Category Archives: missional church

A Wider Net – Insights from Courtney Allen

Fishing Netsphoto © 2009 Garry Knight | more info (via: Wylio)Since moving into our new home at Baptist Theological Seminary, I have been blessed to meet a number of young pastors who are either in seminary or who have recently graduated and are looking for opportunities to do urban community based ministry.  One of these impressive young pastors is Courtney Allen, a 2011 graduate of Wake Forest University with a Masters in Divinity.

As a part of Courtney’s senior project, she wrote a paper titled, “A Wider Net: Beyond the Walls and the Possibilities that Lie Before Us.” In this paper she studies her affluent home church located in Jackson, Mississippi, ironically named Northminister Baptist Church.  Courtney writes, “I was interested in how a congregation initially interested in expanding their own physical facilities was formed by context, sermons, as well as ministerial and lay leadership to make a significant commitment to an inner-city ministry.” Courtney has granted me permission to share her insights, which appear below, as a part of my series on Kingdom Churches.

Northminster Baptist church of Jackson Mississippi was formed in 1967.  In 1998, as the church was contemplating a building project, Senior Pastor Chuck Poole issued a challenge – a dollar for dollar mission’s commitment.  Courtney writes, “For Poole, it was difficult to see how “in light of the Gospel” the congregation should make themselves more comfortable for one hour per week in a city where “there are people who are never comfortable.”  Can I get an “Amen!”?

The planning committee accepted the challenge and appointed an ad hoc “Special Missions Project Committee” whose proposal would be presented as a part of the combined recommendations of the Building Committee “in recognition that the expansion of the church facilities and a mission effort were theologically connected.” Another “Amen!”

In June 2001, the joint recommendation of these committees were approved and named “A Wider Net.”  The vision was “a wider place to gather within our walls as well as a wider embrace of others beyond our walls.”  The proposal from the Missions Committee included the desire to focus the church ministry efforts on a neighborhood called Mid-City .  It also called the church to commit to, “A Person. A Place. A Ministry.”, within Mid-City.

In its commitment to “a person” the church wisely understood that real transformative ministry requires relationship building.  The church committed to funding a “Community Minister” to serve as a bridge between the Mid-City and the church.   The church affirmed the importance of physical presence by committing to “a place” within the community where relational ministry could happen.  By supporting “a ministry”, the congregation used its financial and volunteer base to expand the capacity of work that was already happening in the community through various other organizations.  This commitment to “a person, a place and a ministry” is absolutely brilliant and consistent with ever successful example of community transformation I have ever seen.  However, I have never seen it stated so simply.

Courtney’s historical account details how the church faithfully carried out its commitment by hiring a community pastor who began listening to and visiting the residents regularly.  Community ministries were identified and the church became an important strategic partner for many.  Most importantly, the people of Northminster began to volunteer and through their presence brought about positive neighborhood change.  Volunteers got involved in community safety projects, housing rehabilitation, summer kids camps, care for the elderly, and community building events. Courtney shares in her paper that important transformation happened at both a community level and a church level as transformative relationships formed.

In her assessment, Courtney points to the importance of theological education in this process. She writes, “On Sunday mornings at Northminster Baptist Church, the idea that reading the gospels and following Jesus would necessitate radical and demanding change was frequently heard. The language of “no longer protecting oneself from the steepest demands of the gospel” was used with some frequency.  Courtney shares this excerpt from one of Poole’s sermons:

“We must not let the gospel lose its edge, even if it is an edge we find impossible to live up to. We must keep the gospel’s hardest edge out there in front of us all the time, because if it is always out there before us we will occasionally live up to it. We will have our moments, however rare, when we actually deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. There is no better way to live than that. Even if it should cause us to lose ourselves, that is where we would finally find ourselves. Nothing could be better than that.”

Courtney also noted the importance of theological teaching that reminded the congregation that, “Northminster ‘needed’ to be in relationship with those beyond their walls just as much as those beyond their walls ‘needed’ them. Northminster needed a wider circle of friends, where people could be engaged in meaningful relationships with people who did not look or think the same way they did.” She notes that Pastor Poole frequently said, “There is a big world out there and we need it more than it needs us.”

The truth of this mutual need is beautifully illustrated in Courtney’s capturing of the relationships that grew out of the congregation’s commitment to the Mid-City community.  Not only was the community revitalized but the church was transformed.  Courtney writes, “It feels different now than it did before Wider Net. Northminster thinks, acts, and speaks differently because of the relationship with friends in Mid-City.  As one interviewee noted, “A Wider Net is at the heart of what we do [at Northminster]…it is not just going ‘down there to help poor people.’” Language and understanding of community has shifted to include a broader swatch of the world, beyond previously understood boundaries and institutions.”

Most importantly Courtney noted that, “Institutionally, Northminster understands its function to equip congregants to serve the world rather than to serve the institution of the church. The wider circle of friends that formed is a part of the “two-way street” of need which runs between Mid-City and Northminster.”

Imagine this. Every church in Richmond committing one dollar to missions for every dollar it raises for buildings!  Just imagine dozens of community ministers funded by affluent churches bridging the wealthiest communities in Richmond to the most distressed.  That is a vision I am willing to give my life for.

As a side note, I can’t afford to hire Courtney to serve with us in Richmond but I feel certain at least one church here in Richmond can see the blessing that a “Courtney Allen, Community Pastor,” would bring to their staff.  Courtney is just one of many young pastors I have met recently with this call upon their lives.  Interested in funding in full or partially a community minister to serve as a bridge to your congregation?  Please let me know via email at

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street

Dream Releasers

I know why the caged birds sing?photo © 2007 bradleyolin | more info (via: Wylio)Telling people about Embrace Richmond in a way that captures the spirit of what we are all about is one of the hardest things I have to do as an Executive Director.  We are not a social services agency, we are not program driven and we are not cause focused.  We are a community focused, relationally driven, community of faith.  I was reading through some of the early writing that I had done back in 2003 before I entered seminary and started Embrace. I ran across this story taken from Wayne Cordeiro’s book titled Doing Church as a Team.   This story was one of the early inspirations for what became Embrace Richmond and I think it captures the spirit of the work we are doing in a beautiful way.  This is Wayne’s story;

Wayne was a child growing up on an army base in Japan.  One day his family went for a ride outside the base.  When they stopped for lunch an old man at a booth caught his attention.  He was selling tiny birds that resembled a finch, in bamboo cages.

He asked the man how much and was shocked to learn they were only 100 yen each, about 36 cents.  It was too good a deal to pass up so he bought one.  As he walking back to show off the purchase to his family the old men called out to him in Japanese “Don’t forget to bring the cage back when you’re done!”  “Bring back the cage when I’m done?  I’m not planning to eat the thing.  I just want to take it home as a pet.”, Wayne replied. “Oh no,” said the old man  “You don’t understand!  The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it will be able to fly freely!”

This was the last thing this young boy wanted to do.  He felt that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of.  But he did not have much of a choice, the old man was keeping close watch to make sure he got his cage back.  So he walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below, opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges.  Edging it’s way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles. 

Cordeiro writes “looking back on the experience now, I would have paid 100 times more if I knew how important that moment would be to me years later.  That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.”  He goes on to say

“The Church is laden with treasures, dreams and precious gifts, yet too many precious souls are going to their graves with songs left unsung, gifts yet unwrapped and dreams unreleased.  We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released.”

I think this story is an excellent metaphor for what Embrace Richmond strives to do.  We encounter a lot of beautiful caged birds.  Birds caged by addiction, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, depression and loneliness.  I used to think it was our job to open the doors to the cages and let people out but after years of doing this kind of work, I have come to realize that they already have the keys.  They just need someone to remind them of that fact and encourage them to unlock the door.

That last sentence sounds like an easy task but it has proven to be a very painful process for many who have grown so accustomed to living in a cage that freedom appears threatening or unattainable.  While the little finch in Cordeiro’s story soared through the air, many of my friend’s wings are so underused that they often fall to the ground several times before they learn to fly.  Our role as dream releasers is to be there when they fall and encourage them to keep on trying.

The first time I read this story, I dreamed of being a dream releaser.  Today I am truly blessed to work with the most amazing team of “dream releasers” imaginable.  So thank you Janie, Qasarah, Susan, Sylvia, Vanessa, Chinary, Antionette, John, Charles, Josh, Brian, and Ashlee.  Thanks for helping my early dream of creating a dream releasing community come true.

If you are interested in being a “dream releaser”, please email me at

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Urban Ministry

They Are Not Lazy and They Don’t Want to be Entertained

Contemplationphoto © 2009 Monica Arellano-Ongpin | more info (via: Wylio)Recently I got into a heated discussion with a friend.  She claimed that the Pentecostal style evangelical movement was the fastest growing denominational expression in the country and thus must be a movement of God.  I shared my belief that the “formerly churched” contingent was actually the fastest growing sector of Christianity and asked if the same assumption could be made, “Does that mean people leaving churches is a movement of God?”

She then proceeded to discount the fact that millions of Christians have checked out of church saying, “You can’t count them.  They are all just lazy and would rather play golf than to give time to God.”  Well, that got me a bit heated because I have a lot of formerly churched friends and none of them choose not to go to church on Sunday because they are simply lazy.

Most of my “de-churched” friends are still devout Christians and I would put their walk with God above that of most every Sunday church goers.  I actually know quite a few folks who have checked out of Church but whose spirituality is deeper now than it ever was before.  I know many of my pastor friends are going to hate this post, but stick with me a minute.

Many of the people I know who have left the church did so because they were seeking something more.  I actually think much of what I have witnessed among my friends and in my own church going experience is a backlash to the “seeker” movement which bred consumerism within the church.

In the 1990’s, we were told to think about church as business competing against the many entertainment options people have on Sunday.  We began to market the church as such.  We advertised our amazing “programs” and our “relevant, casual atmospheres.”  We sought to make church easier, less demanding, more entertaining and for many this worked.  This approach led to the rise of the mega-church phenomenon.  I’ll admit, I was a big supporter back in the day.  It made sense to my business brain.  I never calculated the long-term cost of this philosophy of ministry.

Many mega-church leaders have become master showmen.  They are highly engaging, their messages meet our felt needs and they make us feel good just for showing up on Sunday.  They ask only for our presence in worship, our tithes, and our willingness to bring our friends to church.

At one point, I joined the missions committee of one of these churches and the most significant request they made of me was that I bake cookies for my neighbors and invite them to an upcoming Easter Egg hunt.  I remember thinking, “Wow, Stephen was stoned, Paul beaten and imprisoned and my big sacrifice is baking cookies!?!”

Needless to say, I did not find much fulfillment at that church and we left shortly thereafter.  Many would see my “church hopping” as a negative and would say I was treating the church like a consumer product.  I guess in a way they would be correct.  I was seeking a church that actually expects those who call themselves Christ followers to live in such a way that the world would see Jesus.  Perhaps some would answer the question, “What would Jesus be doing in 2011?”, as “baking chocolate chip cookies and hosting an Easter egg hunt.” However, I just could not reconcile the Jesus of the bible with the kinds of Christ followers being produced by these churches.

I know many people have come to Christ in these Churches and I am not knocking them.  I am just pointing out that “Christianity lite” is not right for everyone.  While I admit that many have left the church out of boredom and are now on the golf courses or at the soccer field on Sunday morning, I do think there is a significant number who left for the same reason I left the cookie baking club.  I left because I want to spend my time following Jesus.   As I shared last week, following Jesus leads me into times of solitude in the wilderness and times of solidarity with the poor and oppressed.   For me, Christianity is deeply spiritual and profoundly committed to social justice.  I have found this combination hard to come by in the institutional expressions of the churches I have attended.

Though my question to my friend, “Does that mean that people leaving churches is a movement of God?”, was said tongue in cheek.  I honestly think that the answer might be “yes.” Many of the people I know have not given up on following Jesus, they have simply felt called to go deeper in their walk.  They are choosing to follow Jesus in ways that are different than our traditional “church going” images. In a way, the church did what it was supposed to do.  It made them hungry for more and sent them out into the world to live out their call. Rather than judge that decision, I think we should be celebrating it.

I wish rather than Christian’s greeting one another with the question, “Where do you go to Church?” we instead ask, “Where do you see Jesus?”  While I do experience Christ presence within the church walls, I also see Jesus in the faces of the people I work with and in the trees under which I seek God’s presence.  I see Jesus in the budding “beloved community” we are ushering into existence in Hillside court and expressed in God’s reconciling work all around me.  I also hear it in your comments on this blog and hope you will share with me any thoughts, ideas or insights you have into this subject.


Filed under missional church, Spirituality

Mud Slinging Christians: Dreaming of Another Way

muddy shoesphoto © 2006 Ivy Lique | more info (via: Wylio)I grew up outside the church and one of the things that kept me out of the church for many years was the divisions among Christians.

I came to faith in an ELCA Lutheran Church in my late 20’s, attended a Methodist Church for many years, and was on staff at an evangelical non-denominational seeker church for a while.  I started a women’s ministry consisting of women from all different denominations.  I have a spiritual mentor who is Catholic, and I graduated from a Cooperative Baptist Seminary.  I now spend my days with those who met God through Alcoholics Anonymous and who experienced God’s healing touch in ways I can never fully comprehend.  Most of those who call themselves Christians in my urban context are from a Pentecostal background.

I have spoken and worked with congregational groups across the spectrum from very liberal to ultra conservative and have found things about all of them I love.  As my love of diverse expressions of the Christian tradition has grown, my distaste for the divisive, exclusive, judgmental ways in which various groups treat one another has also grown.

As I shared in my post “Will Gandhi Burn?”, Rob Bell is taking a lot of heat from those in power in the evangelical right but the ugliness is spreading.  I read this week that a Methodist minister got fired just for blogging about Bell’s book.  I also read a very insightful post by Drew G.I. Hart that views all this infighting as a power struggle among the white male evangelicals for control of religious dialog in this country.  No matter how you view it, I am just tired of the constant bickering.  I think it is distracting us from our real call to be reconcilers who work together to usher in the Kingdom of God here and now.

I dream of an expression of the Christian tradition where people from all different theological positions and who have taken all different types of paths to God can respect and love one another.  I think the only way this kind of unity will ever occur is for us all to accept that none of us are God and none of us truly have the mind of Christ.  I think the thing most lacking in our religious dialog is humility – thus my whole point in writing “Will Gandhi Burn?”

Last week I attended my first Quaker service.  I was invited to share a little about Embrace Richmond with a group that has been supporting our work for many years.  After the service, I engaged in an extensive email dialog with an acquaintance who is Quaker.  He was gracious enough to share with me the Quaker beliefs.  From what I can see, their beliefs are incredibly open to a diversity of theological positions.  I guess the only way we will ever achieve Christian unity is not to open our mouths!  I love the idea of simply connecting spirit to spirit with other Christians.  I am not sure how it plays out in the broader Christian context.  Maybe I need to hang out with my Quaker friends a bit more.

So while I am dreaming, my ideal expression of Christianity would embrace people wherever they are on their spiritual journey – liberals, conservatives, agnostics, atheists, etc.  However, it would encourage all to grow in Christ likeness (or love, the spirit, the light or whatever word people identify with what I know as the Holy Spirit) by engaging them in the work of reconciliation.  These “reconcilers” would seek to heal a broken world and usher in God’s Kingdom through relationships across race, class and religious beliefs.  I envision diverse groups of people who come together to address the brokenness of our world through very real, tangible projects such as increasing affordable housing, creating jobs for people with barriers, helping urban youth escape the cycle of poverty. The most important element of these groups is not the “project” or “mission” but the fact that we bring together people who are radically diverse and learning to hear, love and respect one another.  These types of reconciling relationships will do more to usher in “The Kingdom of God” than anything we “achieve” through our efforts.

The final element of my dream expression of the Christian tradition would foster deep, life giving spiritual practices such as contemplative prayer, meditation on Divine writings and the fostering of spiritual experiences.  As I shared in a recent post, spending time alone in nature feeds my soul.  I can see people alone in the wilderness, sitting in urban gardens and resting in God in their living rooms.  As we rest, I trust that we will experience God’s spirit in powerful ways.   Like my Quaker friends I think we spend way too much time talking about God and not nearly enough time experiencing the healing, life giving presence of Christ spirit within us.  Silence, reflection, meditation and contemplation open us up to these experiences far more effectively than debating theology and dissecting passages of scripture.

I would of course love to see people gather so those who feel led can share their spiritual experiences with the group through the ancient practice of testimony.  I have recently participated in a group that used group spiritual direction as a way of sharing spiritual insight and found it spiritually nurturing and far more effective at bringing about spiritual conversations than the traditional small group curriculum.  I think learning to share our unique experiences of God is both nurturing to those sharing and enriching to the broader community.

So that is my dream.  Not sure if this dream will ever become a reality but if you have read my book you know I am a dreamer.  I have been blessed to have been a part of so many expressions of the Christian tradition and the diversity of my experience has enriched my spirituality.  However, it makes me hungry for places where we can all come together and appreciate how God moves in and through each of our Christian expressions.   I actually think my Quaker friends may offer the expression closest to my dream.  Perhaps I if I spend a bit more time with them, God will use their openness and commitment to peace and justice to teach me how to better unite the broader body of Christ in both action and contemplation.

Just imagine what God could do with a united Body that loved and respected all God’s children?  That is what I dream of and pray I get to experience in my own little corner of the world.  Perhaps I will only see it in our work in Hillside Court but I do hope God allows us to start a movement that will sweep across this city.  I don’t expect this movement of unity and reconciliation to come from the superstars of the faith like Piper and Bell.  I think it will be the little people like me and my friends at Embrace and as I shared on Friday, it will be a very quiet revolution – not nearly as entertaining to watch as the Bell and Piper debate but far more sustainable and life giving.


Filed under missional church, Personal Reflection, Spirituality

A Search for Kingdom Churches: Northminster Part 2 – Cassie’s Story

Last week I shared with you Jeanne’s story and how God used her to spark a movement.  While Jeanne sparked a vision, it was Cassie Matthew who fanned that spark into a flame.

I was blessed to spend some time this week with Cassie, the founder of “Hands Up Ministries” ( ) which grew out of the food pantry of Northminster Church.  I was struck as I spoke with Cassie how her ministry and my own had taken parallel tracks and had arrived at many of the same conclusions.  Below is a brief summary of Cassie’s journey and the formation of Hands Up Ministries.

“I originally got involved with the food pantry at Northminster Church because my friend Terry asked me to help her out. I not a member of Northminster but I have always had a heart for the urban church. I have been blessed to go to Haiti on numerous missions trips and loved working with the people there and welcomed the opportunity to take what I learned in Haiti into the inner city of Richmond.

What became the “Free Market” actually grew out of a request from a friend who was dying of cancer.  She asked me to help her get her house in order.  I decided to give all the belongings she no longer wanted to the guests of the food pantry as a way of honoring my friend and her giving heart.  I realized that having these additional goods for the food pantry recipients not only met a need, but also provided an additional opportunity to connect.

Almost overnight we went from a one-time Christmas season event to an every Saturday “Free Market.”  In the beginning there was an “us” and “them” divide between my team of volunteers and the residents of the community.  They were used to coming and taking whatever we had to hand out.  I had done enough missions work that I knew this was not the right way to go about things.  I also knew that the “stuff” was not the real need.  However, the “free market” had grown so much that I found I had little time for the important things like building relationships. I knew I needed to give the ministry away to those who were benefiting from it so that I could get at the root issues facing the community.

This required that we scale back our “Free Market” from every Saturday, which we had been doing for three years, to one Saturday a month. I began my season of discernment in the fall of 201o.  On the Saturday’s we were not doing the “Free Market” I just started listening to the food pantry recipients.  I took in-depth survey’s out every Saturday to find out what the real needs of the people were and I quickly realized that employment and affordable housing were the top two issues.

In the early part of 2011 after spending months listening, I clearly heard from God a call to help people overcome barriers to employment and to find some way of creating affordable housing.   The housing part was relatively easy.  The cost of housing has dropped so low that my husband and I have been able to purchase four homes and have leased them to our urban friends for a price well below market but at a rate that covers our mortgage.  We are hoping to add more homes in the future and would encourage more people to invest in these distressed communities and in these wonderful people.

The harder issue has been employment.  I realized rather quickly that any attempt to address employment would require me to address the multitude of barriers faced by my friends.  From a lack of identification, transportation, education, childcare, and internet access; the barriers are numerous and different for every person who walks in my door.   I have been on a steep learning curve since February of this year as I have walked with my friends and helped them overcome these barriers.  I realized that only through one-on-one mentoring and encouragement could I meet each of my friends where they were and help them overcome the obstacles that stood between them and employment.

I realized that I could not run the “Free Market” and work one on one with my friends.  So I began giving the “free market” away.  We are finally at a place where my team, make up primarily of community  residents, really does not need me.  I am basically just an encourager to the wonderful “volunteer staff” who keep the “free market” in operation.

I have also been blessed with a number of college students and congregational volunteers who are coming alongside my friends and helping them overcome the challenges they face.  These volunteers help prepare resumes, help people fill out job applications or tutor them for the GED.  I think it is important that people understand, I am not alone in all I do.  God sends me people at every corner.  I have had fabulous support from Rhonda Schwartz & Eureka Pendleton along with many others whom I cherish.

I am driven because I feel it is what God is calling me to. I never feel like there is enough time. I want to love as many people as God puts before me.  That love looks different with each person.

The greatest need right now is for churches and Christians who are willing to give people jobs.  They don’t have to be long-term jobs.  My friends just need a chance to earn a little money and prove both to themselves and future employers that they are willing and able to work.”

I am sure anyone who has read my book or who is familiar with the journey of Embrace Richmond can see the parallels between my ministry and that of Cassie.  I think many Christian’s start off like Cassie and I – simply meeting emergency needs.  However, if you do “relief” work for any period of time you realize it is not a long-term solution.  The only long-term solution to poverty is finding ways of helping people stand on their own two feet without being dependent on others.  This requires both a reasonable cost of living and an opportunity to work.  Many of our urban friends have neither.

I don’t know why God drew me to Northminster but I do hope that I have the blessing of working more closely with Cassie and the Hands Up Ministries team.

I think what has most inspired me about Northminster Church is its willingness to give itself away.  Cassie is not a member of the church and Hands Up Ministries is a stand alone 501c3 non-profit.  From everything I have learned so far, Northminister truly is a “Kingdom Church” and is striving to meet all four of the criteria I set out to find in my original post “A Search for Kingdom Churches”;

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Are doing more than giving money or stuff, but are building relationships that are transforming not only our city, but also the church.
  4. Are supporting Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like trying to recruit church members.

There are a few other key players in the Northminister story that I hope to introduce you to in the coming weeks.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?  How does your church interact with those in need in your city?  Would your church welcome someone like Cassie from outside the church and see her work as Kingdom Building?

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Filed under Community Development, missional church

A Search for Kingdom Churches – Northminster Church Part I

“In John 14:12 Jesus states that “anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to the father.” In order to achieve Christ’s lofty vision for His church, we must become missional in our mindset, holistic in our approach, and transformational in our impact. Many churches need a new framework if they are to become transformational in their communities.”

This quote is from a study called “Operation: Restoration” which is available at the Communities First Association website. This quote captures the essence of what I shared in my post “A Search for Kingdom Churches” which I published last June.  At the time I wrote this post, I asked for people to help me find churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

Over the years, I have had countless people share with me that Northminster Church was this kind of kingdom focused church.  Like many urban church’s in the city of Richmond, Northminster, suffered the ravages of “white flight” as church members fled the city for the suburbs. Ten years ago, the church was primarily a commuter church made up largely of middle class white suburbanites who only ventured into this low income largely African American community for worship once a week.  Over the past ten years, this church has made the journey from being a church “in” the community, to doing ministry “for” the community, to being a church that does ministry “with” the community.

This is a story of transformation that I think will give hope to many urban churches.  It is a story that involved not just one person, but the whole body pulling together to change a community from the inside out and in the process transform a church.  Over the next several weeks, I will be sharing with you how God used ordinary people who possess a kingdom perspective to usher in the reconciling Kingdom of God here on earth.  I am sure all my friends at Northminster will agree, they are still on a journey but I think we can glean a lot from their story thus far.

This past week when I met Sammy Williams, Senior Pastor of Northminster Church, he pointed me in the direction of Jeanne Murdock and said that the transformation at Northminster started with Jeanne.  I had the privilege sharing a cup of coffee with Jeanne.  What follows is her story.

Ten years ago, Jeanne joined the staff of Northminster Baptist Church as the office manager.  One of her duties involved giving out food to those who contacted the church for assistance.  At that time the food pantry was rather small and seen as an auxiliary ministry but God gave Jeanne a vision for something more – something relational in nature.  She shared her vision for expanding the food pantry and having it open one Saturday per month with several people she hoped would run with it.  However, it kept coming back to her. It took a while, but Jeanne finally accepted God’s call.

Her first challenge was to secure space. The perfect room for her expanded food pantry was being used for storing what Jeanne termed “junk” that had accumulated over the life of the church – things like hymnals from the 1970’s, old Sunday school curriculum, broken furniture.  Jeanne overcame this first obstacle but not without some resistance.  She set up her new food pantry and was surprised when 12 people came on the first Saturday for food.

From the very beginning, Jeanne’s husband Buzz was at her side.  Initially, Buzz, a retired police officer, came to insure her safety.  However, as word spread about the food pantry, Buzz realized that people were walking miles to come and he began offering rides home.  That is where the real relationships began to take shape.

Within five years, the ministry had grown to every Saturday and was serving roughly 50 households every Saturday.  Over the years, VCU students had become the primary volunteer base.  One Saturday, Jeanne was running low on volunteers and one of the individuals who had come for food, Keith Parker, said “Looks like you need help”, and jumped right in.  From that day forward, Keith never missed a Saturday.  As Jeanne watched Keith come alive as he served his neighbors, she heard God saying “Give it away.”  She asked Keith to take over as the distribution manager and was thrilled when he began recruiting other community residents to help. He was from the neighborhood and was able to easily connect with the food pantry residents who gladly joined in.   Jeanne did not know it, but the day Keith crossed over from receiving to giving was the day God began a whole new chapter in not only her ministry but the life of the church.

Keith and Buzz became fast friends. Buzz discovered that Keith had lost his driver’s license, was dealing with substance abuse, and had become homeless.  When Keith made the decision to enter The Healing Place, Buzz committed to pick him up every Saturday so he could continue to volunteer at the food bank.  Keith graduated from The Healing Place and has been clean and sober every since.  He now speaks to groups around the city and mentors other addicts.

As Jeanne watched the ministry  grow and more and more residents joining in to help, she longed to see deeper relationships form.  In 2007, she had the idea of setting up a lemonade and cookie station so people could fellowship with one another during the distribution.  She shared the idea with Terri, a fellow member of the church, who loved the idea.  Terri was so excited about the idea that she shared it with Cassie Matthew her next door neighbor.  Though Cassie was not a church member, Jeanne welcomed her to join in the effort.

Cassie took the idea and ran.  She started not only putting out refreshments but began bringing in gently used clothing and other items that she and her friends wanted to give away.  As Cassie saw how grateful the food pantry recipients were to get the clothing and other items, God gave Cassie a vision for what she called a “Free Market” – basically a church yard sale where everything was free.  Christmas time 2008, Northminster hosted the first “Free Market.” The event was so successful that it has become a monthly event.

As Cassie was launching the “Free Market”, Jeanne was grieving the loss of her husband Buzz.  Jeanne realized that she would have to take a huge step back for a season but was thrilled that the food pantry would continue with community residents now running all aspects of the program.

This is the end of Jeanne’s story but the beginning of Cassie’s adventure.  I hope you will join me for Part II of this series next week.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?

Please share how your church is transforming your city by empowering under-resourced communities to meet their own needs.

Interested in becoming a Kingdom focused church?

Embrace Richmond is thrilled that Jay Van Groningen, the Executive Director of Communities First Association will be coming to Richmond.  Please join Jay and the Embrace Richmond team on May 26th – May 28th to learn more about Asset Based Community Development and how these principals are sparking a movement of community transformation and church renewal across this country.  To learn more about this opportunity, contact me at or watch the Embrace Richmond website for more information in the coming weeks.


Filed under Community Development, missional church, Stories from the Street