From the Inside Out: Sharing the Unchanging Gospel in a Changing World

[I wrote this about a year ago for a magazine and can now share it here.]

On the south side of Richmond, Virginia, the elderly couple holds their sign and waits fruitlessly. In a place where Saturdays mark fish fries and sidewalk gatherings, they beckon to a church yard sale. In an area populated by weather-worn buildings with rough, hand-painted signs for the “Apostolic Kingdom of Jesus Worshippers,” they offer a pristine mainline church with a name handed down for decades. Around them the community reflects a diverse mix of African Americans and Asians and Hispanics, but the parking lot of the church contains only one skin color—one completely dissimilar to those passing on the sidewalk.

It’s a moment that suits Richmond well, a city where pylons still stretch up out of the James River to hold a bridge that no longer exists, a casualty of the fleeing Confederate army. Here you’ll find many mainline churches with middle-class, aging congregations. Their homes retreat farther and farther away from the little islands they’ve kept up in the middle of rough neighborhoods. Tradition holds them there—but it’s doubtful they’ve seen a new believer in years.

Some area churches have already succumbed to dwindling membership. Only a few miles from where the couple waits, a tall steeple casts an impressive shadow across Cowardin Avenue, and you might be excused for thinking this growing mosque still housed a church. Other former mainline churches boast boarded-up windows, graffiti, and orange notices to keep out.

The River City changed, and when those churches wouldn’t budge, the city changed them.

Hope and a Drug Dealer

Walker’s not the type of guy who would care much about the history of such churches in the city he calls home. The drug-dealer-turned-Bible-smuggler spends his days telling people how Jesus spared his life from his former employer and how the Holy Spirit empowered him to tell Egyptians about Christ without a translator.

His nights only vary because of the location. Instead of speaking to the people in his apartment building, he’s talking about Jesus as a bouncer at a bar. He’s intimidating, and he’s enthusiastic. He’s also evidence of hope, a sign that some Christians in Richmond have realized the seismic shift that’s happening. Instead of boarding up and taking flight, they’re taking the gospel to the people outside.

Pastor Bryan Ogle of Enon Church of God knows something about the importance of this outward focus toward a changing culture. Twenty-five minutes south of downtown Richmond, the community around Enon continues to swell. “The church moved to this location eight to 10 years ago,” he says. “Where we are now is more of a suburb of Richmond. There’s a military base that’s supposed to triple in size. So, just the culture of the area that the building sits in now is much different.”

When he first arrived, however, the church had faced struggles. “The congregation had just gone through some difficult times. They just went through a transition of culture, and some people left. It was a low-morale type environment.”

In many ways, the first steps Pastor Ogle took reflect the purpose statement of the church: “Love God. Love people. Serve the world.” He opened his home to the congregation, inviting them to learn about the vision God had given him for Enon. From there, he’s leading the church through necessary change to better serve the community.

“We’re in the process of not thinking of the church as the way it’s always been. That goes from music to our discipleship approach to just having the church go from a smaller church mentality to a bigger church one. Changing the mentality of how leaders within the church lead. We are in the process of embracing the culture that will lead us into the future.”

From handing out Gatorades at the local Y to hosting a night of camping on the church grounds to special seminars and events, the outward gestures to the changing community are already having a big impact as the church grows.

Hope and a Hurricane

Few shifts in culture, however, have been as dramatic as what happened in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The vibrant community of Homestead Church of God collapsed from about 200 people to 27 following the devastation. Seemingly overnight, South Miami-Dade County shed 250,000 people who left the ravaged area behind.

Their example deeply influenced his desire to reach the “new” Homestead. “I’ve never seen such devotion and raw, pure, self-sacrificial ministry that close. I think most people would have left the community for normal lives. They didn’t. They deserve [much] credit for their tenacity and faithfulness.”

The church he began leading had around 32 dedicated members, but God gave him a vision to remove as many barriers as possible and to create a “gospel-obsessed community that loves God and man with reckless abandon.” Disaster had changed the city, economic adversity had hardened those in the area, but the need for the unchanging gospel is always the same.

Homestead, the post-Andrew Homestead, needed to hear that message, and Pastor Johnson wanted to make it happen. “We considered ourselves a church re-plant. We rebranded [as Life Pointe Church], sold property, re-opened, restructured, and relocated. But, in order to do all that, we had to have the buy-in from our church body and from the COG state office. The process for that [took] several years.”

Even seemingly small cosmetic changes had a significant impact. “As we talked about the future, we improved the facility. We simplified everything by throwing away anything that hadn’t been used in a year. We painted using Starbucks’ colored themes. We re-landscaped. We were broke. So, everything we did was with elbow grease and donated services from new members. The week we painted, we had families show up for the first time saying they had never seen the church before. The physical changes lent credence to and reinforced the vision. As small wins built up, we were able to tackle the greater pursuit of relaunching.”

A New World Outside

According to early results from the 2010 census, the world outside the church building continues to transform. Married couples with children account for only 22% of all households nationally, and “minorities” are no longer minorities in many places. Three million people have left the Northeast, and the Midwest shed another two million—many of them relocating to the South.1

Shifting demographics affect all churches, perhaps more now than in many years. To share the gospel effectively, churches must reach out to the changing realities like Enon and Life Pointe have. Otherwise, the community may increasingly ignore the church—and the message.

Footnote: 1http://adage.com/article?article_id=139592

40 Young Influencers to Watch in the Church of God

North America

Lance Arguello
Role: Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church (Farmington, Arkansas)
Buzz: Leading the way in using innovative technology to train and equip church planters at minimal expense
On the web: http://alifecog.org

Daniela C. Augustine
Role: Assistant Professor at Lee University (Cleveland, Tennessee)
Buzz: Co-founded the Bulgarian Theological College; planted several churches in Europe; renowned as a scholar and professor
On the web: http://www.leeuniversity.edu

Patrick Ballington
Role: Lead Pastor of The Bridge (Cleveland, Georgia)
Buzz: Dedicated to training future leaders in missional practices; certified church and ministry consultant
On the web: http://www.thebridgeonline.cc/

Oral Beason
Role: Pastor of Fellowship New Testament Church of God (Davie, Florida)
Buzz: Highly regarded thinker and church planter
On the web: http://fellowshipnewtestamentchurchofgod.org/

Jason Bolin
Role: Senior Pastor of Trinity Chapel (Powder Springs, Georgia)
Buzz: Has infused fresh excitement and vision at one of the largest churches in the denomination
On the web: http://trinitychapel.org

Captain Matthew Boyd
Role: Chaplain with the Air Force
Buzz: Awarded the Joint Services Commendation Medal; recognized for his ministry outreaches within the military
On the web: http://www.cogchaplains.com

Anthony Braswell
Role: Lead Pastor of Northpark Church (Raleigh, North Carolina)
Buzz: Followed God’s calling to the city of Raleigh and has seen tremendous growth
On the web: http://www.discovernorthpark.com

Ken Hitte
Role: Lead Pastor of Discover Life Church (Melbourne, Florida)
Buzz: Finding innovative ways to communicate the gospel to a quickly growing congregation
On the web: http://www.discoverlifechurch.tv

Brian Hunter
Role: Lead Pastor of GenesisChurch.tv (Tallahassee, Florida)
Buzz: Built a core of eight people into a multi-campus church reaching over a thousand each week
On the web: http://genesischurch.tv/

Jason Isaacs
Role: Teaching Pastor of River City Worship Center (Louisville, Kentucky)
Buzz: Continues to envision effective and creative ways to engage the un-churched
On the web: http://www.rivercitywc.com/

Travis Johnson
Role: Lead Pastor of Life Pointe Church (Homestead and Plantation Key, Florida)
Buzz: Successfully relaunched the now-multisite Life Pointe after Hurricane Andrew; training leaders and future church planters
On the web: http://www.life-pointe.com/

Jerry Lawson
Role: Lead Pastor of Daystar Church (Cullman, Alabaman)
Buzz: Successfully relaunched a fast-growing church; noted for innovated approaches to ministry
On the web: http://www.daystarchurch.tv

Ben Liles
Role: Lead Pastor of Baypointe Church (Panama City Beach, Florida)
Buzz: Founded a dynamic student ministry; revitalized a declining church; planted the fast-growing Baypointe
On the web: http://www.baypointechurch.tv

Kevin Lloyd
Role: Executive Pastor of Stevens Creek Church (Augusta, Georgia)
Buzz: Helped organize the Engage Conference 2011 and spearheaded cleanup efforts from recent storms
On the web: http://www.stevenscreekchurch.com/

Chris Lockemy
Role: Lead Pastor of Epic Church (Baltimore, Maryland)
Buzz: Reaching young adults in the Baltimore area with the gospel through incarnational ministry
On the web: http://www.theepicmovement.com

Buck Marshall
Role: Senior Pastor of New Hope Church (Ennis, Texas)
Buzz: Recognized for successful community outreach programs and missional mindset
On the web: http://newhopeforever.com

Jonathan Martin
Role: Senior Pastor of Renovatus Church (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Buzz: Built a growing community at Renovatus; prolific writer; theological expositor; editor of Youth and Christian Education Leadership
On the web: http://renovatuscommunity.com/

Rocky McKinley
Role: Lead Pastor of Destiny Community Church (Newberry, Florida)
Buzz: Successfully replanted a church of 15 people and led an incredible turnaround
On the web: http://www.destinycommunitychurch.org

Rob Miskowski
Role: Pastor of Agape Fellowship (Tickfaw, Louisiana)
Buzz: Key in revitalizing churches in both New York and now Louisiana
On the web: http://www.ALovingChurch.org

Chris Moody
Role: Senior Pastor of South Cleveland Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)
Buzz: Led South Cleveland through a multi-year building campaign and stellar growth
On the web: http://www.southcleveland.org/

Louis Morgan
Role: Assistant Professor and the Assistant Director of Squires Library at Lee University (Cleveland, Tennessee)
Buzz: Winner of the Charles W. Conn Historical Writing Award (2008–2010); respected scholar and prolific writer
On the web: http://www.louismorgan.info/

Bryan Ogle
Role: Lead Pastor of Enon Church of God (Chester, Virginia)
Buzz: Revitalized a declining church by dynamically engaging the changing culture
On the web: http://enoncog.com/

Matt Roberts
Role: Lead Pastor of The Genesis Project (Ogden, Utah)
Buzz: Followed a dream to launch The Genesis Project that now reaches hundreds each week in a difficult area
On the web: http://www.genesisutah.com/

Daniel Rushing
Role: Lead Pastor of New Harvest Church (Asheville, North Carolina)
Buzz: Reaching a unique community of artists through missional living and outreach
On the web: http://nhclive.com/

Brock Stamps
Role: Student Pastor of Harvest Church (Anniston, Alabama)
Buzz: Oversees a dynamic and innovative student ministry; thought-leader for reaching the ‘Net Generation
On the web: http://harvestchurchofgod.com/

Brent Stephens
Role: Founding Pastor of Four Points Church (Acworth, Georgia)
Buzz: Went against the grain by leaving a leadership position to plant a mission-minded, rapidly growing church
On the web: http://fourpointschurch.tv

Tony Stewart
Role: Senior Pastor of City Life Church (Tampa, Florida)
Buzz: Providing dynamic leadership for a growing multicultural and multigenerational church
On the web: http://www.citylifechurch.cc

Daniel Vassell, Sr.
Role: Administrative Bishop of Western Canada
Buzz: Elected to the Council of Eighteen; respected speaker on family relationships and marriage counseling
On the web: http://cogcanada.org

Kevin Wallace
Role: Lead Pastor of Redemption Point Church (Ooltewah, Tennessee)
Buzz: Has overseen tremendous growth at Redemption Point and the launch of campus in Chattanooga
On the web: http://www.redemptionpoint.net/

Clayton Watson
Role: Lead Pastor of The Sanctuary (DeLand, Florida)
Buzz: Developing fresh approaches to ministry and leadership training
On the web: http://www.sanctuaryonline.cc

Rick Whitter
Role: Lead Pastor of Cross Community Church (Palm Beach Gardens and Palm Beach Shores, Florida)
Buzz: Leads International Orphan Support to help children worldwide; leading an intentionally missional church
On the web: http://www.crosscommunity.cc and http://iorphan.cc

Asia

Jamison Creel
Role: Pastor of Mount of Olives Ministry Center and Director of the Jerusalem Urban Discipleship Center (Israel)
Buzz: Discipling young leaders to have a global impact in a post-Christian context
On the web: http://judc.org

Bayarjargal Gombosuren
Role: National Coordinator of Missions (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)
Buzz: Trained in America and returned to Mongolia to reach a poverty-stricken nation
On the web: http://www.cogwm.org

Ariunbold Oyuntsetseg
Role: Bible School Director (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia)
Buzz: Trains upcoming leaders to impact their community and country
On the web: http://www.cogwm.org

Fred Toke
Role: Director of Lee Community College (Singapore)
Buzz: Oversees an award-winning Christian college that reaches out to people of other faiths
On the web: http://www.lee.edu.sg

Anthony Velasco
Role: Senior Pastor of Church of God Dasmariñas (Philippines) and Metro Manila Overseer
Buzz: Has led his church through explosive growth; oversees the We Exalt You Jesus Foundation to provide needed medical aid and community assistance
On the web: http://cogdasma.com

Eriya Yatsuzuka
Role: Senior Pastor of Tokyo Lighthouse Church and Overseer of Japan
Buzz: Organized relief efforts and gospel outreaches after the recent earthquake and tsunami
On the web: http://www.cog.jp

Europe

Hervin Fushekati
Role: General Overseer and Pastor (Albania)
Buzz: Building a national church movement from the ground up; working to develop leaders
http://istl-albania.net

Jivko Jeliazkov
Role: Pastor of Crossroads International Church (Freudenstadt, Germany)
Buzz: Growing a multinational and multilingual church in a post-Christian nation
On the web: http://www.cicfds.de/

South America

Silvina Gonzalez
Role: Director of the Dunamis Medical Missions Ministry (Uruguay)
Buzz: Selflessly and tirelessly provides both physical and spiritual healing to the most needy
On the web: http://www.cogwm.com