do for young families. We picked up an inexpensive kit for kids to collect money for this three weeks and instructions for the parents of how to teach at home.
  • The church purchased a shipping container, that they would fill with care packages and school supplies for the 500 families of the school in Malawi.
  • Families could come in the evenings of the 3 weeks to paint murals on the container’s walls that would be shipped to the school, which the school would repurpose for use at the school in  Malawi (picture below).

What is also a key factor is giving the reports of how the project went a few weeks later. I copied this from the Facebook page the week after the container was launched.

Our shipping container is packed to the brim & headed to Malawi! We are so thankful for your generosity in giving to our friends in Adziwa. Nearly 500 families will receive care packages & educational supplies from this container, and then the container itself will be transformed into a science lab for Adziwa Christian School.13179424_681351798670380_1683207597664952017_n

I listened online to the next two weeks anxious to see how this would play out. The second week a couple from the area, who had moved to Haiti after the earthquake devastation were interviewed about their decision to adopt children orphaned by the earthquake. Their story was riveting. The followup mini-sermon by the pastor was full of teaching the scriptural mandates for taking care of orphans and widows.

The third week was where the rubber met the road. People were challenged to step up to apply what they had learned at home. Exploring local foster care, they heard a story about a church in Denver that had been challenged to take seriously this mandate to care for orphans. It seems that Denver churches have actually adopted all the adoptable children from their state’s foster care system. Could Franklin, TN be the next place to take on this challenge?  Because of this serious challenge, my daughter tells me that 300 couples came to an information meeting that next week about the numbers of children available for adoption in the state of Tennessee. In the next weeks, 72 families had pursued adopting children from the foster care system of TN.

My theory was validated that individuals in the evangelical church will step up to the challenge of scripture if they learn and understand how to do so. Without a vision, the church perishes. Certainly, without a vision, people sit idly by. Learning about a need and then being given ways to do something specific…is the key.

The next week I was helping with an exhibit for Kerus Global Education at the 3 week missions conference called Celebration of Hope (COH) at my former church, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL.   A few years ago I was surprised to learn that about 11 years ago Willow started the Celebration of Hope. It is a 3 week series to celebrate what Willow’s international partners are doing in the 12 countries in which Willow partners. (When I was on the global board of Willow Creek in the 1990’s, I must admit that I never thought this could happen. Back then Willow began its missions ventures with partnerships in 2 countries, and I wasn’t sure they would grow beyond that.)

For the 3 weeks of Celebration of Hope the gigantic atrium is full of exhibits show-casing the “technical partners” who empower and bring the expertise to the nationally lead projects and ministry in these countries. They also bring in many of the nationals who lead these efforts, (somewhat like the missionaries in more traditional missions-oriented churches do annually). To give an actual picture of the work going on, there is a weekly video of the partners on site talking and showing the work and also some live interviews with partners. The music and the backdrop set enhance the theme.

Besides the annual financial giving, Willow has found something everyone can do to contribute towards the needs of the world. During one of the weekends of Celebration of Hope, people sign up for a couple hours of packing seed packets that will go to African villagers to plant in their gardens. This year 20,000 people showed up to pack over a million seed packets that were shipped last week.

The church offers a 5K run where people find sponsors or pay to run or walk or stroll the 5k around the church neighborhood. This year that money raised went to their refugee ministry. The first week of the COH people are encouraged to collect what will be their financial gift to the COH at the end of the three weeks. I learned from some children brought to see our exhibit during their Sunday School hour that their families save up to give during the year. People can designate their gift to their interest area: Education, Health and Hunger, Leadership and Pastoral Development, Refugee and Peacemaking, or “Greatest Need”. People own this responsibility and explore the atrium for 3 weeks learning what is being done in each arena.

This year with the refugee crisis of Syria and the Congo, these two realities were emphasized. Ways to get involved with this crisis were spelled out. The pastor had recently visited Europe and reported on the Syrian refugee crisis with a personal word of challenge as to our position as believers in Christ. Connecting the dots from our biblical commitment to real situations in the world as well as the local area is the key to making this relevant to the average person.

My Opinion as a Former Missions Pastor

It is my observation that missions-minded evangelical churches around the country, find it hard to focus or showcase what their partners and missionaries are doing on the field. The tradition is often to bring in an outside speaker who is a missions enthusiast to cast the vision for serving overseas instead of hearing from those in whom the church invests.

I believe it is usually the aim of the more traditional church that this effort will challenge a couple young people or families to consider serving overseas. I think that the potential of these conferences is lost on 99% of the congregation who sit by and listen to or may even checkout emotionally while asking themselves ‘what does this have to do with me’.

There is often no challenge for actual involvement or even investment in what is happening for the average person. I think that most people from historically missions-oriented churches think that these issues are being  covered by their church’s budget or handled by the professional missions staff of the church. Having been in a leadership role for years, I have heard friends say that this special emphasis on global work is intimidating to the average person, as it is miles beyond their interests or realities. Why is that so?

I believe it does not have to be this way. I have just experienced 6 weeks of preaching and teaching and educational interviews and exhibits that have been revered as “the favorite weeks” in the church calendar in both churches I am referring to. The people from the two churches I have highlighted can proudly boast about:

  • what they see God doing overseas,
  • what they are investing in personally through their church,
  • what their churches are doing to combat the problems in the world,
  • what they personally learned about poverty or needs in the world
  • and how these ministries lead people to faith in Jesus Christ.

I have a renewed hope in the local church. I hope that leaders will take a fresh look at how to challenge and disciple their people. I have always believed that people rise to the level of the challenge they are given. Jesus never held back when he said,

JOHN 17:15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.