Vital Congregations Initiative: Focused on Community Needs
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 28th, 2022
Focusing on the needs of the community includes physical, mental, social/emotional and spiritual needs. An outward focus for the church will include those who are sleeping on the benches as well as those who are sleeping next door to our homes and across the street. Notice the needs of those around us, pay attention, and imagine how this community of faith might further meet the needs of those around us.
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Nath Briley is a dear soul. For those of you who do not know Nath, he served as an Associate Pastor here for 9 years and was an active in the life of the church for 15 years. Nath has a heart of gold; he worked for a number of years in ministries with the homeless at St Luke’s church downtown. He loves kids; he loves youth; he enjoys senior adults.
Nath has a heart for people of all ages. One Sunday evening, some years ago, I was standing with Nath and other parents in the Sycamore House parking lot. There were middle schoolers and high schoolers running around, playing games, laughing, having a good time. Across the street, Nath noticed that a few teenagers, not part of our youth group, were skateboarding on the front steps of the church.
We had had some issues with skateboarders damaging the property, so I was not surprised when I saw Nath take off across the street to go talk with the teenagers. When he returned a few minutes later, I thanked Nath for going over there to “save” the front steps. He nodded, then I asked: Oh, and what did they say when you invited them to youth group? What? Nath’s face flushed. He looked at me with that astounded look that only Nath Briley can have, then he said, I never even thought about doing that!
He turned right back around to go talk to the teenagers across the street, but they were already gone. Would they have come to youth group that night? Maybe, maybe not. But the invitation would have been there. And I am fairly certain that that invitation and Nath would have been remembered by those kids, even years later.
My friend, Robert Hay, was serving as Associate Pastor for Youth in my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Marietta. One of Robert’s practices was to send a 3×5 postcard every week to every youth on the church roll and to every youth who had ever participated in some way.
This is something most youth leaders seek to accomplish in one form or another. Now that snail mail is less common, texting is often the method of choice. One day Robert was sitting in his office and in wandered a young person that Robert didn’t recognize. Hey, come on in, Robert said. How can I help you? My name is “Dillon”, he said, and I don’t think we’ve ever met. I am a sophomore in college; I’m home on a break, and I’m really having a hard time. I could use someone to talk to. You got a few minutes? Sure, Robert said, as he set aside whatever plans he had for the next hour. Sit down. Let’s talk. But first, tell me how you happened to find your way to me? Dillon answered, my family is on the church roll. We never have been active in church, but you sent me a postcard every single week during junior high and high school.
I never once came to youth group, but you invited me just the same. Every week. I figured you might be someone I could talk to. Loneliness, fear, lack of purpose, ethical struggles, addictions, moral failures… we never know what someone may be dealing with.
Shame, powerlessness, financial troubles, how to nurture a good and healthy family… everyone is dealing with something. Grieving, physical suffering, the desire to help others but no power to do much on one’s own, frustration over evil in the world, conflict within one’s own family… chances are every person you meet has a need that just might be addressed in some way by the community of Decatur Presbyterian Church.A
Part of the work of the church is seeking to have the mind and eyes of Jesus Christ, to see people, all people, as fellow children of God and love them right where they are. At our Wednesday afternoon Faithful Living class, I asked the participants to share one community need that they had noticed. We had all sorts of responses, including: housing for the homeless, food for the poor, mental health support.
These are all community needs, and ministries that this church is somewhat involved in. But there were other needs mentioned as well. One person shared that there was a need to find ways for seniors to make friends, especially those who are new in the community.
Another, a younger person, mentioned the need for belonging and connectivity. He said that it is becoming uncommon, these days, to get to know your neighbors. Someone else reminded us that biblical knowledge and understanding seems to be a great need in the community.
A person brand new to Decatur said that there was a need for new people to have activities to help them feel like a part of the community. A young adult shared that there is a need for healthy activities for singles and couples. Another person said that biracial understanding was an important need.
Every day, this congregation is meeting a variety of community needs. People of all ages find a welcoming community for inspiring worship on Sunday mornings. Preschool children find a warm, welcoming, loving environment to learn and grow during the week.
Children and youth find an engaging community in which to connect and love and be nurtured. Senior adults find a sense of community and places to offer their gifts and talents. Parents find ways to support and encourage one another in the raising of their children. Refugee teenagers discover an amazing school that prepares them for life in their new nation. Poor and unhoused individuals and families find some temporary assistance, and sometimes they walk with us through long term transformations, through Threshold Ministries.
We are doing many things well, yet we are aware of countless other needs within our community. The needs will always be greater than the ability of any one congregation to meet them, which begs the question: Where does a congregation focus? To what do we give our best efforts?
The Vital Congregations Assessment which we have sent to you is a part of this effort. The session will evaluate the results of the assessment and discuss ways forward at our elder retreat in January. Following that retreat, we will involve the congregation in feedback sessions to discuss where we are and where God is leading us next.
The physical needs of the community may be more evident – like hunger and homelessness, but the spiritual and social/emotional needs are there as well, and are more widespread. Some Presbyterian churches, at least in recent decades, have perhaps focused so much on the physical needs of those who are dissimilar to them that we have forgotten to remember the spiritual needs of those who are perhaps more similar.
In some ways, it is easier to give a sandwich to a hungry person on the street than it is to talk with your neighbor about being lonely. In some ways, it is easier to collect canned goods and take them to DEAM than it is to invite the troubled teenager or young adult across the street to church. In some ways, it is easier to send a check to a far away ministry than it is to work with young families on building sustainable family budgets.
From its earliest days, the Church has sought to find a balance between an inward focus on its members with an outward focus on those who are not members. A church that focuses only inward, that circles the wagons, so to speak, and cares lovingly only for those on the inside, will eventually begin to decline.
A wonderful new church development started some years ago in a storefront outside of Greenville, SC. They were very enthusiastic and had 100 people in worship on the day the chartered the church. They loved each other and enjoyed each other, so much so that they forgot to keep inviting and welcoming. They turned inward over time and focused only on those who were already there, and five years later, the church was not sustainable. There must always be a balance between inward and outward focus.
A church that focuses primarily outward will ultimately lose its motivation and strength as it fails to nourish those who serve. Caring for one another within the congregation and nurturing the members in faith is critical for the enabling of outward ministries over time.
I am of the belief that if we are doing a good job of meeting the needs of our congregation, then we will also be meeting many of the needs of our community. Our congregation is part of the wider community, afterall, and we hold the same spiritual needs as our neighbors. And when we are nurturing our members spiritually, they all will feel called to reach out in concern for the community. If one among us has experienced the sustenance of spiritual food, then they will find a way to share some of the bread they have received.
If one among us has had their thirst quenched, then they will readily grab a pitcher of water and some cups to share. If someone has felt here the love and nurture of community, then they will welcome others to this place where they have been loved.
My point is that we are called to serve not just Threshold guests, but also the condominium residents who live around Sycamore House. We are called to serve not only those who need a sandwich to eat, but also those who need a friend. We called to serve not only those who have recently been in prison, but also those who could be headed that direction without some early intervention. We are called to serve not just the ones whose physical needs are obvious, but also the neighbors on your street and the less familiar names you find in our church directory, whose spiritual needs may be critical as well.
We have said before that everything is changing. The world is changing. The church is changing. Everyone and everything is in transition. And it can be difficult to discern next steps. It can be difficult for the church to discern what it most important. My response is that everything has changed before.
The world and the church have gone through major upheavals, significant transitions. What the Church has done through past major historical shifts is to continue to be the Church, to continue doing what the Church has always done in most every generation since the first century:
Gather for worship.
Study the Bible together.
Spend time together breaking bread in fellowship groups.
Serve the needs of one another within the bonds of the church community.
And serve the needs of the community as we are able.
One of the seven marks of a vital congregation is to be Focused on Community Needs. And doing so, as our Vital Congregations curriculum suggests, means that we daily take up our cross and follow Christ to the marginalized of society, to the poor among us, the suffering and sick, the stranger and enemy, the down-trodden and “the least of these.”
But being Focused on Community Needs also means that we daily take up our cross and follow Christ to our next door neighbors, to our coworkers and friends, to the people with whom we interact every day.
Our goal is to see all people as Jesus sees us, to see all people as children of God in need of God’s love and grace, in need of the benefits of a faith community. If our hearts change, then our mindset changes. If our mindset changes, then we begin to see in different ways. If we see in new ways, then we begin to act on what we see.
On Wednesday, I gave some homework to my Faithful Living class. I encouraged them to take notice this week of the many and varied needs of our community members. Who do you see in your everyday life? What needs do you notice or wonder about? Then, how might this community of faith begin to address those needs or perhaps expand the ways in which we currently serve these needs?
In Vernon Gramling’s blog this week, he wrote: “Christianity does not provide an escape from living. It draws us into the uncertainties and ambiguities of ordinary encounters. It is difficult and it is costly but we live in the faith that this is where we find God. Deep connections are the holiness of life. They are found in sharing joy and in sharing sorrow. If you’ve had such a connection—anywhere—you know they are transformative and healing.”
Transformative and healing – that sounds like the ministry of Jesus Christ, like the ministry of the church. Focusing outward on the needs of our community, ultimately, will be transformative and healing for those being served as well as those who serve.
To God be the glory as we seek to be Christ’s hands and feet, Christ’s heart, in our daily lives.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church