Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mindy Goes Shopping

This month we’ve been visiting churches which, even in their names, indicate that they’re serving their communities and neighborhoods. We thought it might be fun to look at another kind of outreach that might be overlooked -- shopping. To conclude Neighborhood/Community Church Month, here’s my list of six reasons churches sell used stuff, from least to most important.

6) To provide inexpensive goods: While we were living on the road in 2016, we went to a lot of thrift stores (and a couple church rummage sales, too). When we settled down again (having gotten after getting rid of most of our furniture), we knew where to find what we needed. And really, how much difference does it make if that coffee table was purchased new or used?

5) To provide employment or meaningful activity: “Active seniors” who have time and energy to volunteer are an invaluable resource in most churches. Thrift stores and rummage sales need a lot of workers. Thrift stores, which sometimes provide entry-level retail jobs and job training, often employ people who might otherwise have difficulty finding meaningful work.

4) To simplify people’s lives and better use limited resources: Do you have anything in your home that you wouldn’t miss if it were gone? Might it be more useful or more appreciated by somebody else? In addition, who knows what amazing thing you’ll find if you dig a little?

3) To raise money: Churches and other faith-based organizations generally rely on donations to do their work. Rummage sales might benefit youth activities, missions and missionaries, service projects within the community, and other special needs.  

2) To build community: Whether it’s among the people preparing for the sale or between the church and the people buying at the sale, community building is a natural result. Talking while sorting through stuff (“what IS this thing?”) or between customer and cashier (“I remember having something like this a long time ago, and I loved it.”) builds relationships, leading to opportunities for those who know and love Jesus to talk about Him.

1) To demonstrate God’s love and faithfulness to His glory: Just by opening the doors of a thrift store or rummage sale, a church welcomes the community. People who otherwise have no interest in a church will find their way inside. Conversations can lead to friendships. Needs can be met. People can meet Jesus when they expected to find old junk.

*I also visited Memorial Methodist’s thrift store in Clovis, which is open once a month, Japanese Community Church’s annual rummage sale, Neighborhood Thrift Store, and Fresno Rescue Mission’s thrift store and auction. There are several others in the area as well.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

We Go to a Community Church

NorthPointe Community Church,  Fresno, California
“We don’t believe it’s good to do life alone,” Ben Koole, one of the pastors at NorthPointe Community Church said as he was opening the service. Mindy and I don’t believe it either, which is why we’re doing Community and Neighborhood Month on the blog -- and that’s what brought us to NorthPointe Community Church. Ben noted five upcoming events to help people get involved in the church, but he said there wasn’t time to discuss the events. Instead, he encouraged people to look the events up on the website.

There was time to talk about another program, “Say Yes to the Next Generation,” the ongoing fundraising program for the children’s facilities. So far, they’re well on their way, having taken in $4.7 million of the $5.8 they need to raise in order to pay off the buildings on the property. To help the congregation go “All in” on the project, they’d produced and showed us all a video tour of the elaborate teaching areas. The first and second graders meet in Kingdom Kids, which has a medieval castle theme. The third and fourth grades meet in the Cinema. The Outlet, with a power plant theme, is dedicated to fifth and sixth graders (for all those future engineers). “I’m envious, I wish they’d had this stuff in church when I was kid,” Senior Pastor Steve Williams said after the video.

The congregation was urged to look toward the examples of willing giving found in the Old Testament when God’s people built the Tabernacle and the Temple. Williams noted the example of King David, who gave to the Temple as an example to others, and he told the congregation that while he’d always given his tithe (a tenth of his income) to the church, he’d given a second tithe for this building program. “Who will step up with me? People aren’t expected to give equal gifts, but there can be equal sacrifice. You need to get the pledge cards in by September 3rd. Nothing becomes dynamic until it gets specific.”

We enjoyed the music. People in the congregation seemed to be singing. A little thing I noticed in the song lyrics on the screen was that everything seemed to be lowercase except for any reference to God and Christ, including the pronouns. When the offering baskets were passed, Mindy put our “connection card,” though there weren’t any others in the basket that she noticed.

Pastor Williams’ sermon was a continuation of a series entitled, “Why God? Handling Disappointment with God.” We were attending that morning with someone who has been going through difficult times, so we hoped this sermon would be an encouragement to him.

Williams used Job 23: 3, 8-9 as his main text and the idea of God playing Hide and Seek as a central image. When Williams related a difficult time from his own life, though, his story was rather underwhelming. About a year after he became a Christian, while he was still in high school, he began to have questions about his faith. He wondered about the problem of evil. So he got in his parents’ car and yelled at God, asking for an answer. But God was silent.

People in any congregation are dealing with big issues. Odds say that with five hundred people or so in the congregation, a large percentage are dealing with problems like divorce, mental illness, addiction, bankruptcy, the death of a child… Williams has been a pastor of this church for over thirty years, so I’m sure he’s counseled with people dealing with major issues. So wrestling with doubt as a teen in what sounds like an otherwise healthy life didn’t really have much of an impact.  

Along with the book of Job, Williams referred repeatedly to C. S. Lewis’ books that deal with the issue of God and suffering, The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. The person we were with has read and thought a lot about these two works, along with the Book of Job.  He felt that Williams gave a very superficial view of the arguments of these works, offering simplistic answers (and quotes used out of context at best), while Lewis' books present mystery.

At the conclusion of the service, baskets were passed again and people were encouraged to put in their connection cards at this time. We’d, of course, already taken care of that.

NorthPointe Community Church has beautiful facilities. Mindy and I both thought it was a little like a small-scale Saddleback Church in Southern California. It’s still pretty large compared to most other churches. NorthPointe has four Sunday services and averages over 2000 people in attendance each week. It is good to know that these people aren’t having to do the Christian life alone.

Service Length: 1 hour 17 minutes
Sermon Length: 41 minutes
Visitor Treatment:Visitors were welcomed from the front during the worship service and directed to the Connection Center in the lobby. There were also several welcome areas with material for visitors throughout the campus.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 475
Probable Ushers’ Count: 500
Snacks: ice water, coffee, decaf
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Vocals (2 women, 1 man)
Acoustic guitar (man)
Electric guitar (2 men)
Electric bass (man)
Drums (man)
Songs: “Your Love Awakens me”
“Light of the World”
“Faithful to the End”
Distance to Church: 10 miles
Open WiFi: yes, if you set up an account
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:
NorthPoint Community Church, Fresno, California

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We go to Community Family Night

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the traditional congregation decided to provide bingo in the Family Center -- with one of the most appealing attractions in Fresno this time of year: air conditioning. A number of families were already in the room when the games started up, and many little kids had bingo cards.

Bingo was just one of the activities available at Community Family Night at Butler Church. The four congregations of Butler came together it put on the event for the neighborhood with free bounce rooms for children, along with face painting, free snow cones, and a free bike repair clinic. Mindy and I were quite pleased with the $1.00 tacos. (A server told us, “I haven’t tried them yet but they look and smell good.” No worries, they tasted as good as they smelled.)

As I mentioned, Butler, which belongs to the Mennonite Brethren conference of churches, has four congregations. While Mindy played a game of bingo, I talked with Pastor Jim Holm. He’s pastor Faith Community, an English language congregation that gathers for a traditional worship service. He told me about the three other congregations: the other English language congregation, Common Ground, that celebrates with a contemporary worship service (both of the English language congregations meet at the earlier service time, 9:30 am); Amor y Fe, the Spanish language congregation; and Asian Grace, the Laotian congregation (the Spanish language and Laotian worship services meet at 11:15 am). All four congregations came together to put on this community event.

Each congregation has their own pastor, with one pastor, Scott Holman, as lead (or administrative) pastor for all four congregations. Each congregation supports their own pastor, but a “common pot” from each congregation supports the facilities, office staff, and other shared needs.

Seven times a year (including Christmas Eve), the four congregations meet together. The morning after the Community Family Night was going to be one of those times, with the new president of Fresno Pacific University as the speaker. The church and the university are in the same’s right across the street.

This month we’re focusing on community churches, and since 1957, this church has been committed to Southeast Fresno. The church has a monthly community meal for the neighborhood and a food distribution program for the poor. During the Family Night there was bicycle repair available for those who needed it. The church’s website says, “We cooperate with local organizations to help make Fresno a better place to live, and will continue to work against social injustices.”

I spoke with Calvin, who’d introduced himself to Mindy and who’s been a part of the church since 1980. He had work to do and really didn’t want to take time for an interview, but he did say it’s important that the church “makes people in the neighborhood know that God loves them as God loves us”.

Fresno is a multi language, multi racial, and multi ethnic city. I’m glad that there’s a multi language, multi racial, and multi ethnic church working to show that unity is possible and it is what God desires.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

We Go to Church in a New Neighborhood

Here's where you'll find Neighborhood Church in Fresno: at Jackson Elementary
Neighborhood Church, Fresno, California
Is “neighboring” a verb? I know the term is usually an adjective for “adjacent” or “very near,” but I think the people at the Neighborhood Church in Fresno are intent on making it a verb as well, beginning with the way they use their name. They’re putting being a neighbor front and center in their title, and they’re in Jackson Neighborhood, the area that surrounds the school where they meet, Jackson Elementary School.

Last year, when we were visiting a church and bar in every state, people often told us they wanted a sense of community from a church, so we’ve decided to take this month to go to churches that make community a priority -- at least enough of a priority to put something like “Community” or “Neighborhood” in their name.

We were frankly a little puzzled when we arrived at Jackson Elementary on Sunday morning. We saw sound equipment and chairs set in rows in a space by the playground. The thing that really confused us was the signs on the fences around the school. They advertised Neighborhood Church Services at 4:00 pm. Mindy had seen the 9:00 am time on the website, but the website also had pictures of the group meeting inside. As we drove by, we could see that all the gates were chained and locked. Eventually, we noticed the (really obvious) open door into the school auditorium, and all was explained when we walked out the doors on the other side of the room.

Heidi, who’s married to Joe, the church’s lead pastor, greeted us as we approached the chairs. She told us that for most of the year, the church does gather at 4:00 on Sunday afternoons, but the school doesn’t have air conditioning, only swamp coolers. It can get pretty hot inside, so for nine weeks during the summer (“9 at 9”) they meet in the cooler hours of the morning. On this particular morning, someone had forgotten to turn on the swamp coolers in the building, so the leaders decided everyone would be more comfortable meeting outside.

Heidi was surrounded by a number of small children, some of her own and others that weren’t. Some of the kids were taking advantage of the watermelon available on the community table to advertise Ooooby (“Out of Our Own BackYard”), an organization that sells the produce of local farmers to local consumers; restaurants, markets, and families can order a weekly customizable box.

I wondered about why Ooooby was there, but during the service announcement time, it was presented as something that fit nicely with the church vision. We learned that three things form the chief priorities of Neighborhood Church: 1) Jesus, 2) People, 3) Place.  The first two things are pretty common in church vision statements, but the third is less so. Neighborhood Church believes in the importance of getting “entangled” in their neighborhood, their community. Buying from local farmers is a way to be engaged in the community.

We learned that Pastor Joe wasn’t there that week because he’s been working on a book about the importance of neighborhood in ministry, and he was taking a little time for concentrated effort on that work. At the church website Joe has written, “We are a Neighborhood Church that is deeply invested in our Jackson Neighborhood. If the church vanished from the neighborhood overnight, we would want people to say, ‘We miss them. They were a part of us’.”

The service started about nine after nine (which seemed appropriate for a “9 at 9” service). The congregational singing was complicated a bit by being outside, because the monitors that normally display the lyrics, weren’t available. Fortunately, we knew the songs well enough to sing along, and there was the occasional lyric line spoken in advance, but it would have been tough for some guests to sing along.

During greeting time, we were encouraged to ask those around us about the highlight of their summer so far. I met Rosie, who said she was happy that this summer her kids have been able to experience summer camp for the first time, and they got to go to a local water park, too. About ten minutes or so into the service, Pastor Heidi led the children off for Kids Church, taking a rather large contingent of the congregation.

Pastor Mitch, who does youth ministry for the church, preached. His text was Psalm 133, a chapter short enough that I’ve had it committed to memory at times (and at times it has gone away). “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

Mitch’s opening illustration of the the fellowship described in that chapter came from work he does with the football team at nearby Roosevelt High School. He told about kids sharing what it was like to be homeless while attending school and playing on the team. Sharing that pain brought the team together as brothers. I was greatly encouraged to hear that Mitch is able to minister in such a powerful way with these kids from a public school.

Mitch had a three point sermon, noting first that Relational Harmony (which I kept hearing as “racial harmony”) was a gift from God, second that we are in a world with little Relational Harmony, and that God wants to restore that Relational Harmony. Pastor Mitch emphasized that the most important relationship we have is our relationship with Jesus, and that other good relationships can flow from that.

Mitch also talked about his work with neighborhood kids to combat gangs and drug abuse. He said that when the church began in the neighborhood (only a year and a half ago), the neighborhood kids mocked the ministry, but now relationships of trust and respect have developed.

At the conclusion of the service, people were asked to add pictures or words to one of the signs that would be a gift to the teachers of Jackson Elementary on the first day of school.  People were to write notes of love and appreciation for the work of the school’s teachers.

Though the church has considered buying a building in the neighborhood (particularly a house across the street from the school or even a closed bar a few blocks away), Neighborhood Church has no plans to move their worship services off campus. The school is central to the neighborhoods, so it’s a good place for a neighborhood church to meet. Such “entanglements” suit the church as they reflect the way Jesus came down from Heaven to become “entangled” with us.

Service Length: 1 hour 6 minutes
Sermon Length: 28 minutes
Visitor Treatment: As we drove up, a woman pushing a stroller smiled at us as she crossed the street. Once inside the schoolyard, the same woman came up to say hello, along with Pastor Heidi and another woman. Heidi made sure we were aware of the church's informational materials and told us about the church's ministry in the community. During the worship service, people seemed happy to chat with both friends and strangers during the greeting time, and after the worship service ended, several people struck up conversations with us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: On Monday we got a personal email from Lawrence, who'd led the music during the service and who we'd talked to for a few minutes after.
Our Rough Count: 31
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Cool water and watermelon (and anything else that could be eaten raw) on the community table
Musicians: acoustic guitars (men)
vocals (woman)
Songs: “Your Love Never Fails”
"Your Grace is Enough"
"Great are You, Lord"
"Everlasting God"
"I Give You my Heart"
Distance to Church: 6 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: