By Jon Ferguson
I first heard the phrase “helping people find their way back to God” at a small-group training conference. Author and small-group training guru Lyman Coleman would retell the story of the prodigal son at these conferences. With great conviction, he would remind us that every one of us is a prodigal, and that countless prodigals in all of our neighborhoods desperately want to “find their way back to God.” Those words resonated deep in our souls.
Through the years, Community Christian Church’s mission statement has remained the same: “Helping people find their way back to God.” And we have grown to understand that our mission is expressed in three distinct and crucial ways. We are about:
- reaching people who are far from God,
- restoring God’s dream for the world, and
- reproducing the mission in others.
We believe our mission is incomplete if it is not expressed in all three ways. And in spite of significant reallocation of leadership and financial resources, our partnership with God in restoring his dream remains what most needs to be “restored” at Community. And, I would suggest, it may also be what most needs to be restored in the Restoration Movement.
When Jesus’ public ministry began, he read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Jesus made it clear: A major part of his earthly mission would focus on the poor and the “least of these.”
More than seven years ago, my family moved to the North Side of Chicago to carry out this mission in a city where too many people and places are not experiencing the dream God had in mind. His dream for our world, which was born in the Garden (Genesis 1), was for a place where people would live together with him in a most beautiful way. That dream was shattered when Adam and Eve chose their own path rather than God’s path.
We all suffer the repercussions of their choice as well as our own misguided choices, and the result of those choices and the systems that have emerged have a far-reaching impact. Specifically in Chicago and beyond, far too many people are not realizing the dream God has for them:
- More than 600 people in Chicago were murdered in 2017.
- Too many children receive a less than adequate education.
- Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
- There is an incredible misuse of wealth in our city.
This is not God’s dream.
And it’s not just in Chicago. God’s dream is failing to be realized in places all over the world.
So what does it look like for us to be on mission and fully engaged in restoring God’s dream for the world? Here are three very practical ways we are seeking to fulfill this aspect of Jesus’ mission:
In 2003, under the leadership of Kirsten Strand, Community began a partnership with an elementary school in an under-resourced and primarily Latino community nearby. We entered the partnership with the philosophy of providing a “hand-up” instead of a “hand-out” whenever possible. So, when the school told us one of their biggest needs was helping families provide Christmas gifts for their children, we offered to sponsor a Christmas Giftmart. We collected donated new toys, set up a Giftmart at the school that allowed families to have the joy and dignity of picking out and purchasing gifts for their children at a price they could afford, and then we donated all the proceeds to the school.
In that first year, we collected 1,200 toys, served 750 people, rallied 125 volunteers, and raised $800. Over the next 15 years, the concept grew thanks to growing partnerships with businesses, community groups, and other churches. This past Christmas, we sponsored five Giftmarts in three communities that supported 10 public elementary schools. We collected 11,600 toys, served 1,700 families, raised $20,000, and mobilized 1,100 volunteers. Over the years we have invested more than $200,000 to support public education in low-income neighborhoods.
Giftmart also serves as an on-ramp opportunity for volunteers that often leads to deeper community engagement in more relational ways. The vast majority of volunteers who staff our tutoring and mentoring programs at partner schools served at Giftmart before making a bigger and more impactful commitment.
This past fall I traveled with a team from Community to a village just outside Managua, Nicaragua. As our van pulled up we noticed the newly constructed community center we’d seen until then only in photos. Hundreds of children and dozens of parents quickly assembled and proudly welcomed us to this place that has begun to transform the community; the center is providing a much-needed hand up to children and families living in poverty.
Jim Melton, our global ministry director, coordinates a partnership with Compassion International that provides us the opportunity to work alongside churches in some of the poorest and most remote communities around the world. Compassion goes only to places that have a local church with which it can partner and provide vital services, which include its incredible child sponsorship program.
Because of our partnership, more than 200 children from this community will receive healthy meals, an outstanding education, and the opportunity to find their way back to God. Over the past four years, our partnerships in Haiti and Nicaragua have combined to help start three churches and sponsor more than 800 children.
Just over a year ago, longtime friend and Alpha Prisons deputy director Bruce Paulus approached Community and NewThing with the idea of starting churches in prisons. We prayed about this and God opened our eyes to the broken state of our prison system; we see this as a tremendous opportunity to restore God’s dream for a growing and desperate population.
As we considered this opportunity and need, we became aware of some alarming national data:
- 2.2 million Americans are confined in prisons (according to the Prison Policy Initiative).
- 1 of 3 black males born today will be incarcerated at some point in their life (according to the Sentencing Project).
- 700,000 Americans are released from prisons every year, and about two-thirds are rearrested within three years, one study showed.
- Nearly 3 million children—that’s about 1 in 28—have an incarcerated parent (according to a Pew study).
- Children with an incarcerated family member are 70 percent more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system (according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice).
Clearly, millions of people are impacted by our prison system, and too many have little if any hope of finding their way back to God.
For the past several months, I have worked with Amy Plummer, who leads a partnership we are calling Community Freedom. We believe this new venture has the potential to address some of the massive challenges men and women face in prisons all over the United States.
Community Freedom has two objectives:
- help detainees find their way back to God through a church community located in a prison and
- work to ensure successful and sustainable reentry into the local community.
We believe this may be one of the greatest restorative justice opportunities of our lifetime, as reentry may be the most significant challenge facing our prison system. This partnership could impact countless communities, millions of families, and leave an indelible mark for Jesus on our world.
Consider the possibility of coming alongside incarcerated Christ followers to start a new church in a prison. Dare to dream of being a church that provides a safe and sustainable reentry for someone who simply needs a second chance. What a great opportunity to restore God’s dream for our world and put into practice Jesus’ words: “I have come to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18, author’s paraphrase).
A Movement of Restoration
Imagine a movement of people who are determined to reach people who are far from God and compelled to reproduce the mission over and over, and who are also relentless in restoring God’s dream to people and places all over the world. The Bible described the first-century church like this:“The believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need” (Acts 2:44, 45, author’s paraphrase).Could it be that our greatest opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission is to become a movement of people whose mission reflects the love and concern that Jesus and the first-century church had for those in need all around us? Could this aspect of our mission be what most needs to be restored in the Restoration Movement, and could it ultimately result in even more people finding their way back to God?
Jon Ferguson serves as a founding pastor at Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Among other roles, he provides strategic leadership for NewThing, Community’s church-planting mission. He has co-authored three books, The Big Idea (2007), Exponential (2010), and Discover Your Mission Now (2013).