Steve Edwards and Charles Cheek look like something of an odd couple. Steve is a Caucasian man with an earring. He looks like he is familiar with life on the street. Charles is an African American man with no earring and the look of an executive manager. Both of them have “regular jobs,” and both of them have experience doing street ministry. And they are great ministry partners.
Steve serves as the clergy adviser to a social services agency in Hampton, Virginia. Feeling a call to the city, he worked with the agency to begin a housing renovation blitz in an under-served area of Hampton. At the same time, Steve and Charles started hanging out in the community and building relationships with people in the neighborhood.
In that same community sits Memorial Baptist Church, a 120-year-old church that has declined over the years from an attendance of 900 to less than 90. As is the story of many established churches, its members are aging, its numbers are shrinking, and its facilities are becoming a burden. It’s a common scenario.
However, this church has a unique spirit of service and mission that extends through its history. The congregation became racially integrated in 1969, though the decision cost them several members. Today, though small in number, they run multiple ministries in the region (a sports camp, feeding the homeless, etc.). They were more than open to hearing the vision Charles and Steve had for using their fellowship hall to begin a new form of church.
Now on Saturday nights, Memorial’s fellowship hall—a room that has housed many a potluck supper—now houses what Steve and Charles simply call, “The Neighborhood Café.” Many of those who join the Café on Saturday evenings never would have darkened the church’s sanctuary or fellowship hall on a Sunday morning, let alone for any church-related activity. However, the Café is a place they feel safe, comfortable, and open to share what’s on their minds and hearts.
Steve describes the Café as a witnessing community where he hopes “the neighborhood finds a place of relief, refreshment, entertainment, involvement, belonging and relationships.” Steve continued: “We also hope this is a place that Christ-followers would use to establish and build relationships to the point of growing more Christ-followers.” What’s clear is that Memorial Baptist Church doesn’t see this as a program to pad their own numbers or funnel people into Sunday morning worship attendance. Steve adds, “The Café was not established with the focus of filling our pews, but His Kingdom.”
It’s the attitude of a true fresh expression of church.
A few of the members of Memorial Baptist come to hang out with those coming to this fresh expression of church meeting in their fellowship hall. Many of them sing, provide food, and share in a time of simple worship.
Get the picture: Two ministers have a passion for people far from God and invest themselves building relationships in the community. People in the community are not likely to respond to church as it now exists and functions. A church with resources decides to pour itself into a fresh expression of church. Because of this passion and vision, people are connecting with Jesus through a new form of church.
It’s a simple concept with Kingdom-impact.
Travis Collins is Pastor of First Baptist Church, Huntsville, Alabama, and Director of Mission Advancement for Fresh Expressions US. He holds a PhD in Christian Mission and is the author of From the Steeple to the Street and Fresh Expressions of Church.