By Josh Ross
The local church is at its best when it gives up home-field advantage. It doesn’t mean we must neglect our buildings or that facilities are anti-gospel, but it does mean God doesn’t just stand on the stage in the sanctuary waving people into a church. He also stands in the streets waving the church into the world.
On April 28, the Sycamore View Church in Memphis did what many other churches have done for 2,000 years, we left the church building to engage in service projects of restoration. We got together on Sunday, sang a few songs, had a brief message, gave some instructions, and took Communion with a focus on how Jesus’ body and blood call us into the world. Then, we left the building in order to love Memphis.
Our goal for the day wasn’t to drop a piece of compassion on our city only to disengage by retreating into the comfort of our homes with warm, fuzzy feelings that we made a difference for Jesus. We wanted people to come in contact with the gospel that continually invites us to join Jesus in his passion to change the world. In Jesus, we become world-changers. It’s how God has set up things.
I’m convinced God loves cities. After all, if God cared about Nineveh, he also cares about the restoration of Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Tokyo, Johannesburg, New York, and London. It’s interesting Paul doesn’t write to the Main Street Church or the First Church of Galatia. Instead, Paul addressed letters to “all in Rome who are loved by God,” “the church of God in Corinth,” and “God’s holy people in Ephesus.” Paul understood that the call of the gospel isn’t strictly for the change in status of one’s soul, but an invitation into God’s passion to restore all forms of brokenness, pain, blight, and depression.
In January 2008, I was approached by Sycamore View Church of Christ about the possibility of becoming the preaching minister. At the time, my wife, Kayci, and I weren’t interested in leaving Houston, yet we felt compelled to engage in a conversation, so we did. It tugged at our hearts when we heard the story and saw the pictures of what had happened in 2006. The Sycamore View Church family had gone through a one- to two-year season of prayer and fasting to discern whether it should stay in its current location or sell its building and move further from downtown. Sycamore View decided to stay, altering forever the identity of the church.
As a covenant to God, the church, and the community, one Sunday morning that year each family unit took small, wooden crosses and drove them into the ground in front of the church building to form a larger cross. It sent this statement to the community: we are not moving, we want to know you, and we want to exist with a purpose.
Dangerous Prayers, Kingdom Challenges
That was more than a day of cool pictures and lip service. People began praying dangerous prayers that we would connect with the people in our zip code, 38134, in ways we could never ask or imagine. People prayed prayers for racial diversity, relationships between rich and poor, and that our facility would become a hub for the good of our community.
God has answered many of those prayers. It hasn’t been an easy road, I can assure you. At times, the way we do life around here is quite chaotic. Our campus has people and groups functioning here approximately 100 hours a week. We’ve also discovered that homogeneity is a lot easier than racial and socioeconomic diversity. Diversity creates challenges, but they are beautiful, kingdom challenges.
God has blessed us with a relationship with the Boys and Girls Club of Memphis, a group that has been in our facility for nearly three years now. At first, there was some hesitation. Some asked, what if a kid breaks an arm and sues us? Or, what if our building gets all scratched up and things begin to break?
Our response was that kids are going to break arms, probably on a playground or in a gang dispute, so why don’t we attempt to radically love them? If arms are broken and we get sued, we’ll trust God will sort it out. Frankly, instead of worrying about things breaking, I’m more concerned with God visiting us one day and asking why our facility was used only on Sundays and Wednesdays.
We’ve had people leave because the social makeup of our church has created challenges; it sometimes infringes upon people’s sense of security, safety, and comfort. Most Sundays, the smell of homelessness is in the hallways, and dozens of tattoos can be seen on arms, ankles, and necks. We’ve chosen to embrace these as clear depictions of the kingdom of God coming among us.
Weep for the City
In Luke 19:41, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, and weeps over the city. It blows my mind Jesus would weep when he knew he soon would die so people could find life.
This has forced us to ask a couple of questions. What does it mean to follow Jesus in a way that we’ll learn to weep over the brokenness in our city, and then be willing to lay down our lives and resources so people can find life? And for the local church, what does it mean for us to learn to weep with Jesus over our cities, and then ask him for the courage to lay down our lives, resources, time, and energy so those around us can experience life?
In a way, we want to reflect Memphis. We want to reflect its culture, diversity, and beauty. Yet, in a gospel way, we want Memphis to reflect us, not because we’re even close to figuring things out, but simply our pursuit of Jesus, his righteousness, and his kingdom.
Shootings, crime, and tragedies can lead us to disengage from the world around us, but the gospel of Jesus is about engagement, movement, and penetrating into the world with love. Jesus keeps inviting us to give up home-field advantage and to go live his life in the world he is desperate to redeem.
Josh Ross serves as lead minister with Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. He is author of Scarred Faith (Howard Books).