A Church for the Community

Over the last decade we’ve worked hard at 1208 Greenwood Church to not be a church in the community, but for the community. Often, rather than try to reinvent the wheel, our little old storefront-turned-church in the Flat Iron District of Jackson, MI has primarily served the community by partnering with existing organizations across our city that represent the same kind of themes that we care about. This becomes a double-whammy for the Kingdom of Heaven as we signify our love in action to both those doing the serving and those being served.

This is a Biblical principle. When God sent Israel into exile, he had a plan for their prosperity. This prosperity would be created via their loving impact upon the new city in which they were being exiled.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:7 ESV (There’s an excellent online course by Jonathan Brooks on SeminaryNow that beautifully applies this verse to ministry.)

God’s plan had always been that his nation would be a blessing to the world and that plan remained the same even in the midst of Babylonian persecution. Christians often grumble about the world and look to turn their churches into islands separated from their community, but if we do that, where are we going to take the gospel? We must learn to install the Kingdom of Heaven in our cities as Jesus requires that our faith and His gospel reach the least of these among us.

That being said, here’s a few things we’ve done at 1208 over the years that may give you some ideas as to what you can do at your church or in your ministry.

1. Join Your Local Continuum of Care

This may sound odd to most pastors, but I’ve had coalitions around Jackson ask me to join them because they desired a faith-leader to be present in their meetings. Coalition leaders mentioned to me that they were always able to get pastors to visit, but never to stay and commit—and so their voices, ideas, and perspectives were absent from the able. This dynamic also made it seem like pastors and their churches weren’t concerned with the social concerns of their neighborhoods.

Continuum of Cares are great organizations to join because their focus is on the least of these—namely helping those dealing with housing issues (be it homelessness, struggles in paying rent, or so on). So a great way to better understand your community and the dynamics that lead to homelessness is to join a group like this.

I often joke with the Jackson County Continuum of Care that they’re speaking in another language and that I’ll hop in to help whenever I understand something they’re saying. Joining a local coalition is at first a little overwhelming as there are many organizations to get to know, many legal debacles to have to overcome in order to serve others, and countless acronyms to remember. But after sitting through monthly meetings for several years now, I’ve started to pick up on things. If anything, I’ve truly learned how painstakingly hard it is to make lasting social change happen as there are constant dynamics, personalities, powers, and legalities that get in the way of doing anything easily. Just to make one small change often requires extra meetings, brainstorming, fundraising, delegation, study, and expertise. There have been so many times where a good idea will be offered just to have a lawyer in the room explain how it will be shut down by this or that law or system.

Churches don’t understand this kind of stuff. In fact, they can’t understand this kind of stuff because they’re not experts in these fields—but Continuum of Cares are full of people who are. And when we don’t partner with such organizations or seek out their advice, you’d be surprised how much damage we can actually do to our communities even when our hearts are in the right place. I know it sounds odd, but I’ve seen well-intentioned projects both create additional homelessness issues for Jackson and empower people to stay homeless. Trying to get people out of homelessness requires a lot more work than providing a place for them to stay.

As a pastor I’ve teamed up with our local Continuum of Care to show them that Jesus cares and that I will help. I let people be experts in their fields while I try to offer any expertise I have in mine. When they needed a webpage and I was the only person in the room with the skills to make one, I took the job. When they needed other graphic design help, I pitched in. When they needed an organization to create and host Jackson’s annual Project Homeless Connect, I organized it, had our church host it, and our congregants serve it—and we’ve held that event at 1208 for several years now. At that event we open our doors for all the homeless in Jackson to come and meet all the organizations that can help them, as they grab themselves a plate of food and lots of other goodies.

When they needed someone to run the annual Point-in-Time Count, I offered to help organize it and then put our church to work. This important event happens once a year on a date that the government assigns and it requires all volunteers to go out into the freezing cold to find and document as many unsheltered homeless as they can. The more homeless you can find at that “point-in-time” the more funding the organizations that serve them are able to bring in to help them. And so each year our congregants and other volunteers around the city meet at our church to get marching orders and maps, and then take off to scout abandoned buildings, viaducts, parking lots, forests and many other places in search of those who need help.

After sitting through all of these Continuum of Care meetings and spending some time with the homeless in our community, our church decided to try to add what social impact we could to the situation and announced a project we call, Empowerment Houses. It is absolutely miserable to tell homeless people that you have no answers for them, and so this project was an attempt to put a small dent in the homeless crises by trying to offer a solution. The plan is to create transitionary housing where a homeless person or family be empowered to get things back on track. The Continuum of Care was excited about this project and if we get it running, we will lean heavily on their expertise and advice. We have yet to raise the funds for this project and, quite honestly, COVID threw a pretty big wrench into our progression. But in due time we hope that we can continue working on the idea.

We took on all of these projects partially because of our involvement with Jackson’s Continuum of Care. You can see why this is important and why being a part of such an organization can be helpful to your church and ministry.

2. Join Other Local Coalitions and Boards

As I mentioned before, coalitions are looking for faith-leaders more than you might think. I got involved in Drug Free Jackson a few years back and have now gone on to chair it for my second year in a row. Being a part of this coalition has taught me not only about drugs, but addiction, stigma, recovery, and more. I have learned from experts that know the situation well and have worked alongside great organizations I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

All coalitions have learning curves, but again, our presence as Christians shows our community that we care and that we’ll help out wherever we have overlap. And in some cases, the things we’ll learn in these meetings will lead us to create new organizations we didn’t expect to be a part of, as I’ll explain in the next point.

3. Start a New Organization

While working with Drug Free Jackson, I learned a lot about addiction and a backwards method that slowly helps people get out of it, called harm reduction. Harm reduction works by recognizing that drug addicts cannot simply stop using drugs. If they could stop, they would—no one wants to go to rehab and recovery groups to get clean.

So while recognizing that they can’t stop, harm reduction provides ways to reduce the harm they do to themselves and others while they continue to dream of stopping. In it’s most basic form, harm reduction organizations offer clean needles and take dirty ones, knowing full well that they will be used for illicit activities, but recognizing that their lives will be safer with this protection. We’ve even saved lives, as the narcan we’ve given away has brought people out of their overdoses—a situation the Jackson community knows all too well.

More importantly, as those suffering with addiction come in to get supplies, they will get to know the harm reduction staff who will guide them toward recovery if they want it, and refer them to people who can help. I completely understand that it sounds backwards, but it has worked. We have had many finally come around and say, “I can’t do this anymore and I’m ready to take the next step.” How did we get to that place with them? By entering their mess without judgment, getting to know them as human beings, and proving to them that we care and that they have worth.

Of course, getting to this point wasn’t exactly easy as the method is clearly controversial. We had to do a lot of things to get it up and running. I had to draft a letter for pastors around the community to sign and surprisingly even some of the more conservative pastors I know put their signature on it—one of them having lost a family member to drug overdose. We then had to meet with our city council to present what we intended to do, because legalities understandably prohibited us from starting this kind of organization. After being delayed for sometime by a political figure who didn’t want us to exist, we finally got a slot on a city council agenda to present our case. The medical experts and doctors on our staff presented the proven statistics about why this would be good for the community and city council eventually responded by writing up a memorandum of understanding, allowing us to exist and do this work.

As one of the founding members of JXN Harm Reduction, my greatest desire is to see people free from addiction—not create more addiction. I would have never gotten involved if it wasn’t helpful to freeing people from addiction. Likewise, a coalition called “Drug Free Jackson” would not have taught us about this method if it wasn’t within the bounds of making Jackson “drug free.”

Again, I rely on experts on our board who serve in the medical field and in recovery organizations to help advance our work correctly. I’ve found that most of the help I’ve offered has been in regards to graphic design, communications, and strangely enough, legal matters. While they don’t teach pastors much about legalities in college or seminary, you have to learn quite a bit about such things in order to run a church. And since JXN Harm Reduction is a non-profit, just as a church is, I have had more legal experience to offer than I thought I would. Again, it’s often about serving where you fit, not about becoming something you’re not in order to help out.

4. Visit City Council Meetings

It occurred to me one day that if I attended a city council meeting, I could hear the heart of my city and community and figure out how we could help as practice the Jeremiah 29:7 principle. I learned very quickly that these city council meetings are not always pretty as community members can be quite vicious, but I attended to keep my ear to the ground and see how our church might be able to respond to any of the needs that were raised.

On the first night I attended, the topic the community raised was that of streetlights. Jackson can be a very dark place at night as we don’t exactly have a plethora of street lights making it safe. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots across the neighborhood—for example, around the holidays my wife and I are often trying to discern if we just heard a gunshot or a firework and our Facebook neighborhood groups are often trying to pinpoint where a gunshot originated from. In light of this, obviously street lights could be quite useful in our neighborhoods so that people are a bit safer. But streetlights are way more expensive than you might think.

After this council meeting, I immediately texted our church board and told them that I wanted to use our outreach budget to buy the brightest lightbulbs I could find and then go door to door and hand them out in our neighborhood. Sure, this wouldn’t offer the same brightness as streetlights, but it would certainly help if the whole community left their porch lights on all night. And again, it would show the community that Jesus cares about such things. In a matter of weeks we hit the streets and I sent a small email to the mayor explaining that we hoped this would help address the light problem in our neighborhood.

I was caught off guard when the mayor emailed me back and mentioned that they were teaming up with Consumer’s Energy to bring the same kind of project to the whole city in a program called, Light Up the City. He now considered our church as having micro-piloted the idea and asked me to join this wider effort. Before I knew it, I was co-chairing Jackson’s city-wide effort to install light bulbs all across the city where they were especially needed. Light up the City would schedule several walks each summer and our church hosted those walks whenever they landed near our area. Again, we were looking to partner where were saw overlap with the Kingdom of Heaven and this was one of those ways.

These walks served other important functions as well, such as police relations. While it only made a small dent on the subject, police always walked these walks with us. Since we were often trying to bring lightbulbs to some of the rougher neighborhoods, bridges were sometimes made when police knocked on the door with a gift to give and struck up a kind conversation.

5. Get Involved in Justice

We’ve spoke on matters of justice at 1208 over the years, but 2020 forced us to put our actions where our mouths were. After George Floyd was murdered, marches rose up all around Jackson and I encouraged our church to join in. Yes, we were originally trying to be pro-life by keeping distance from one another due to COVID, but now we had to bring ourselves together to be pro-life for black lives, because, of course, Black Lives Matter to God.

We marched down Martin Luther King Jr Dr (a symbolic road to protest on if ever there was one) all the way downtown and let our feet proclaim justice. Then we joined in another protest in downtown Jackson in the following weeks. And when my friend, Pastor Myisha “Uni” Cunningham put together a prayer protest, we were right there alongside her. On top of all of this we hosted viewings of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise videos and continued to address the topic as we loudly preached on themes of justice in our services in hopes that others would see that we’re a church that cares about race and justice.

I went to all of these marches aware that things could go south and that riots could start up, but they never did. Had they done so, I would have recognized that these marches were no longer overlapping with the peacemaking ways of the Kingdom of Heaven, and I would have walked away. But like most marches across America, these were largely peaceful marches.

6. Become a Peacemaker

After Trump had made some upsetting comments about Muslims in 2015, I signed a letter put together by Jackson pastors that announced to the community that we opposed such statements. Outside of this attempt to make peace and love our neighbors, I wrote a letter to the mosque across the street from us at the suggestion of my then associate pastor, Myisha. I then lit the advent candle of peace and invited the whole church to come up and sign the letter as they took communion. The church responded in applause and did just that.

That day was a beautiful picture of peacemaking and the love of Jesus. We then dropped off the fruit basket and letter at the mosque and on Christmas Eve we received back a loving letter from our Muslim neighbors along with a tray of amazing cookies (far better than the fruit basket we had given them). We did this again the following year. We also drilled a sign into the wall by our front door that said, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish and Arabic. We continue to pray for our Muslim neighbors and I remain open to how Jesus might want to use us in ministering to them.

7. Get Involved in Food Distribution

For a long time I was afraid to get involved in food distribution because I didn’t know how to take care of all of the things that came with it. But I soon found out that there are already organizations in our area that can take care of it for us and all we have to do is be an outlet for them. In our case, Compassionate Ministries of Jackson was the provider. They asked us if we’d be willing to be one of their mobile food banks. We agreed, and in due time we were being supplied with a generous amount of food to give out each month. Since we already had many poor and impoverished people in our church services, we tagged the food distribution right onto the end of our service (and no—no one was required to stay for service to receive food).

When COVID hit, Compassionate Ministries of Jackson offered us another opportunity to deliver food packages directly to people’s houses as calls from our area came in. And so whenever calls show up, I throw a few bags in my car and make the delivery typically within a few hours. It’s a great idea on their part and partnering with them has been very easy.

8. Partner with Other Churches

While 1208 is a part of the Free Methodist denomination, I work to partner with churches across denominations throughout Jackson via a group I started called, JXN Pastors Network. While it’s a fairly small group, it leaves the space for pastors across the area to work together instead of apart. We’re bringing the Kingdom to Jackson together, not separately. This has led to some great relationships and was a lifesaver once quarantine hit. We started meeting online weekly instead of in-person monthly and bounced dozens of ideas off of each other and grieved over the situation we were all facing. The pandemic would have been incredibly different for me if I didn’t have this group of pastors to rely on and hear from, as we often share the state of our souls with one another and then pray for each other.

9. Start Unique Churches

Ever since I started pastoring, my heart has been burning for the poor, but reaching them wasn’t always easy. We finally found the solution: Dinner Church. A few years ago we went from being your average hour-and-a-half-morning-service-church to a two-and-a-half-hour-evening-service-church that served dinner alongside its service. After two years, our numbers doubled as we began reaching all sorts of people we hadn’t before. We built relationships with them and grew to love one another around a meal each week. It has been a beautiful thing.

As you might expect, COVID has thrown a wrench into Dinner Church, but our board is currently talking about the possibility of launching a food truck. If we can pull this off, this food truck will operate as our new kitchen and serve as a kind of, Dinner Church on the Road. Wherever we go and set up a service, there will be food as well.

Outside of this church, we have also launched two other churches: Nerd Church and JXN Cloud. We launched Nerd Church at Jackson’s MeggaXP (our community’s version of Comic-Con, which is put on by some of my awesome neighbors). It was cool to start our existence by jumping right into the nerd community in that way, and the church has grown in reaching that niche audience even in pandemic, via our Discord channel. JXN Cloud on the other hand is a church that was built specifically to reach people online. Part of the idea was that some might be too sick to ever risk going out in the pandemic and that this might be able to serve as a church for them. We’re still learning and tweaking this ministry to see what it will become.

Unique ministry has become somewhat of a staple for 1208 at this point. Our former associate pastor, Myisha, left to plant Raven-Brook Recovery Church—a church that ministers to addicts and helps them find recovery. And during quarantine, one of our Spanish-speaking congregants started up a house church which has now gone on to plant Communidad Agua Viva, which now uses our building for their church. This is a huge answer to prayer as 1208 Greenwood was founded upon the work of a Latino Church 10 years ago. This church is the resurfacing of that old church, resurrected once again.

Conclusion

Being a church for the community instead of in the community takes a lot of work and can be messy at times—but it’s worth it, and it is what God calls us to do. Our vision statement at 1208 Greenwood has become so much about the community that we recently changed it to, “In Jackson as it is in Heaven”—and that’s exactly what we aim for. Hopefully the ideas and stories mentioned throughout this article will help you in your own ministry.

Jamin Bradley

Jamin is an ordained elder in the Free Methodist Church, the lead pastor of 1208 Greenwood Church, and the communications director of the Southern Michigan Conference. Outside of pastoring and writing books, Jamin is a nerd who loves video games, board games, grilling, entertaining guests, and writing, recording and playing music.

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