Across the country, churches are closing their doors on Sunday mornings to serve their communities through the new four-week churchwide campaign called Faith in Action. Will you join them?
By Heather Johnson
Curtis Lake thought the flood of 1996—when eight inches of water filled his suburban home—was disastrous. But what the first week of November 2006 brought him and the other residents of Sumner, Wash., turned out to be much worse. Nearly 10 inches of rain fell on the town of 10,000 just south of Seattle. Seven rivers flooded. Streets filled with mud and silt. And this time, Lake’s belongings sat under 18 inches of water. Also destroyed were 33 of the 41 mobile homes of River Park Estates, the senior living park he manages.
“We lost everything,” Lake says. “And most of the residents just left.”
But, to his surprise and relief, help arrived. Nearby Calvary Community Church (cccsumner.org) had cancelled that weekend’s services to head out and serve the community as part of a new four-week churchwide campaign called Faith in Action. Little did the congregation know their service weekend would be so well-timed; Sumner had never needed so much help.
Early on that Saturday morning, a forlorn Lake stood surveying the damage at the River Park Estates’ front gate, when more than 250 volunteers “just started showing up,” he recalls. Volunteers set out to save salvageable items by removing mud and sifting through personal belongings. Clean-up crews from the church eventually emptied 49 trash dumpsters of debris collected at the mobile home park.
“You know, Calvary was just an absolute God-send,” says Lake, who now chats with the church’s associate pastor on a regular basis. “I saw those people there to help, and it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Demonstrating Christian service is the heart of the Faith in Action campaign created by leading Christian publisher Zondervan (zondervan.com), Christian relief organization World Vision (worldvision.org) and church communications firm Outreach Inc. (outreach.com) [parent company of Outreach magazine]. The three organizations have put together a name and program to a movement that has been gaining momentum for more than a decade, starting with pioneers like Vineyard Cincinnati founder Steve Sjogren’s servant evangelism ministry (servantevangelism.com) and Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark. (fbclr.org), with Pastor Robert Lewis. Eighteen years ago, Lewis led a focused, churchwide reorganization to make serving the community a core value of the church.
Faith in Action focuses a congregation’s attention on local, national and global needs, as well as God’s heart for service. For a full month, sermons and worship services, small group discussions and daily devotional readings, all lay the foundation for the campaign’s culminating event—“Faith in Action Sunday” community service project(s) and the corresponding cancellation of regular worship services. Moreover, the campaign also has an intentional outreach focus, where unchurched friends and community members are invited to join in the volunteer efforts, serving alongside church members.
It has been said that the unchurched don’t care about what Christians know until they know that Christians care. And to that, Calvary Community and many other U.S. churches are saying OK, we’ll show you by putting our faith into action.
Following the leader
“I asked why in the world we’d want to go through the trouble of putting our faith into action when it involved risk, reaching out, and rearranging schedules and resources,” says Jeffrey Olsen of Grace Community Church in Wesley Chapel, Fla. (exploregrace.com). “And of course, the answer is in the person of Jesus,” he told his church of 75 on the first Sunday of its Faith in Action campaign. The first week’s message, titled “Detour,” kicked off with a sermon warning people that their regular schedules would be interrupted if they choose to commit to serving.
“Two thousand years ago when Jesus came to earth, He was the only person who was able to both fully love God with His whole heart and also to fully love His neighbor as Himself,” says Olsen. “And although He was the Son of God, He made himself vulnerable and entered a world of risk, pain and hurt.”
A congregation will only take serving their community as seriously as their leader takes it, says World Vision Vice President Steve Haas. This is why the Faith in Action campaign begins from the pulpit.
“As is true in most community endeavors that have any sustaining value, it is the leader’s exhortation and example that moves people to obedience. Jesus’ rabbinical methodology was ‘Let me teach you ... let me show you ... let me watch you do it yourself,’ ” explains Haas. “The pulpit message and affirmation from the leader of the church’s spiritual life are critical ingredients in moving a congregation to biblical faithfulness.”
It made Olsen’s congregation move. On Sunday, Feb. 4, 15 Grace Community groups—nearly 90% of the church’s average attendance—built picnic tables for a foster home, cooked and served meals to young mothers at a crisis pregnancy center and landscaped a local school, among other acts of service in their neighborhood.
However, while some pastors may advocate cancelling Sunday or weekend church services to “be the Church” in their community, many leaders have encountered some internal opposition to the unconventional concept.
“We didn’t have any pushback from church leaders, but we did from some members who had a hard time understanding that we were worshipping through our actions,” explains Stacy Armstrong, community development director at Calvary Community. “Cancelling church is a huge deal. Senior pastors have to be behind it. They have to be the driving force.”
Other churches have chosen not to cancel services, but rather dedicate Saturday and Sunday—after church—to serving. And 50-member Faith Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, Kan., took a different route, offering a special worship service during its normal Sunday school hour before heading out to serve. The church discovered that Sunday morning is actually the most opportune time to serve at the local laundromat; that’s when the most people are there. Participants helped moms fold clothes and entertain children.
Allowing personal transformation
Throughout the four-week campaign, participants complete daily devotions to challenge their current perceptions of the needy and vulnerable, and encourage actions that live out Jesus’ words.
The second week of the devotional, titled “Lens,” asks participants if their view of the world is like Christ’s. Heidi McAdams, a member of Calvary Community, knew her answer immediately after reading Luke 6:30: “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”
McAdams had always avoided eye contact with the homeless man standing on the corner she passed every day on her way to work. “I would think, Oh, he only wants money for cigarettes, or alcohol, or even worse, drugs,” she says. “I’d slide my hand over and make sure all the car doors were locked, then breathe a sigh of relief when the light turned green and I could go.”
After working through the judgments, fears and challenges of servanthood, both individually and with her small group, McAdams couldn’t help but change her perception. “I realized I had been very narrow-minded about the homeless people who stand on the corner. God wanted to open my eyes and heart,” she says.
And He succeeded. For her service project ironically, McAdams was assigned to a local ministry to homeless people called the Dream Center. There she prepared food, and even ate and fellowshipped with them.
“After that, I knew I would never look at the man on the corner the same way. Next time, I can share a blanket or food,” says McAdams. “Now I ask, ‘God, help me to see what you see.’ ”
This kind of transformation is exactly what Calvary Community’s Armstrong hoped for. “Through the curriculum, light bulbs are coming on,” she says. “People are realizing that we have to ask for forgiveness first, and then if we love God, we have to serve others.”
Strengthening servanthood through groups
Once a week, Faith in Action small groups meet in homes to discuss what they heard on Sunday morning, as well as what they’re learning during their personal devotions. They also work through the week’s DVD-based curriculum and discussion questions in the Faith in Action workbook and engage in corresponding activities that help define local and global needs.
For example, during the second week, groups learn that 29 million children in the United States are growing up in low-income families. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, a family of four must earn an annual income of $40,000—twice the federal poverty level—just to provide their children with the essentials of food, housing and health care. And more than 880,000 people over the age of 25 earned at or below the minimum wage in 2005. So, Faith in Action small groups break up into pairs, which then pretend to be parents of two children: Sarah, 8 and Brett, 6. Both parents work full time, but their combined annual income is only $23,000—not enough to pay for rent, utilities, car insurance, gas, childcare, allergy medicine, etc. The question for Faith in Action participants becomes: How does this exercise challenge my assumptions about people in need?
In addition to completing activities like this one, the small group setting gives church members the opportunity to invite their unchurched friends into a neutral environment to talk about helping others—a topic of universal appeal—as well as share the motivation behind their community service.
Stefanie Alberts and her husband, Gary, group leaders for the Faith in Action campaign at Mission Hills Church in San Marcos, Calif. (missionhillschurch.org), experienced this firsthand.
The Albertses invited two couples they work with at their chiropractic practice to join their group—one couple, the Theismans, were unchurched, yet they agreed to come. Then the Albertses asked a neighbor couple, who, although members of Mission Hills, were not active in the church. Not only did the four couples become fast friends, they also energized each other to serve by sharing their fears and hesitations about serving, as well as their successes.
“I’ve always been the guy in back, not liking much attention,” says Doug Reich, one of the group members who works with the Albertses. “But I’ve learned that you don’t have to be a Billy Graham, a movie star or a model in order to change someone’s life. I love the Gospel because of that.”
To make a difference, you can take a widow out to lunch, like Stefanie and Dee Theisman did. Or you can stay later at work—without pay—and help a boss in a wheelchair, like Pam, another group member, did. Sharing stories like these became part of the group’s regular meetings.
“Through our actions, we’re throwing pebbles in the water, and God will help make the ripples,” says Stefanie.
The solidarity built within the Albertses group will also make lasting ripples in the members’ daily lives.
“My Faith in Action group has really allowed me to open up. When we started meeting, I was struggling with clinical depression. But these friendships have helped me face some things I would never have had the courage to face,” says Richard Theisman. “I think now my charter is to reach out and help others who are suffering from depression.”
In addition to that, he and Dee went to church at Mission Hills on Easter Sunday.
Doing what we’re told
On March 25, San Marcos Elementary School in San Marcos, Calif., swarmed with volunteers young and old, painting, weeding, landscaping, cleaning playground equipment, sanitizing the cafeteria, and much more.
“It was just so great!” says the school’s assistant principal, Stephanie Wallace. “To see the community involved in our school is so exciting.”
The project initially began nearly three months ago when Mission Hills’ Pastor of Ministries Carlos Sales stopped by the school in the early days of planning the new church plant’s Faith in Action campaign. He asked Wallace what his congregation could do for the school. The list was endless—or so she thought. But on their service day, some 200 Mission Hills Faith in Action volunteers completed the planned projects within two hours and began doing more than what Wallace had asked.
While Mission Hills volunteers transformed the rundown school, many of the students looked on from the nearby soccer field where their fathers were playing in a community soccer league game. “The kids were wondering what was happening at their school,” explains Wallace. “When they came back on Monday, we got to tell them that all these people pulled together to help make the school better.”
As Mission Hills transitioned from its mother church campus to its first building, the service day fueled more momentum for the new church, which had already grown to 900 adults. “We didn’t want to move into this community and say, ‘Hey, come to us.’ I wanted to enter the community with the DNA of service, saying, ‘We’re here to be part of the community and serve,’ ” says Sales.
But an integral part of Faith in Action’s serving is also mobilizing those outside of the church. Grace Community in Wesley Chapel, Fla., found that its service day impacted many more than just volunteers and those they served.
Wanting to include the community, the church intentionally partnered with area schools in advance. An entire school PTA helped the church collect donations of food for the hungry—500 pounds of non-perishables. And several classes at another school collected donations for Grace Community to assemble AIDS Caregiver Kits on service Sunday.
“Even though we’re a smaller church and didn’t have a lot of people on our big service day, there were a lot more people in the community who felt like they were part of what we were doing,” explains Grace Community’s Olsen.
Across the country, churches’ campaigns are ending with action, as volunteers actually do what God commands. “The success of a church’s spiritual enterprise is never that sanctuary seats are filled, services are orderly or that the sermon packs power,” explains World Vision’s Haas. “God measures impact based on faithfulness to His directives, obedience to His promptings, sensitivity to His Spirit. A church must ‘not merely listen to the Word,’ but instead ‘do what it says.’ ”
Making service a lifestyle
“We surveyed our participants, and 100% said they would do Faith in Action again,” says Armstrong of Calvary Community. “We have to do this again. We have to make service a lifestyle.”
To that end, the church not only plans to organize more campaigns, it will also require all of its leaders and participants to sign a form committing to following up with those they serve.
Curtis Lake and his wife are still recovering from the November flood that hit Sumner, Wash. They moved into one of the remaining mobile homes, but Lake says they won’t soon forget what Calvary Community did for them. In fact, a couple of women who had helped him in November stopped by a few days before Christmas to drop off gift certificates.
And, hopefully, all those who have served nationwide will also not quickly forget the campaign’s power. “I think this experience definitely gave me a glimpse of God’s grace—the grace He has extended to me, and the grace I need to extend to people,” McAdams says. She and her family now regularly head to downtown Seattle to serve food to the homeless. “I want my more positive perspective to be ‘caught’ by my kids,” she says.
Ultimately, Faith in Action is not just a four-week campaign, but a way of living each day. “The church service day was great, but it was pretty easy and not really that intimidating. We could sign up for an hour or two and work with a lot of people we knew,” explains Stefanie Alberts. “The situations that aren’t planned though ... going up to someone and filling their need instantly—whether that be giving a water bottle to a homeless person or even talking to the person you don’t want to talk to—is a bigger challenge and is really what Faith in Action has equipped us to do.”
Heather Johnson is managing editor for Outreach magazine.
The churches interviewed for this piece participated in the Faith in Action pilot program in late 2006 and early 2007. The official campaign material for Faith in Action will be available mid-May 2007.
The Faith in Action churchwide campaign is available to churches at any time, but many are planning to participate on what is being called National Faith in Action Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007. Here’s how to get started:
1. Request a free information kit at putyourfaithinaction.org.
2. If this campaign is right for your church, purchase a Faith in Action Campaign Kit for $49.95.
3. Allow four to 12 weeks for the planning and preparation of your Faith in Action campaign, services and projects. The larger the scope of your campaign, the more time you will need.
4. Using the campaign’s instructive manual, plan and prepare. The campaign planning kit includes sermons, sermon video clips, service project planning guide, promotion suggestions and other resources, as well as samples of all the small group and leader materials.
5. Have sign ups. Based on the number of participants, recruit the necessary number of small group leaders.
6. Order the appropriate amount of small group participant and leader materials.
7. Gather information about potential service projects, and select those that will meet the biggest need, but are also feasible for your church’s size.
8. Share your Faith in Action learnings and ideas with other churches at putyourfaithinaction.org.
-EXCERPTED from Outreach magazine, "Features," May/June 2007