T HEY WERE faithful members of their church. Passionate about worship, and intentional in faith development, active in all areas of the church — committees, social events — generous in their financial support.
Maybe it was their faith development; maybe it was something said or sung in worship; maybe it was straight from God — but something pricked their consciences.
Were there homeless in their town? If so, where were they? They asked around.
Some said their town didn’t have any homeless people. Finally, they heard about a camp under the bridge along the Guadalupe River. They drove there to check it out. It was risky for them. A strange place, an unfamiliar people. They want to help but will they be accepted?
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THEY WALKED AROUND and only asked one question: “What do you need?” “Food, socks, underwear, batteries.”
The couple returned, but instead of just dropping off these items, they hung around and listened to stories, shared experiences. Sometimes it was awkward. That’s often part of a risk-taking mission and service.
Risk-taking mission includes the projects, the efforts, and work people do to make a positive difference in the lives of others for the purposes of Christ, whether they will ever be part of the community of faith.
There were also moments of laughter. The couple kept coming under the bridge. Relationships developed. Their mission and service were not a project from a church committee or pastor. God brought them here.
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HOW MIGHT THE CHURCH get connected where God is so powerfully working? The safe-taking mission strategy would be to simply collect money for socks, food, underwear, and batteries. Church folks would feel good that they had “helped” the least of these.
But this couple was all in. How could their faith community get involved in out of their comfort-zone ways? They could bring these homeless friends to their suburban church. But how would they do that? Why should they do that? Why not do something even more risk-taking — bring “church” under the bridge along the Guadalupe River?
They asked their pastor to join them. (I love how this worked.) She agreed. The three went to the bridge where they worshiped, prayed, and celebrated communion with the people who called the bridge home.
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EVENTUALLY, THIS BECAME monthly worship. At 8:45 a.m. on Saturdays, a small team gathered at the church, loaded tables, chairs, a generator, music equipment, breakfast and coffee, along with boxes of clothing and bags of food, and drove to the bridge. Folks from the congregation led worship. They all worshiped together.
Next month, more people showed up. Eventually, the bridge people started taking ownership. They cleared the area of debris in preparation for worship, they passed out song sheets, served as greeters, and welcomed outsiders to their “church.” Lives were changed.
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■ Relationships are key. Effective mission and service can no longer be doing for someone but with someone. Relationships are essential.
■ The most successful risk-taking mission and service bubbles up from people in the pew rather than dictated from the pastor, session, or committee.
■ Related to that risk-taking mission and service requires strong commitment from church people. If it’s dependent on the pastors to plan, organize, execute, then it will fail.
■ Effective mission and service is done away from church property. Under the bridge, by the river, in the trailer park, at the school, assisted living, wherever people in need are.
Some of my thoughts/questions, to spur your creativity — to open your heart to God’s pointing. I think the best ministries of this church are Elberta Elementary School and our food pantry.
►Elberta Elementary School
Currently we provide recess snacks. Occasionally clothing. Can we learn from under-the-bridge opportunities regarding food for the school? Look beyond food. Ask what they need? Respond in relational ways helping them be the best school for staff and students.
►We are a food church.
I’m not talking about potluck dinners. We have the food pantry. I recently placed some food pantry goods in some food blessing boxes around town. We provide snacks to the Elberta school, as I mentioned. We just distributed baskets of supportive food snacks to the hospital, fire departments, ambulance service, Gulf Shores emergency room, funeral homes, and police department.
Can we learn from under-the-bridge opportunities regarding food for the hungry?
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WHEN I WAS A KID and spent days at a time with my grandparents, one of the highlights was when the peddler stopped at their house. In those days, there weren’t Dollar Generals on every corner. No Internet to order pickup. No Instacart to deliver groceries. Families had one car. Women were not able to hop in the car, run to the store, and pick up a few needed items. You couldn’t text a spouse to stop and pick up a can of soup on the way home from work.
That’s where the peddler came in. On a designated day, an old man — I have no idea the guy’s name or where he came from, or really how old he was — anyway, a man driving an old school bus made rounds in rural Coosa County.
He sold “essentials” from his bus. Flour, sugar, some canned goods, maybe needle and thread. I remember he carried an assortment of penny candy. Grandmother picked out what we needed, paid the peddler, and we all went about our day.
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IMAGINE SWIFT CHURCH doing something like that! Fill bags of food, load them in a pickup, drive to pockets of hunger, and give away the food. Maybe ask “what do you need?” and order cultural/ethnic foods from the food bank for the next trip.
Even more crazy, suppose we buy an old school bus — call it the blessing bus — install shelves, pack it full of food (maybe even socks and underwear), and become modern-day peddlers. We drive to locations convenient for our “customers” and allow them to “shop” freely for what they need/want.
How might these, or something that pricks your conscience, be more effective?
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I’VE SAID NOTHING about our preschool, which is a mission and service opportunity on our property. Or building on our relationship with the Alabama Sheriffs’ Boys Ranch in Summerdale — which you will hear more about in a few minutes.
Then there are all the things with which you are already passionately involved. Opportunities God has already laid on your heart where God is already working.
Jesus consistently points to God’s love for the poor, the sick, the outcast, and most vulnerable. Jesus also tells us that in every act of compassion, we touch Christ.