In 2005 Christmas fell on a Sunday, so Southland Christian Church (Lexington, Kentucky) used the calendar anomaly as an opportunity for outreach. Canceling Sunday worship services to serve the community was a controversial decision, but it forever changed the way the church conducts ministry. Jon Weece is in his sixth year as senior minister at Southland and in his ninth year on staff at the church. After graduating from Ozark Christian College, Jon spent four years as a missionary in Haiti. He and his wife of nine years, Allison, are the proud parents of 6-year-old Ava and 4-year-old Silas.
What makes Christmas special at Southland?
Christmas is a time for our church to take ministry outside our four walls. We serve people at that time of year who are lonely, marginalized, poor, living on the fringe—the forgotten of our city. It’s an opportunity for us to communicate to people that we understand the meaning of the birth of Jesus. We can stay inside our building and sing about it and talk about it, or we can go be what Jesus was—and that is the incarnation of God, God with flesh on, whom people can touch, see, and interact with. We can be Jesus in a real way, at a time when everybody is celebrating his birth.
What was your thought process going into this?
We asked ourselves two questions. First: What would happen if Southland closed its doors tomorrow? Would anyone notice? Second: What would bring God to the edge of his seat that would make him smile and say, ”I like their faith”?
So you stepped out on a limb.
We decided in 2005 that instead of coming to church we wanted to be the church. We realized a lot of people who would never come to our church on Sunday, but were open to hearing about Jesus, needed us to be Jesus for them that year.
Do people choose a project or does the church assign projects, or both?
It’s a little bit of everything. We challenge people to never miss an opportunity to love another person. Our mission statement is simple: “We exist to love God and love people.” From time to time we’ll give a specific assignment, for example, to feed the homeless men downtown. But we also have ongoing ministries and programs that exist not for the benefit of the people who call Southland home, but for those who have no home. We call our people to serve in those ministries every day.
So it’s not just a Christmas thing?
No, not at all. Well over half of our church family now serves outside the walls of our building on a consistent basis.
How do you keep this ministry “outside the walls” going all year long?
Instead of waiting for Christmas to fall on a Sunday we decided it would become the DNA of our church; that every day was an opportunity to be Jesus to the hurting people in our city. That we could make Christmas happen 365 times during the year instead of just once by bringing the gift of love to the unloved.
Do you do some special kind of worship service at Christmas that ties in with this program?
We tend to just do our weekend services and tell people to enjoy Christmas with their family and be Jesus wherever they’re going to be.
Do you use the Christmas season as an opportunity to “relaunch?”
Christmas is now a rallying point for us to celebrate what God has been doing the whole year. It’s an opportunity to invite those people whom we have been ministering to, to celebrate the birth of Jesus with us. And we’ve seen a huge demographic change in our church as a result of it.
More single moms, more physically poor people. More people from the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and the gay community call Southland home.
Have members of the congregation objected?
Yes, but they’re no longer with us. We’re lighter since unloading the consumeristic mind-set
You took a lot of heat initially.
When we made the decision not to have Christmas services we were not prepared for the negative media attention that it would garner from Christians. But looking back on it, we’re grateful we made the decision because it was a catalyst that has driven us from the comfort of our worship facility to go behind enemy lines, where we’re convinced Jesus wants us to be. There’s nothing safe about “being Jesus” at Christmas—or any day of the week.
Is there an expected level of involvement for staff and unpaid leadership?
Yes. We’re now at a point where most people who choose to join us understand that we’re going to serve in the school system, we’re going to continue to open free medical clinics, provide free health care. We’re going to continue to minister to the strip clubs, the physically and mentally challenged, the elderly, the homeless, the sex offenders, the suicidal, the skeptic, and anyone else who has an emotional, spiritual, or physical need.
Has it changed your staff structure?
Yes. We have fewer staff and more volunteer leaders. And the staff we’re hiring are very mobile and tend to be more flexible. It’s a different day here. It’s a total paradigm shift for this place and we’re just getting started.
How has the community at large responded?
Our goal is to please God. We’ve learned when you please God, there’s favor, protection, and blessing. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback from the community. And it has opened doors for us evangelistically that would have never been there before.
Have the media and local politicians jumped on board?
Though it has created a lot of media attention and drawn interest from political figures, we tend to avoid both arenas. It’s not a publicity stunt for us. It’s a way of life.
I’m sure you must have some success stories.
I have so many, but I’ll give you two. We identified two homeless men and partnered with a businessman in our church who provided free job training, six months’ rent, and full-time employment. They are now gainfully employed and are active members of our church family. And they won’t be the last ones. The owner of that business told me this past weekend that he won’t hire anyone in the future who isn’t homeless. I recently baptized an exotic dancer who said to me after the baptism, “I never knew my real dad, but I finally found a Father who cares for me.”
The blessings outweigh the struggles, no doubt.
Yes! We’re learning to live by faith and not by sight.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.