(406) 404-1600

Being a Church for the Community

May 21, 2024 | Rev. Vern Streeter

“No. That’ll never work.”

I was planting a new church and asked the principal if we could meet at his school on Sundays. He was not unclear in his response. He was of the “…last thing our community needs is another church” mentality.

This was not the first time I ran into such a mindset. When doing research on church planting, I discovered communities and subdivisions were writing into their covenants and deed restrictions that there would be no zoning for churches. Instead of giving me the luxury of being offended, God made me think about it. Deeply.

Why Don’t People Want Churches?

Hold on. The core message of a biblical Church is eternal life. Eternal life does not begin the moment you die. It is a gift of God that offers the highest quality of life that starts now and lasts forever, including heaven. It’s something the ancient Hebrews would call Shalom. It’s human flourishing, and Jesus’ Church is supposed to live it and proclaim it. Who wouldn’t want it? It’s what humanity strives for anyway.

And there’s the rub. The message and purpose of the Church is eternal life but people don’t want churches. Whose fault is that? Ours. The church folk. The message is awesome, but the delivery system broke down somewhere along the way.

This goes straight to the issue of relevance. Relevance means “appropriate to the matter at hand.” Nothing is more appropriate to the matter at hand than a happy life and one that gets inestimably better after death. “I’ll take that, but not a church.” Why? I posit, because in many ways the church stopped mattering in people’s lives. “I’ll take a restaurant and a gas station in this community, but not a church. I need food and fuel, but whatever they do at that church, I don’t need that. Besides they create traffic, use up good land, and don’t pay taxes on it. The last thing our community needs is another church.”

When People Did Want Churches

But this is not how the early communities thought about churches. Churches were in demand and Christianity grew like crazy. According to the esteemed historian Rodney Stark, in 40AD 1/1000th of 1% of the Roman Empire were Jesus followers. By 350AD – 56% of the Roman Empire was Christian. That’s 120 people to 33 million. That’s a growth rate of 40% per decade. Huh…it looks like people wanted local churches in their community. Why?

Part of the answer is the vacuum. Paganism, Greek mythology, and Roman religion wasn’t cutting it. It was poorly organized, competitive, and priest driven. There was nothing for people to belong to or participate in. In the third century AD the historian Lactantius called it “worship by the fingertips.” The populace was irreverent toward the various cults, and when things didn’t go their way they slandered their gods and beat them with sticks.

Christianity rolled into this milieu and shook things up. It was hard being a female in the Roman Empire but taking their cue from Jesus, the Christians treated women with dignity, respect, and equality.

Roman culture was strictly hierarchical and everything in society reinforced the status system. The Christians obliterated the status system because they followed the One who washed feet and though a King said, and demonstrated, that He did not come into the world to be served but to serve. So, they did too.

When the epidemics hit (165AD and 251AD), they wiped out up to 1/3 of the Roman Empire. At one point 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome alone. There was so much fear that people pushed their family members into the road before they were dead. The Christians, however, remembered that Jesus healed the sick, had compassion on sufferers, and touched lepers when nobody else would touch them. Many Christians died because of their care-giving. Dionysius wrote, “Many in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.” Sound familiar?? And the pagans beat their gods with a stick.

All this was not lost on the emperor Julian who complained to his priests that they were being outshined and outworked by the Christians. He noted that the Christians supported “not only their poor, but ours as well.” Julian hated Christians, but he knew their churches were good for his community! And Christianity grew at a rate of 40% per decade. Not because they were better arguers, or had better music, or a cool new youth pastor. It was because they followed Jesus’ commands and His lifestyle and served the person in their path that needed their help.

How One Church Served Their Community … and People Liked Them!

Obviously that growth rate was not sustained. What happened? Maybe we stopped serving.

So before Harvest Church started, we were serving in neighborhoods. We actually got permission to use the school and, paraphrasing Jesus, loved it like we love ourselves. We served and bettered and prayed and honored. And then we started doing it all over town. We spent huge budget dollars bettering Billings and blessing lives. We prioritized caring for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. We came up with unusual ways to bless the city and bless people.

And then we built a water park. It’s a long story, but the city needed another public pool, yet the voters kept voting it down. So, the church picked it up. We raised $4+ million and built the happiest place in Billings every summer. This spring we open the state’s first continuous surf wave. People like us. Even people who don’t like God. Yet.

Do You Have a Rent-A-Santa?

One day we got a call from a lady asking if we had a Rent-A-Santa program. When we politely told her we didn’t, she understood and explained, “I’m hosting a Christmas party and need a Santa and I thought well, you guys do so much good for the community, maybe you’ve got a Rent-A-Santa program.”

That moment was a highlight in my pastoral career. She had an unusual need and asked an unusual church if we could meet it. Sadly, we couldn’t. But, and here’s the point, one day she is going to have a “real” problem, and when she comes to us for help, we aren’t going to rent her anything. We are going to give her Jesus.

Rev. Vern Streeter

Lecturer in Adventure and Theology

Vern Streeter has been the senior pastor of Harvest Church in Billings, Montana for 23 years. Prior to planting Harvest, Vern was a […]

Read More

Stay Connected!

Start receiving email announcements
and our quarterly newsletter, Inscribed.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.