By Jim Wehner
I spent nine years prior to coming to FCS as a pastor with the Evangelical Free Church of America. We had four core values at the church, the first of which was "mission is why the church exists." It was our reason to be.
"Mission" fed into our understanding of who God wanted us to be as a community of believers. This core value was built not solely from the Great Commission, but certainly this charge that Christ gave to his followers before his death had huge implications to the church and to me personally as a pastor.
I had dedicated my life to it and saw my calling through the lens of those words, "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" (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV). ”
I sincerely attempted to shape everything that we did as a church around this idea of mission. It is, after all, why the church exists. "Mission" was illustrated by many practices for the church: outreaches, overseas service trips, small groups, etc. Anyone having even a minor understanding of what activities churches do would recognize these practices.
When I came to work at Focused Community Strategies (FCS) as the director of housing in 2008, I met Richy (named changed). Richy was in his 30’s and was a kind, gentle man. He was overweight and had congestive heart failure so he went everywhere on a motorized scooter. I really mean everywhere. I would see him miles away from home.
His 20 year old nephew lived with him. He had dropped out of college to help Richy take care of two sons and to get around. Time after time I would see his nephew pushing Richy and his scooter down the street because it had run out of juice on the way back from a trip to McDonalds or to the convenience store for some groceries.
You see my mission right? Richy (and his nephew) needed housing, but they really needed Jesus. Eternity hangs in the balance. And while I was at it, he could be making all sorts of better choices that would make for a more healthy life on this side of eternity.
Then there was the nephew. At 20 years old, he ought to be back in school. A college education will go a long way to breaking the pattern of generational poverty.
I appreciated that he was helping Richy, but it was seriously impacting his own future. Every time I saw his nephew pushing him home from McDonald's, I would think, “There is a devastating future cost to his nephew that no one is calculating."
I prayed faithfully for Richy and his family. I looked for opportunities to talk with him and when appropriate, to share with him the good news. This was the basics of mission that I had taught for so many years as a pastor. What good does it do to provide for material needs (housing, food, or clothing) without providing for their souls?
Then things began to get turned around. Richy's nephew was a believer. It took me a moment to catch on to this because he is a quiet young man and truth be told, I wasn’t really listening.
As I learned about this commitment and gained an understanding, I began to get a clearer view of mission. Ricky’s nephew knew something about incarnational mission that my church culture has forgotten. Or worse yet, has intentionally left out of its definition of mission because of its ramifications. Richy’s nephew sacrificed for three years in order to help Richy in a way that I saw as negative until I began to balance it in my Bible.
Through this experience (and many others) at FCS, I began to learn that it wasn’t that the poor needed my gospel. It is that I have forgotten key parts of the gospel message.
I cannot get to the great commission without going through the great commandment - Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself - Matthew 22:17-40.
I came to understand that If I boil down mission to a proclamational message that is void of incarnational love, then my mission is skewed. God came in the flesh. If God did not come in the flesh, I am sunk.
Richy passed away early this year. He had moved from our apartments and we had lost touch. I was saddened by the news. He was young. I never found out where his faith stood. That feels something like a failure to the pastor in me.
I can honestly say that we showed him a great amount of love by the way we served his family at FCS. That love included provision for material needs as well as a clear message of good news. It certainly wasn’t all a cakewalk.
Housing ministry is fraught with complications. But I learned a lot about my faith and my God through him and through his nephew who is now back in school.
My core values regarding the mission of the church have not changed. But how that mission is walked out is much more robust. I actually state it this way now: “Mission is why the church exists and the context of all mission is love."
Image credit: Mike Apsey