Do you ever lose hope, perhaps just for a moment?
There are plenty of things we may feel hopeless about – ourselves or our circumstances, the world, politics. One of the things I often lose hope about is the church – it just seems to be drifting, a long way from the teachings of Jesus, yet also a long way from connecting with the people around us. Keith Green once called it “asleep in the light”.
Yet there are many signs of hope. People caring for their fellow human beings and thus showing in practical ways the love God puts in our hearts, and calling those outside the kingdom to receive God’s grace and forgiveness and join us in making the world a better place.
Here are seven brief glimpses of hope.
The Simple Way,
The Simple Way is an inner city Philadelphia faith-based christian community started by author and activist Shane Claiborne. It aims to have a holistic impact on a depressed inner-city precinct via activities which include two public parks, a community garden, an after-school tutoring programs, a gardening project, a food bank and an affordable housing project that renovates abandoned properties to provide affordable housing, plus daily morning prayers, weekly evening prayer, and a weekly community Bible study.
The Simple Way seems to balance the spiritual and the practical well, seeking both spiritual and physical renewal for their neighbours and their neighbourhood. Shane believes christians should go first to the poor, as Jesus seemed to do.
Stockbridge Boiler Room
A couple prays, and God leads them to leave their comfortable rural home and move into a city neighbourhood “scarred with drugs and poverty and depression”. A group of like-minded visionaries join them on their porch each night “dreaming up crazy ways to love and serve their neighbors”.
Slowly a ministry develops. They commit to constant prayer. They start activities such as a weekly love feast; a bike shop where kids in the community can learn skills, repair bikes for sale and earn money for themselves; a dedicated prayer room (including gathering prayer requests from neighbours); and neighbourhood hospitality events. Missional communities begin in different areas, and interns arrive to participate in on-the-job learning.
People’s lives are changed as they experience the love of Jesus expressed through this community, and many baptisms mark these wonderful changes in people’s lives.
This is Stockbridge Boiler Room in Grand Rapids, a missional church community devoted to neighbourhood transformation. Read their story here, you won’t regret it.
Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH)
UNOH began in Melbourne, Australia, when Ash & Anji Barker began to do urban mission with a commitment to live in the same way as the communities they were ministering to. Teams began to work in several cities in Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.
Their approach is simple yet challenging. “We immerse ourselves in the life of neighbourhoods facing urban poverty, joining the risen Jesus to seek transformation from the bottom up. We live and serve as small, responsive neighbourhood-based teams”
Ash and Anji lived for more than a decade in a slum in Bangkok, building community through helping people find meaningful work, proving recreational opportunities, education, sharing life, making disciples and starting small churches. Ash points to cities, and slums, growing to include a larger and larger percentage of the world’s population, while nearby can be great wealth, and sees christians as the ones who should be making a difference. This short video is worth watching.
Jon and Lisa Owen live in the poor and socially disadvantaged suburb of Bidwill in Sydney, Australia. They too focus on community development and hope for people burnt by life, offering hospitality and accommodation when needed, helping out when people struggle with drugs, alcohol, violence or unemployment, visit gaols and offer hope.
These four visionaries all have university degrees, two of them PhDs, but have chosen to turn their backs on the success and income that education could provide to be urban missionaries.
Everyone knows that the church is slowly dying in much of western Europe. The Church of England is no exception, with attendances halving in the last half century, to less than 2% of the population. Yet one part of the CofE is growing at a great pace.
Fresh Expressions is a movement within the CofE and other UK churches which “seeks to transform communities and individuals through championing, resourcing and multiplying new ways of being church.”
These new ways of being church can take many, many different forms – support for adults with learning difficulties, a cafe church and charity shop in London, a church, café and soft play centre which involves children and adults as equals, a church at a farmers’ market stall, and more than 3,000 other approaches.
The thing they all have in common is that they seek to be part of the local community and provide a particular need that is appreciated – and that they are growing fast, with only a quarter of the attendees being previous churchgoers.
Marty Troyer is pastor of the Mennonite Church in Houston, Texas and a columnist with the Houston Chronicle as The Peace Pastor. As a Mennonite, Marty has a big emphasis on peace and on community development.
His first book, The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are, will be released shortly. It develops the idea that God is already at work where we live, work, and play, and contains stories and “practical ideas for healing brokenness and imagining new life”.
Lalor Park is a fairly ordinary lower income suburb in Sydney. Some years ago, a Church of Christ pastor heard God’s call: “You need to be here.” Then walking the streets, discouraged, one rainy night, he heard the same call again, this time accompanied by a picture of what was possible in this community – kids playing and adults working.
Committed to working for the peace and prosperity of that community, he looked for the centre of community life (“Go where the ants are to find the anthill”) – and found none, so he started a cafe and Op Shop as a place to meet. So the team tries to build relationships, prays for the people they live amongst and invite them into relationship with Jesus.
They work in cooperation with the local Anglican Church, which while a little more conventional, also offers a meeting place, meals and a christian 12-step recovery group.
Not much more than a year ago, a US couple became convicted to do more for the poor and disadvantaged. So they formed a collective that now numbers more than a thousand, each of whom commits to giving regularly into a fund. A board administers the fund, with the aim of addressing three particular needs: Orphan prevention and economic empowerment; Sustainable housing and community for the homeless; and Child trafficking rescue and prevention.
“There is tragedy and heartache, and these are children who, just like us, need to know they are loved and to know that God, their Father, has a beautiful place prepared for them. Who also, just like us, need healthy food, clean water, a good job and a happy family some day. I know that beyond just talking about it and thinking about it, God expects us to DO SOMETHING about it.”
So far they have given half a million dollars, but they plan to be more than just a donor group. Future plans include local work days, overseas exposure trips, building a database of doers (e.g. filmmakers, architects, lawyers and business minds) and developing “influencers” who will be world changers.
The future for the church?
Years ago, a minister challenged us with this thought: if our church disappeared overnight, would the community around us notice we were gone?
Many churches would not be noticed, or missed, and sadly many will go. But christian groups like these ones would be sorely missed. We are called to be the kingdom of God on earth, making a difference and seeing lives and communities changed as we join with God’s Spirit in sharing good news.
I wouldn’t suggest that these communities are doing everything right. I think balancing care for people and evangelism is a tricky task. But I believe each is an expression of the kingdom of God.
And I don’t believe that kingdom is going away – ever.