Many churches have discovered the power Christian community can have in reaching those who don’t know Jesus Christ. For example, a pastor friend of mine moved to Texas several years ago to start a church that focused on reaching non-Christians in the city of Austin. From the beginning the church has had two messages. The first is, “Come as you are.” Every week their bulletin has this printed message:
Gateway is a COME AS YOU ARE kind of church—a community of imperfect people doing life together, becoming all that God created us to be. We don’t care who you voted for, what your tax bracket may be, or what your zip code is. Whether you’ve had a relationship with God your whole life or you’re not even sure He exists, we’re glad to meet you where you are. Bring your questions, doubts, fears and hurts—no need to leave anything at the door.
Many in Austin—especially those in their twenties and thirties—took this invitation seriously. On any Sunday you could see an amazing diversity of people in the church: bikers, hard-rockers, Goths, and gays alongside straights, politicians, business owners, and high-techies. But some traditional churchgoers were offended by the more radical element, feeling they were not the sort of crowd they wanted to associate with. The pastor reminded them that the Pharisees felt the same way about the “tax collectors and sinners” who flocked to Jesus! As their church bulletin says:
We want to help you connect with others who live near you, share your interests or happen to be in a similar life stage, largely because we encourage you to come as you are, BUT DON’T STAY AS YOU ARE. By getting to know others who are also seeking to know God, you can learn to experience life to the fullest, be more of who God created you to be, and learn to love God and others more deeply. We believe lasting life change happens in community with others. Together. Not perfectly, but intentionally.3
The second message the church offered the Austin community was “No perfect people allowed.”4 The pastor and church leaders realized that everyone sins and falls short of God’s glory, and therefore everyone should be welcomed. Non-Christians are invited not only to attend church but also to join small groups, participate in service projects, and attend support or recovery groups. They become part of the church community, and many experience a degree of love, hospitality, acceptance, and caring that they have not known previously.
The pastor invited me to meet with several church members in order to hear their testimonies. Laura’s story was typical of what I heard that day. “It amazed me,” she said, “that I never felt judged for dreadlocks, looked down upon for being well below the poverty level, or shoved aside for coming to church reeking of cigarette smoke. I felt drawn to this community, yet torn by associating with a group my friends hated.”5 When the porch on her home collapsed, a group from the church took up a collection and then spent three weeks building her a new one. When the clutch on her car broke, the Benevolence Ministry made sure it was fixed. A couple named Jeremy and Susan invited Laura to share Christmas dinner with them. She recalls:
Through seeing people love me I began to see the truth of what God is like. I wanted to be like that and give other people the same experience. I started to really believe what one person said to me, that I had a God-shaped void in my life and that only Jesus could really make me whole again. . . . So now I’m a Christ-follower. I want to do God’s will, and I call myself a Christian. Now that I have found peace, I realize that peace doesn’t come in a pipe. Now that I’ve found community, I see that real community comes through Christ. Community is like salve on the wound of humanity because we were built to be interdependent on each other. Now I’m part of a real community, the kind I was searching for all along, and we’re changing the world . . . one life at a time.6
Jim and Shelly met at Gateway after she had experienced a painful, failed marriage. Eventually, they married and began rebuilding their lives together in the context of a loving small group. Over time, they experienced the impact of the kind of unity Jesus prays for in John 17. Jim remembers:
It wasn’t until after we were married and began to go through trial after trial that we really began to learn that Gateway people aren’t just quirky and fun, they live what they believe. They put shoes on the gospel so that they might literally love you through good times and bad. In some of our worst moments—losing my job, losing our baby, and suffering a never-ending custody battle, Gateway people came through for us in practical ways. People drove four hundred miles to testify on our behalf. They loaned us their mobile phones when our phones were turned off. They brought us food, money, and checked on our home while we were gone. So many people attend church each week and sit next to people they will never ever know, much less care for. Who cares if you have memorized the entire canon of Scripture if you have never lived out the ideas themselves? Thanks for being Christ to us.7
In the years since I became aware of Gateway Church, weekly attendance has grown to over four thousand people. But it’s not the size of the growth that is amazing but rather the way it has happened. Over 60 percent of those who attend Gateway have either received Christ through its ministry or have moved from a nominal faith to a committed relationship with the Lord. That’s far beyond what most churches experience. One study found that a typical church—regardless of denomination—has only four converts for every one hundred church members.8 Clearly, Gateway’s emphasis on community-based evangelism, and an other-centered lifestyle, has made a profound difference!
3 My emphasis.
4 This became the title of the pastor’s first book: John Burke, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You Are Culture in the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2005).
5 Ibid., pp. 194–95.
6 Ibid., pp. 196–97.
7 Ibid, p. 295.
8 Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1998).