The Power and Purpose of Small Community Churches
A televangelist made headlines recently by asking his congregation to buy a 54-million-dollar private jet for his “missionary” work. He already owns three.
This mixture of avarice and religion is not just the result of one excessively greedy individual. It has its roots in the so-called prosperity gospel, a strand of Christianity that dates back to the 19th century, which teaches that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor.
This is one way it works: If a Christian goes wayward of his or her Christian values and becomes destitute, he or she can be redeemed through a belief in the teachings of prosperity theology. Not only will he or she overcome destitution, but miraculously gain riches — enough to offer a generous tithing to the pastoral source of such good fortune.
In 2009, after spending nearly two years caring for a terminally ill parent, which I knew was going to cost me my home, I was not looking for something that would turn around my material situation. I was looking for a place in a community where I could find solace for my loss, grief, trauma. What I wanted and needed was to feel well, balanced, and strong again. I saw an ad in a local paper advertising Sunday services at a Contemporary Community Church in the town where I was living.
The words “contemporary” and “community” are what pulled me in. So the next Sunday I visited the church, a group of around 30 people holding a worship service in a converted store front.
Over the years, I developed a personal and professional relationship with the church’s founding pastor, Robert Fuggi. What impressed me right away about Pastor Fuggi is that his ministry is not his occupation; it’s his passion. Rob’s day job is as a trial attorney. “What a great way to stay grounded in reality,” I thought to myself.
Over nearly a decade, I have watched Pastor Fuggi gradually and organically — through much trial and error as well as a doctoral degree in theology from Princeton University — develop a unique ministry. Pastor Fuggi’s church advocates community participation, provides practical counsel and outreach to the poor and homeless, and is buttressed by sound theological tenets.
In time, Pastor Fuggi began writing down his ideas and experiences into what would become his first book, A New Model of The Authentic Church. (Full disclosure: I am Pastor Fuggi’s book editor.) In the preface, the Reverend George Kelsey writes the following:
Having spent more than forty-five years in ministry in the Middle East as one of America’s earliest missionaries in Jordon, I noticed early on that some of the most effective ministry was being done by people who were gainfully employed outside the church as their attitude and commitment to their ministry consumed them. In many countries in the Middle East, volunteer and unpaid leadership has produced vibrant and powerful church ministries. Of course if a congregation grows it may become necessary for a pastor to leave his day job and devote himself entirely to his ministry. But the ministry will have by then been rooted in serving God, not personal ambitions. Too often in the modern American church this is not the case. Rev. Robert Fuggi proposes an antidote to this, first by example, then by advocating for it in his writing.
I began with the example of certain mega churches, which use prosperity theology to lure people in. Now I’d like to share a personal story about how small church ministries operate.
As I described earlier, I started going to the Toms River Contemporary Community Church in order to begin socializing again in a safe place after being isolated for two years as a family care-giver. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the church had a ministry for Community Outreach to the Poor and Homeless. The outreach was founded by a retired school teacher who started visiting local food pantries as a volunteer.
On one of her visits, she noticed an elderly man remove his boots in order to massage his sore feet. She also noticed that the man’s socks were soiled and had holes in them.
It affected her deeply, so she went out and purchased large quantities of socks and began handing them out from the back of her car. When Pastor Fuggi found out about this — the woman had been his fifth-grade English teacher — he offered to let her use his converted store-front church to stage her outreach. It grew to become a hub for the community’s poor and homeless — fortifying them with free clothing, food, and a safe place to gather.
When Pastor Fuggi learned that I had lost my home and was now living in motel rooms with state assistance, he put me in touch with the woman. When you are receiving state emergency housing assistance, you are placed in motel rooms and told that you have six weeks to find permanent housing. This is an almost impossible task because most landlords are reluctant to rent to persons under such circumstances.
The few landlords who do rely on people just like the retired schoolteacher to screen potential renters for them. The woman vouched that I had neither walked out on a lease nor been involved in any other nefarious activities that led to my present situation. She explained that I was in this situation because of circumstances beyond my control, and that I just needed a steady place to live in order to get my life back on track.
It worked, and I did.
The point I am making with this story is that unlike mega churches that preach prosperity — make a wish and maybe it will come true — small churches do the hard work of ministering to the individual needs of those in their community. As with most things in life, there are no quick-fix solutions, only hard and committed work that reflects the true meaning of the Gospel and purpose of church.
James Abro is an independent grassroots activist for the poor and homeless in his community and a national advocate for economic justice. This summer, the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the University of Denver will be publishing an excerpt from his latest book, “Facing Homelessness.”