In chapter 2 of this book I explained how returning in 2004 to my city in Southeast Asia made me realize I did not have the right attitude toward my current city, Raleigh-Durham. Our church had the wrong focus: we were trying to use the city to build a big church; instead, we should be trying to reach and bless our city and if we built a big church in the process, so be it. The goal should not be the size of our church; it should be the salvation and blessing of our city. In addition to our planting other churches in the city, that meant discovering where our city was hurting and applying Christ’s healing in those places.
So we began to ask ourselves: “Where can we bring ‘great joy’ (Acts 8:8) to our city as a demonstration of the gospel?” I met with the mayor and asked him to list the five most underserved parts of our city so we could get involved there.
Shortly thereafter, God brought to our attention an underperforming public elementary school in the inner city of Durham. It was the worst-ranked school in our county and scheduled to be shut down within two years. We approached them about getting involved. Schools in our area were generally leery of church involvement because they assumed that meant zealous, smiling Christians passing out tracts, blaring positive, encouraging Christian music and giving away hot dogs at the annual school fair with John 3:16 stenciled in mustard across the top.
Toward the end of 2004, however, an unbelieving teacher from this school, neighbor of one of our pastors, told him that a family in the school had fallen on hard times and that if we were looking for a place to help, this might be a place to start. We helped that family find temporary housing, and one of our church members, about to get married, asked his guests to redirect any wedding presents to this family to stock their house.
Taking care of this family led to an invitation to care for a few others. At the end of that year, the principal, Starr Sampson, came to us and said, “If this school is going to survive, we really need to do well on our ‘end of grade’ [EOG] exams. Could some of your people come and pray over our students while they take them?”
And so several Summit people wandered the halls of this school during exams, praying over students and classrooms. It probably looked weird, but it worked. Their test scores were the best they had been in years. Mrs. Sampson says that those EOG scores marked the beginning of a turnaround in the school’s performance.
That summer we renovated the school, painting classrooms and scrubbing floors. When school started, we brought breakfast to the teachers. Small groups adopted classrooms and teachers and met the physical needs of families in the schools. We provided dental clinics and tutoring after school.
By the fourth year of our involvement, the school ranked near the top for end-of-year exams passed, and the principal was awarded “Principal of the Year.” In a newspaper interview that year she said, “Of course I want to thank the teachers for the hard work . . . but I have to give credit where credit is due. God gets the glory, and he worked specifically through the people of the Summit Church.”
A couple of years later I was invited to speak at our city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. rally. Durham is 40 percent African American, so this event is a big deal. Local news televises it, and all of the city and county government officials attend.
Not being the typical candidate to keynote an MLK rally, I asked the lady who extended the invitation what exactly they wanted me to speak on. She said, “Well, you’ll have twenty minutes to say whatever you want, to explain why you love our city like you do. All we ask is that you not be controversial.”
I said, “Can I talk about Jesus?”
She said, “Sure. He won’t be controversial.”
I was tempted to reply, “I’m not sure you know him that well.”
I do enough public speaking that I rarely get nervous in front of crowds anymore, but backstage before the event, I was a nervous wreck. I mean, really nervous — like “Joel Osteen about to address The Gospel Coalition” kind of nervous. The county manager, sensing my anxiety, said, “J.D., do you know why you were asked to speak today?”
“No sir,” I said.
“It’s because of how your church has blessed our city.” Another city official shared with me later that afternoon, “It seems that everywhere in our city we find a need, we also find people from the Summit Church meeting that need. And we couldn’t think of anyone to better embody the spirit of brotherly love we want to honor on this day than you all at the Summit Church.”
For eighteen of my twenty minutes I explained how the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ transforms self-absorbed people into those who love and pour themselves out for others. We love because we have been first loved. When I was finished, the entire city council, the mayor, and all his staff gave us an extended standing ovation.
We are still learning what it means to serve our community. But as I stood on the stage that day, an idea that had been growing inside me crystalized: the church is God’s demonstration community. Our works don’t replace the verbal preaching of the gospel, but in them we demonstrate, tangibly, the love and grace that we proclaim with our mouths. Effective gospel preaching is explaining with our words what we demonstrate with our lives. In our service, we make visible the invisible Christ. God has called us to bring joy to our city the way Philip brought joy to Samaria (Acts 8:4 – 8), by preaching the gospel of peace to the city and demonstrating its power to heal and bless through acts of extravagant generosity
Greear, Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).