Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (New International Version)
We will do our ministry by going and jumping into the people’s lives who are in our neighborhood and community. To “go” doesn’t exclusively mean to travel to another place. It mostly involves the willingness to get up, go, and walk across the street, or even just across the room.
Tony Campolo is a Christian preacher, professor emeritus, and author. He tells of once being in a city doing some business and could not sleep. So, he found a greasy spoon diner that was open all night. He retells his experience this way:
“As I sat munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine boisterous prostitutes. It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman beside me say:
“Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.” Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party?”
“I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the large man behind the counter named Harry, and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.
“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night?”
Calling to his wife, who did the cooking in the back room, Harry shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her—right here—tomorrow night!”
His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody does anything nice and kind for her.”
“Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!”
“No way,” said Harry. “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”
At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. I had picked up some crepe-paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in the city was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes and me!
At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open, and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready, and when they came in, we all screamed, “Happy birthday!”
Her mouth fell open. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter, we all sang “Happy Birthday”‘ to her. As we came to the end of our singing with “happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you,” her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles!” Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I keep the cake a little while? I mean, is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”
Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s O.K. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”
“Can I?” she asked. Then, looking at me, she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!”
She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all just stood there motionless, she left.
When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”
I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered:
“I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Harry waited a moment and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!”
My friends, that’s the kind of church Jesus came to create! We may not know any prostitutes, but there are people around us who need basic human kindness expressed in basic caring actions, no matter who they are.
Many people want nothing to do with church or Christians because they believe they’ll be given judgment instead of justice.
Its important where we are located. God has sovereignly placed us there. So, we need to be attentive and listen to the people and the neighbors God put around us, no matter who they are. To ignore them is to treat the Great Commission of Jesus as if it were the Great Omission.
One of the best ways to be missionally rooted in the place we are planted is to walk the community, be in it, and hang out. Developing an understanding of what’s going on and being connected to the issues a neighborhood is facing, is key to building neighborhood credibility and demonstrating that we really do care about the people, whomever they are.
Discovering what people care about doesn’t necessarily mean we need to do something for them but with them. To go most often involves going where the people are – getting to know them and being a friend.
Whenever a pastor or parishioner becomes someone the community knows, neighborhood residents will share their hopes and concerns. The church can be the center of community life, going out and opening up to the neighborhood.
Often, we might focus on what’s lacking, what’s not there, the deficits within a person, family, or community – instead of looking for the assets, what is there already, and what is going right. It’s wise to begin with the good things already happening, the potential which already exists, and the dreams people have for the future of their place.
In focusing on what’s already there, here are some things we begin to see:
- Each person having a contribution to make, no matter who they are.
- Relationships building the community.
- People being active participants in developing what is good, right, and just, rather than passive recipients.
- Everyone can get involved because everyone has a meaningful place in the community.
- People caring and not apathetic about the neighborhood.
- Making decisions with everyone’s voice being valued.
- Asking for ideas is better than giving solutions.
- Folks doing the work are given authority and power.
- People mentoring others and building into their lives.
All of this requires getting to know local businesses, neighborhood associations, healthcare institutions, places of worship, schools, and cultural groups, as well as the individual talents of those within them.
We are to serve others, rather than imposing our own agendas on them. This is how we begin making disciples, that is, developing people who follow the words and ways of Jesus.
And it all begins with the command by our Lord to go….
Lord Jesus Christ, let your presence fill our hearts and overflow through our actions so that we may proclaim the good news of your Kingdom. Fill us with your compassion and insight to respond to human need with loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us so that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. Guide us to renew and sustain the life of your creation.
Almighty God, in our baptism you adopted us for your own. Renew us by your Spirit in body, soul, and mind so that we may worship you in sincerity and truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.