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Community and the altar

Ray Berryhill

A growing church is a church that connects people to God regardless of its background or personal circumstances. It also acknowledges the altar as a place of dynamic, immediate encounter between hurting people and a loving God.

What will motivate you to look past your own social circles and relational preferences as you seek growth for your church and look for ways to have a greater impact on your community? The will of God.

God uses people who are different from each other. He breaks down the barriers that keep us apart, and then brings us together as one body that cooperates with Him to establish an ever-widening circle of love.

Our congregation knew that God had placed Evangel World Outreach Center in our community to reach as many as possible, by any means possible. The New Testament church is to be a welcoming community that draws people from every racial, economic, and social spectrum to the altar.

Reaching out

You do not knock on people’s doors to drag them to your church to be thrust to the altar. The road from someone’s front door to the church’s front door is often long and loving. At Evangel World Outreach Center, compassion ministry has become a major avenue for that journey.

We have partnered with Convoy of Hope three times in our community. In addition, we have held what we call Community Festivals. While Convoy is for the less-fortunate person, Community Fest seeks to bless the entire community.

At Community Fest, we partner with community businesses and social agencies to offer a variety of services to those who attend. We have live music, prizes, and giveaways. We have carnival rides, inflatable games, animals, clowns, stilt walkers, and tumbling teams. The event is free. People only pay for their food. This past year we held a job fair at the Fest. More than 100 people received jobs. We provided medical screening and free immunizations, as well as 1,600 book bags filled with school supplies for children.

A continuous presentation of the gospel accompanies these events. Our purpose is to meet the needs of the community. Once you have invested in their needs, you earn the right to preach to them. For too long churches answered questions that no one was asking. When we invest more than $40,000 on a free community outreach, people ask, “Why would a church do this?”

Our answer: “To demonstrate the love of Jesus.”

When people think of a church, they do not think of the one with the best building, the biggest choir, or even the best preaching. They think about the church that is visible and relevant.

We have had tens of thousands of people attend Convoy and Community Fest over the past several years. Later, when many of those people are facing a need, they remember that Evangel World Outreach Center cared about them. Our church created an environment of unconditional love, acceptance, compassion, and fun for them.

A diverse church will meet a variety of needs. It will have a heart for meeting people where they are — where their felt needs are. This compassion-ministry emphasis is being salt and light, just as Christ called us to be. We are being salt — preserving and giving spiritual flavor to people’s empty lives. We are being light — shining the light of the gospel into the darkness around us.

Building up

To be connected to your community, you need to move beyond a one-day event. Evangel World Outreach Center is committed to marketplace ministry.

We have purchased several properties within the community. One is a strip mall located on a corner one block from the church.

We rent the property to businesses, and we are planning to rent space to our own members for occupational development. Our goal is to have those businesses, or people from our church who have businesses, provide Christian witness to their customers. It might be through televising taped services from our church or some low-key advertising space that promotes the church.

Marketplace ministry is important because it empowers the church to go places where people are. It is different from the evangelistic approach of going and convincing people to come to church. The goal is for believers to go into the community so they can help others experience the life and the presence of Jesus in their community every day.

Touching a New generation

You can hold a successful one-day event and draw some families into the church. You can expand that commitment to a long-term outreach and create interaction between the church and the community in the marketplace every day. But the church’s farthest reaching impact is through permanently influencing the next generation.

My life Scripture is Psalm 71:17,18: “O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come” (KJV).

I recently traveled to China. There I saw my life Scripture being fleshed out. While in China I saw something that amazed me — the ministry of several American businessmen. These men went to China to use their businesses to disciple people for the Kingdom and raise leaders in that country. These men are investing themselves in young Chinese believers who will shape their generation for Christ.

At Evangel World Outreach Center we are using this concept with our daycare and elementary school to spiritually touch children at an early age. We have 250 children in our school. Every time we have a program, a concert, or a play, we have an altar call. Whether that play has anything to do with Jesus or not, parents respond because their children’s involvement in something positive has touched their hearts.

Giving altar calls at school events brings together the two lifelines of our church community and the altar of God. I explain that our school is a ministry of our church and we are glad families have entrusted their children into our care. But I also emphasize that their children not only learn academics, but they also learn Christian morals and values. We are open with families about the fact we teach their children about Jesus.

Then I tell those parents that 1,000 years from now it will not matter what house they lived in, where they worked, what car they drove, or how much money they made. The only thing that will matter is whether they knew Jesus in a personal way. Not only have parents been saved, but teachers and teacher’s aides have also accepted Christ and become a part of our church.

Altars — power centers for today’s churches

Altar calls are extremely important, especially in Pentecostal churches. In a service where the Holy Spirit has free reign, if people come to the altar, lives and destinies will change.

Our church is a church of the altar. Our members are people of the altar. Every service has an altar call. This has created a tremendous level of expectancy in our people. Many times I do not even need to give an altar call. People come to the altar to worship or to give an offering during the sermon. They understand that the altar is a place of decision and commitment. If they come, God will meet them there. Regardless of the topic I preach on, I give opportunity for people to come to the altar. It can be during worship, after a testimony, or after a prophetic Word. If I can encourage people to come to the altar, they will find grace, mercy, healing, and hope. That is what I believe, what I preach, and what happens.

Every major milestone of life happens at the altar. People accept Christ at the altar, infants are dedicated at the altar, and couples marry at the altar. We may have a season of spiritual apathy and then rededicate our lives at the altar. God heals many people at the altar. For some, before going to their final resting place, their casket is placed near the altar. The altar is a place of death, a place of sacrifice, but more than that, a place of transformation.

When the Word of God has gone forth, the altar is the capstone to that communication experience between the Spirit of God and searching hearts. Pastors rob people and offend the Lord when they do not allow people opportunity to respond to what God is doing in their hearts. I call for a response. I do not always give an appeal for salvation. Sometimes I tell people that God may be dealing with their hearts regarding a matter on which I preached. I invite people to come forward if they desire prayer. It never fails — people respond. It is common for the altar to be flooded with people, shedding tears in brokenness before God.

Our people know that the prayers offered for them at the altar are just the beginning. Our staff and our intercessors will continue to pray for them during the week. We will write to them to let them know that we are continuing to pray for them and are standing in agreement with them for their needs.

The bottom line at our church is to get people to the altar and lift their faith in the God who can help them, change them, and change their circumstances. I often tell the congregation that they have tried everything else — now they can try God and watch Him move on their behalf.

Altars and the theology of place

The altar is central at Evangel World Outreach Center because I believe in the theology of place. That theology has large- and small-scale applications. The altar itself is an immediate, small-scale application, but the principle holds true as you widen your vision.

Concerning ministry, I do not believe that God calls us to do ministry just anywhere. He specifically calls us to a certain place. As we look throughout Scripture, God sovereignly intervened with the patriarchs of the faith and told them, “Do go,” and “Do not go,” regarding certain places.

Consider Bethel and the dramatic fashion in which God met Jacob. “Surely,” he said, “the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16, KJV).

I firmly believe in the theology of place. God places us in strategic locations for strategic ministry. Many times we are amazed to find that He is already in that place and already working to prepare a field for harvest.

The theology of place means that God not only cares about people, but He also cares about places as well. He calls us to seek the salvation of all people and the social transformation of the places where He calls us to minister. We cannot let our petty differences with others stand in the way. We cannot, as ministers, decide that we are called to reach only the affluent or the poor, or only the people of our culture or certain other cultures. The theology of place demands that we create a living sanctuary with doors that open to everyone within that place, to bring spiritual and social transformation.

I believe with all my heart that God’s will for the church is to proactively deal with the issue of racism. Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 2:14,15 that Christ’s purpose was to bring Jews and Gentiles together, creating one new people in the body of Christ. Paul also states in Colossians 3:11 that there is no distinction. This includes all people regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, and social or economic class. Christ is all, and in all. Therefore, if anyone is to deal with racism it needs to be the church. He has given the church the ministry of reconciliation — reconciling men to God and reconciling people to people across racial, class, and gender barriers. We need to break the stranglehold that this kind of animosity and self-centeredness has on our communities. Sadly, the last to do so are often believers.

Tearing down the walls of racism will bring credibility to your ministry. You talk about a Jesus who forgives, loves, and cares. When you begin to see people who have nothing in common come together and share their lives, community, faith, pain, and joy, it is apparent that it is not the work of man. That requires a move of God: a powerful model of heaven on earth.

Placing ministry on the altar

I would like to extend the same invitation to those reading this article that I give to the hurting people who fill our pews: Discover the altar. I give this invitation in the context of empowering your ministry. This is a defining moment; it is a moment of decision. The Spirit of God is bearing witness to your spirit that His Word is true, that it is real, and He is speaking to your heart because He wants to change you.

If you will give God opportunity, He will meet you at the altar. There you will find mercy and grace. There He will change your life and transform your ministry. He will inject new life into the dry places where you may have given up hope.

As you connect with God in this moment, allow Him to open your eyes to the families and people from all walks of life in your community. Your church and your ministry can be the means God uses to draw them from darkness into light. They can discover a place of belonging and peace in your sanctuary. They can enjoy powerful encounters with God at your altar, but it all begins with you.

Wherever you are, won’t you come?

RAY BERRYHILL, pastor, Evangel World Outreach Center, Des Plaines, Illinois

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