When Ministry Gets Messy: A Washington Church’s Incarnational Approach
By Carl Stagner
“In the beginning was the Word, as the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 NIV). Community was whole and pristine, at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden. But the thief, who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), did exactly that. Community was ruptured between humanity and God, and between one another. Since the Fall, God has been working to restore that community, to bring people back to himself. Did you know he’s chosen to use you and me to accomplish the task? But we’ve lost our sense of community, downplayed the power of presence, and ignored the methods of Jesus. Our neighbors are crying out for hope all around us, we hear their voices, but we’d prefer to write a check to the nearest charity. We don’t want to get our hands dirty. In contrast, Roosevelt Community Church, a modest-size Church of God congregation in Bellingham, Washington, is taking back what hell has stolen and destroyed in their neighborhood. They’re boldly giving life where the enemy of our souls has snatched it away, simply by being in, for, and with their community.
The church’s pastor, Kurt Ingram, wouldn’t have it any other way. The ministry of Roosevelt Community Church is intentionally incarnational. Such a philosophy flies in the face of both a commute-to-church culture and the attractional model. It’s not about their church, how fast it’s filling seats, or how much of the town knows they exist. For Pastor Kurt and RCC, it’s about expanding the kingdom, and how much of the town knows that Jesus not only exists, but also transforms lives. To that end, they’re striving to make sure as many of their next-door neighbors, including the homeless that reside on their parking lot, know, without a doubt, that they are loved.
“If God called us here, and we planted a church to be in this place, then our place matters,” Kurt explains. “We have to know this place. We must be for our neighbors—on their side. We’re not here to add to the property values or even get crime out of here, but to love people. To be with them.”
Kurt recalls an experience he had once in another setting, where the local police were touting the latest efforts to improve the community. An officer addressed the crime rate, assuring residents that they were determined to “get the thugs off the street.” To most, especially at first, that goal sounds noble. But Kurt had a different reaction. “Our job, as pastors, isn’t to cheer such a statement. Our job is to help those thugs stay on the street in our communities and see them transformed into awesome members of the community!”
Roosevelt Community Church really cares about their neighbors. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re not growing by leaps and bounds, and sometimes what they try doesn’t work. But that’s not their concern. “We celebrate even if we fail,” Kurt explains. “To do things that are beautiful, even if they’re not growing the church, are worth celebrating just because they’re good and beautiful for our neighborhood.”
When asked to define incarnational ministry, Kurt goes back to John 1 and the life of Jesus. “If your life as a Christian doesn’t look like Jesus, you’re a liar,” he asserts. “Everything about us ought to look and feel like Jesus. The Word became flesh, so we must ask, How do we become a word of love, a word of grace, a word of the gospel? For our neighbors and neighborhoods. It’s not just an idea. It’s not just theology. Our neighbors need to feel and experience Jesus. How do we learn to live this into our community? Our prayer is that the life of Jesus would come alive in us.”
“God didn’t give us a church story to live,” Kurt continues. “We’re not called to just do things in the church building, or even do things with the church’s name on it. It’s not about the branding of our church. God’s greatest desire for us is to live the story we’ve been given—the work we’ve been given, the neighbors we’ve been given, the places where we shop, the places where we eat, the places where we play. Those are the places the life of Jesus should be coming alive in us. That’s the Word being made flesh inside us. That’s incarnational.”
The church isn’t the subject, Jesus is, and Pastor Kurt knows it. He lives it, and leads Roosevelt Community Church to do the same. Part-time at the church, he makes ends meet by getting involved in a wide variety of community organizations and nonprofits, including a Spanish-speaking congregation. That’s also how he gets to know the people and the needs of the community. Pastor Kurt’s even the vice president of the neighborhood association.
As a smaller church, and as a church not interested in making their own name known, they don’t do a lot of community ministry solely sponsored and led by them. Instead, they partner with the community in just about everything they do. Not only does the church offer weekly space in their building for several different organizations to gather, but they also take part in some incredibly life-giving ministries. For instance, the annual Candy Walk in the fall for trick-or-treating children. There’s the Service Project Sundays, where the church periodically dispenses with the usual Sunday routine and tackles projects for their neighbors—whether repairing a broken fence, or providing painting services to the local elementary school. One of the most potent initiatives is the Community Toy Store, which collects donations of toys, which are then sold to families at 75 percent off sticker price. This allows purchasers to maintain a sense of pride in buying the item, though at a price they can afford, and allows them the joy and freedom of selecting the item. All the proceeds, usually about $10 thousand, are then distributed to local nonprofits.
Roosevelt Community Church has discovered that ministry is messy, but they don’t mind. Cleaning up after the homeless in their parking lot, for example, isn’t their idea of fun. But what Pastor Kurt has learned over years of ministry at home and abroad—especially abroad—is that everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is uniquely worth hearing. A “colonial mindset” is not a kingdom value, as the role of God’s people isn’t to make others more like us, but to help everyone encounter Jesus in a way that makes all of us more like him.
“Our desire in all of this is to continue to open up to Jesus so we’re all growing,” Pastor Kurt concludes. “Whatever relationships we have, it’s about all of us being changed and shaped by Jesus Christ.”
Learn more about the Church of God at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.