Helping the church be the church

How compassion compels church congregations to serve beyond their church walls.

I’ll never forget my conversation with Pastor Morgan Chilulu seven years ago about how his church was transforming lives in Kamfinsa, Zambia. Christian Family Church — with only 120 members, a few wooden pews, and a single light bulb hanging from the corrugated tin ceiling — was caring for widows, orphans, the sick, and everyone in the town affected by AIDS. That day, Pastor Chilulu taught me an incredible lesson about the church.

Christian Family Church provides meals, counseling, childcare, home cleaning, and basic medical care. They connect the sick with hospitals and government services. At the time of our conversation, the AIDS crisis was ravaging communities like his. Their care was incredibly effective, and so many people recovered that they started a jobs program. People who were once suffering on their deathbeds were ready to get back to work. The church started a welding business, a poultry farm, and a preschool, and they had dreams of a farm that could feed the entire community.

Pastor Chilulu’s efforts began after a World Vision training program gave him the tools to address the AIDS epidemic. Instead of ignoring the problem and pointing fingers, Christian Family Church learned to have compassion. That’s how Pastor Chilulu discovered what the church should be. With profound simplicity, he told me, “A church that lives within its four walls is no church at all.”

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.—2 Corinthians 5:20 (NIV)

There are a number of ways in which World Vision works with churches, but one thing remains the same. Wherever World Vision works, we help the church be the church, and that means getting out of the pews and into people’s lives.

In Rwanda, I have seen World Vision hand over a community savings and lending program to a local church so they could run it. Elsewhere in Africa, where Christians are a minority, we are helping churches run kids clubs for children to have a safe place to go when school is out. They also learn about health and sanitation — and about Jesus. In Bolivia, churches work hand-in-hand with our community development programs.

Few things are as powerful or as compelling as a church that lives outside its walls. What happened to Christian Family Church in Zambia happens to churches in the U.S. as well. I think of Springcreek Church in Dallas; Life Center in Tacoma, Washington; or Vineyard Columbus in Columbus, Ohio. These churches are attracting new Christians and the attention of their communities as they find ways to show Jesus’ love for the hurting in their own cities and around the world.

I remember during my visit to Armenia a few years ago talking to the Catholicos, the head of the country’s Orthodox church. He told me the story of the church’s persecution and near collapse at the hands of the communist government. The church was embattled, he told me. It was discriminated against and was prevented from educating the country’s youth in the faith. By the time communism fell, the Armenian church was on its knees.

The crisis in the Armenian church was an opportunity for World Vision to do what we seek to do around the world: Help and support churches in the world-changing mission given to them by Jesus. I hope you read this important story.

I have a verse inscribed on my office wall that I read every day. It’s 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

Ambassadors don’t stay in the embassy. They get out into the country where they are sent, and they represent the one that sent them. The same is true for Christ’s ambassadors. We can’t live out our faith inside our protective walls. Our vision is for every church to boldly get out, clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). These are the kinds of compassionate ambassadors that change the world.

World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns is the author of The Hole In Our Gospel and Unfinished. Follow him at twitter.com/richstearns.

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