When I became a believer it dawned on me that the more I believe, the more I must also follow. As I read more about this Jesus guy, I became intrigued by the life that He led simply by going to people and loving them well and unconditionally. That was over 22 years ago. To this day, I find myself following this "Jesus guy" into the mission He has called me to in my community of Middletown, Ohio.
There's no wrong way to love your community right where they are. But there are some things that I have noticed that always work and have yet to fail me:
1. Be slow to speak and quick to listen.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19)
When I realized that I wanted to walk with Jesus every day, I knew that I needed to listen first. After all, He is the ultimate missionary. I let his Holy Spirit that lives in me lead. That means I need to be still enough to hear the direction He is sending me. Sure enough, the places He has sent me have been challenging.... But they also bring me peace each step. It's important that we listen and not claim that we are the expert.
Six years ago, as I was driving and praying, I found myself at a park in my city. I had never been there before and found on a swing at 8:30 at night a little boy. I wasn't familiar with the park, but I was familiar with the neighborhood and it wasn't exactly the safest area for him to be alone. I prayed that he got home safe.
The next morning when I got up, I felt God tugging at me and a sense of urgency to go back to that park. There he was swinging again. I started a conversation and found out that his mom was a single mom that worked 12-hour days just to make ends meet. It was in that moment I realized God was answering a prayer of mine. I had prayed, "Lord, what is my call and what is my purpose?" In that moment, I knew I was to be a resource to this family.
Six years later I have a much bigger presence at the park. Just last fall, we had our very first Fall Fest, a child-imagined outdoor festival, in the middle of a park that was otherwise forgotten. There had to be at least 600 to 700 people that showed up. We take field trips and we celebrate birthdays. We serve hundreds, if not thousands, of kids and we lead many into a relationship with Jesus.
It all started with being slow to speak and quick to listen. God wants to direct our steps. If we are so busy that we can't even hear him...we need to be slow down and intentionally listen for His leading.
2. Die to yourself daily.
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
The adventure of mission has nothing to do with ourselves and what outcomes we want. The adventure of mission has everything to do with where God is leading and us following in faith. This means that "doing Mission" cannot be a check off list item done every quarter. It is allowing God to run your day.
Six years ago, after walking through a difficult time in my life I heard God whisper, "Ladies need to understand that I love them deeply." From that whisper Ladies Night Out was born. What started out as twelve women and has grown to serve 220 women this past January.
Ladies Night Out is an evening where women can come together under one roof. They get an evening gown fitted to them, their hair and makeup done for free, and then they get to sit and have a three-course meal served by men in our community. We also share the gospel from stage with a different theme each year. This past year we talked about love, what it is and what it is not.
During the past two years we launched community groups. The community groups are small groups that meet on a regular basis and go deeper. These act as a conduit to launch those that otherwise wouldn't go to church to actually going to church. It's incredibly beautiful to watch.
This year our first men's small group has blossomed from Ladies Night Out. They meet twice a month, and are thinking about their involvement in our community and how to impact it as men. We had a seventeen year old get shot and killed in our community and this group of men not only went over and prayed in the neighborhood, they are now in conversations about how to bringing more of a positive male influence in that area of town.
The mission of Ladies Night Out came from following God’s call daily even through a personally difficult season.
3. Find where God is already at work and join him.
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)
I mean let's keep it real, God is a way better God then we will ever be. He is the author of it all. So often to bring souls to God, we forget that God is already living in them. They just don't know it yet. In The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay write that people need to feel like they belong before they believe. I believe this to be true.
Early on in my time in Middletown I would pass by a house with a huge grill. It intrigued me because the grill took up almost the entire porch. Every time I drove by I didn't see anybody. I told myself once I saw somebody there, I would stop and ask why they have such a big grill.
Finally, I had the opportunity when a man was standing out cleaning it and looked like he was preparing it to be used. I pulled into the driveway and asked him, "I've driven past your house multiple times and I chuckle every time I see that grill on your porch. Is your family really that big that you need that big of a grill? Do you have a business or something?" His response not only got me really excited but has inspired me. He began to tell me that once a week he grills for the entire neighborhood and they can bring side items if they wanted to share with their neighbors. It is very much a place where God is obvious. It is mission already happening.
I asked him what other things they could use to encourage the neighborhood to continue these weekly meals. He asked me why I would want to help with that and I said, "Because it's a beautiful thing to see community being community. Communities need to come alongside that and encourage it and resource it as much as possible." Long story short, I was able to use ministry connections I had to connect resources to this man and they have yet to go without meat for that grill.
4. Love BIG but have zero hidden agenda.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
This number is really that simple.
5. Find fertile ground.
“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:12)
60% of the population will never step foot inside a church or church ground. With the rising percentage of millennials leaving church, none of us should be surprised by the next tip. Having events in your church and inviting the community rarely works. You might get people there for an event, but getting them to come back on a regular Sunday rarely happens. Don't take it personal and reference back to number 2. Often. Don’t be afraid to go and break ground or build what was otherwise forgotten.
6. Go to where the people go.
That means parks, coffee shops, bars, and yes, even your front porch or yard. In Middletown, this means that we go to our parks.
In 2014, I got a wild hair and was inspired as I read about another community that did an outdoor movie night. It dawned on me that this would be a great way to engage the churches in the city and influence all who lived here with one weekly event. I also know the people that I do life with can't afford a whole lot, so it needed to be free. In order to have the resources to make it free, I needed to sell that concept to the church and the city. Not just one church, but all the churches.
After joining forces with a friend’s organization, we approached the city and they thought it was a great idea. This is our fourth year and we’re going strong. We have learned a lot in the last four years... and this past year has been our best year yet. We averaged 200 to 400 people, depending on the movie.
Movie Nights provide an environment for churches to come together and meet others on neutral ground with no hidden agendas. Local organizations, colleges, and churched are invited to provide games, activities and even free snacks. It's been beautiful to watch. We've been able to provide resources for families to get even more connected in our community. The local churches are meeting people where they already go.
7. Know God's order in life and ministry.
“If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5) and “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (1 Corinthians 14:40)
Jesus, marriage, family, then ministry and rest!!! Know how to keep a healthy balance. Bring friends around you that can keep you in check. Stay connected to a church family and body of believers that not only sees the need for mission in the community, but they see the call to join you there. For me, I focus on third spaces that are family friendly because my kids and family walk it out with me. We are a family on Mission.
Really these seven steps are all about the space. The space you join God in is the space right out in front of you... Waiting for you to join God in missional adventure. What space could you be inspired to join? Go and be missional in the space God leads you!
Jeri Lewis is a practitioner and identified as a street pastor by the locals in her community. Her goals are to go to God's people and the darkest areas and share the love of God. She is a firm believer of the belonging then believing approach. She is the Community Development, Missions and Discipleship Director at Kingswell Seminary in Middletown, Ohio.