How We’ve Made an Impact in Our City in Ways We Never Envisioned
By Chris Philbeck
Several years ago at a megachurch pastors conference, I heard Ben Merold say something I’ll never forget: “Sometimes our opportunities become our vision.”
Vision is a powerful thing, but vision in the local church can sometimes be more about advancing the plans of man than following the leading of God . . . and sometimes it is nothing more than trying to replicate existing models of success. There should be a level of uniqueness about our vision for the church God has called us to steward, and that uniqueness often is connected to our opportunities.
IT BEGAN WITH A CLOTHING MINISTRY
I had been senior pastor at Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana, for several years when a woman approached me about starting a clothing ministry. I wasn’t interested in such a ministry, but because of her persistence, I finally said yes with the stipulation that she would organize it and run it. Our church owned an empty house across the street, so we made that available. To make a long story short, the clothing ministry “blew up,” and in a short period of time, hundreds of people were coming each month for clothes, toiletries, and household goods. We started a food pantry in another house, and the outcome was the same—”business” was booming.
I’d love to say this all was the result of my vision, but that would be a lie because neither ministry was even on my radar. But then I remembered Ben’s words, “Sometimes our opportunities become our vision.” So, I went to work raising money for a campus expansion that included a new 15,000-square-foot building we would call the IMPACT Center to house these ministries (I love the word impact).
Now, every week, in four services on what we call IMPACT Thursday and IMPACT Saturday, we serve between 350 and 400 families. When we moved into the IMPACT Center, I remember thinking, There’s no set model of what church looks like today. With that in mind, along with the description of the first church—”They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42)—we began to have church in all of our IMPACT Thursday and Saturday services, and the result has been powerful. We hired an IMPACT Center pastor and, with the help of some great volunteers along with our staff serving on a rotating basis, the ministry continues to grow.
Each service begins with a time of fellowship that includes food (the breaking of bread). Next, we move into a time of worship, and then teaching, prayer, and a time of giving. We don’t take Communion every week, but it is a part of special services. And people are being baptized. Our IMPACT Center pastor does everything a regular pastor does—from visitation to counseling to performing weddings—and we have a genuine church service that ends with all in attendance having the opportunity to shop for food and clothes.
There are times when the IMPACT service I attend, be it Thursday or Saturday, feels more like church than our regular weekend services, because the IMPACT people are so real.
REPRODUCING THE IMPACT
One Thursday, as I stood in the IMPACT Center, I asked myself, How can we take this ministry to underserved and underresourced neighborhoods in the Greater Indianapolis area? That question ultimately led us to identify a neighborhood called Old Southside located just south of downtown Indy. Old Southside is a racially diverse, low-income neighborhood with a lot of need.
In praying about how we might impact this neighborhood, I came up with a threefold strategy. We would live in the neighborhood, learn about the neighborhood, and love the neighborhood. We hired an IMPACT Old Southside pastor, and we bought and remodeled a house that he and his wife ultimately bought from us. They moved in with their three children and began to learn about the needs of the people. As a result, we started loving the neighborhood in a variety of ways that included such things as community meals, support and recovery groups, and various children’s ministries.
We bought a building and remodeled it into an IMPACT Center that loves the neighborhood and provides it with a café, an inexpensive laundromat, showers, a food co-op, and after-school programming for kids. But the best thing we’ve done is plant a church that meets on Sunday nights around a meal. (Remember there’s no set model of what a church looks like today.) After five months, IMPACT Old Southside Christian Church has grown from 0 to 75, and we’ve already had several baptisms.
EXPANDING THE IMPACT
In the middle of launching IMPACT Old Southside, a man reached out to us on behalf of Fairfax Christian Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. The Fairfax neighborhood is very much like Old Southside, but with the added component of high crime. The church had declined to about 30 people and soon would need to close the doors. The neighborhood had changed over time, but the ministry of the church had remained the same. As a result, the church endured a steady decline.
After meeting with their leadership, I went to Fairfax one Sunday morning to preach and answer questions about what the future would look like if Mount Pleasant “acquired” their church. It may sound heavy-handed, but it was important to let them know this wouldn’t be a merger, but an acquisition. A week later, the members voted unanimously to give us their church. We agreed on a timeline for the conclusion of Fairfax Christian Church and the beginning of IMPACT Fairfax Christian Church. We would follow the same strategy and live in the neighborhood, learn about the neighborhood, and love the neighborhood.
We hired an IMPACT Fairfax pastor and bought a house near the church that he and his family will purchase when the remodel is complete. Today we are loving the community through various neighborhood events, an after-school program, and an outreach night. In addition, our Mount Pleasant IMPACT Center provides a “pop up” food pantry and clothing ministry at Fairfax once each month.
Even though the members of Fairfax Christian Church voted unanimously to turn their ministry over to us, not everyone stayed. Still, we have been able to replant this church with the help of Mount Pleasant members who have made IMPACT Fairfax their new church home. (You don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary.) For the first time in many years, this church is beginning to grow, and we’ve already had multiple baptisms.
Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” (Luke 16:10). We’re seeing the reality of those words as our IMPACT Ministries continue to grow.
Mount Pleasant’s most recent acquisition was Bethany Christian Church, another Indianapolis-area church that had declined and could no longer keep their doors open without help. Following the same live, learn, love IMPACT strategy, as well as the commitment of Mount Pleasant members to be a part of this new campus, we’ve been able to replant the church as IMPACT Bethany Christian Church and, like IMPACT Fairfax, the church is starting to grow and people are being baptized.
PRAYING FOR GREATER IMPACT
“Sometimes our opportunities become our vision.” That simple statement has played out at Mount Pleasant Christian Church. Today, our IMPACT Ministries are reaching urban neighborhoods in Indianapolis by building IMPACT centers designed to love their neighborhoods and then plant a church, or by acquiring declining churches and replanting them to love their neighborhoods. I believe this reflects Jesus’ incarnational ministry as described by his disciple, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).
Today about 3,800 people worship each weekend at Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood and about 700 people worship at our three IMPACT campuses, and the number is growing. This is just the beginning for us because we are regularly praying for the Lord to lead us to our next IMPACT campus in the Greater Indianapolis area. We even have a vision for IMPACT campuses that could be planted in different parts of the world through our global partners.
And it all began with a clothing ministry. What would the future of the church look like if, instead of trying to copy the model of successful churches in other places, we asked questions? Questions like, “What has God uniquely gifted and equipped us to do?” or “How can we begin to identify and meet the needs of our neighborhood or neighborhoods around us?” or “What opportunity or opportunities are right in front of us?” Because, sometimes our opportunities become our vision.
Chris Philbeck has been in full-time ministry since 1980 and the senior pastor at Mount Pleasant Christian Church since 2001. He loves to preach and has a passion for discovering new ways to impact the world with the good news that Jesus came to bring a new and better life.