Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 2 (August 2012)

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A Light to the City: the Missional Journey of Southside Church of Christ

Steve Cloer

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”1 Harry Dixon Loes wrote this popular children’s song in the early twentieth century. It is particularly fun to sing: it has hand motions, fun verses (like the verse, “Hide it under a bushel—no!”) and a biblical message based on Matt 5:14-16. But there is one verse that I grew up singing that takes the message a step further: “All around the neighborhood, I’m gonna let it shine.”

This verse implies that each one of us has a responsibility to shine our lights in a specific place. They should not simply be shining, but they should be illuminating a particular location: the neighborhood. Intentionality is required in order for this to happen. We cannot merely sit in our houses, but we must be present “in the neighborhood” if our light is going to make an impact. In short, if this song verse is going to be carried out, then we must genuinely love our neighborhood and be willing to enter into it, in order to shine our light.

This song is a good place to start in thinking about the missional journey of Southside Church of Christ.2 Over the past twenty-five years, a missional transformation has taken place within this faith community, to the point that this verse captures the heart of what Southside is about—the effort to shine its light within its neighborhood and city.

Southside Church of Christ began in 1892 in south-central Fort Worth when a small group formed a church in a growing area south of downtown. Originally, it was a church plant of the First Christian Church, but when First Christian introduced instruments, it split off and became the first Church of Christ (a cappella) in the city. The congregation grew and expanded over the next fifty years. Several well-known preachers filled its pulpit: Jesse P. Sewell (later president of Abilene Christian College), Foy E. Wallace, Sr. (the father of noted preacher Foy E. Wallace, Jr.), Horace Busby, and several others. In 1959, when the congregation’s elders made the decision to build a new facility, the resources were available to build a grand building within the ritzy area of Fort Worth. Initially, the building created some controversy because it was so ornate. At that time, Southside was in its golden era as a church, with a membership of over seven hundred people. But then the neighborhood surrounding the church building began to decline. During the 70s and 80s, people relocated to the newly forming suburbs, businesses slowly began to leave, and, as a result, the number of abandoned buildings grew. With this change, membership declined at Southside—to the point that it was questionable if the church would survive. Three key decisions/experiences, however, took place that slowly redirected Southside down a missional path.

First, the elders decided to stay within the neighborhood. The neighborhood had shifted to the point where very few members lived in the immediate area. The demographics had changed, and the surrounding context was mostly Hispanic, whereas Southside’s membership was primarily Caucasian. Additionally, the level of crime escalated and the neighborhood became unsafe. So, in the 80s, the church leaders entertained the idea of leaving the city for the promise of the suburbs, where the members lived and where they would be surrounded by a more familiar neighborhood. But after the elders discussed this option, the consensus was that the church should stay in the neighborhood and learn to minister to the changing community around them. Until this point in Southside’s history, many members considered mission as what someone does in another country or in another locale. But the decision to stay in the neighborhood marked a realization that a mission field was right outside the building. Slowly, this understanding began to seep into the DNA of the congregation as members started to minister to the neighborhood. One of the first efforts to engage the neighborhood was the creation of a food and clothing ministry that gave groceries and clothing to neighbors around the building. Also, area churches, along with Southside, joined together to create the South Central Alliance of Churches to provide a part-time social worker who would be housed in Southside’s building and could adequately dispense emergency aid to neighborhood residents.3

Second, in the early 90s, the church split. The leaders realized that a key reason for the painful conflict was not the perceived “issues,” but the fact that the congregation was internally focused. So the leadership made a renewed commitment to develop a more external focus and to be more accommodating to those who share differences.

Soon after the church split, a young lady, Jane Pearson, walked across the street to attend worship at Southside. Jane was a client of a resident alcohol treatment program called First Choice, run by the Salvation Army.4 This program was located right across the street from the Southside building. Southside had no prior connections with the program, but when Jane walked in, all of that suddenly changed. Immediately, the church recognized that there were women and children who were needy and broken right across the street! In response, members initiated ministries to reach out to the women and children in First Choice. Some volunteered to be mentors for the women. Southside women began studying the Bible with clients in the program. Eventually, the HOPE (Heavenly Options for Pain and Emptiness) ministry was born to provide a “safe place” for those struggling in addiction recovery.5 This story—which has become a common one told in the local church history—represents a critical marker in the missional shift that had taken place within Southside. The church began to focus outward. At a time when Southside was hurting and wounded from a split, God opened the congregation’s eyes to his mission.

These three key events inaugurated a process of ongoing missional transformation at Southside. Soon after, a number of the ladies became involved in a jail ministry in Tarrant County Jail, which included gifting The Life Recovery Bible to those with whom they studied. Dan Leaf was named the Local Missions Minister to lead the ministries geared for the neighborhood, particularly the HOPE ministry. Presently, the food and clothing ministry helps over 400 families every month, the jail ministry gives over 1,600 Bibles each year, and the HOPE ministry averages 70 during its Sunday group meeting. The Alliance assists dozens of people every month with various emergency items.

To help continue this transformation, in 2007 the leadership developed a revised vision statement for Southside: to be a place of Mission, Mercy, and Transformation.6 This statement was not a new direction for the congregation, but it gave vocabulary for the missional direction in which it was already heading. First, we desired for every person to feel a calling upon their life to be a missionary, or to be actively engaged in God’s mission. Second, we desired our congregation to be a place where every person was welcomed and could find mercy—both physically and spiritually. Third, we wanted to be a place where God’s Spirit is at work in transforming every person into the image of Christ. These three concepts provided focus, unity, and understanding for the congregation. They identified who the church wanted to be moving into the future.

Over the past few years, more opportunities have arisen to reach out to the neighborhood. In the past five years, Southside developed a relationship with a nearby school, Daggett Middle School, and adopted it as a part of the local Adopt-a-School Program.7 Daggett’s students are primarily Hispanic and 90% of them are categorized as low-income. The congregation also began a new ministry to college students called Frogs for Christ, as TCU (Texas Christian University) is only two miles away from the building. In 2011, Southside, along with JPS Hospital, the Fort Worth ISD (Independent School District), and the South Central Alliance of Churches, created a partnership to start a school-based health clinic on Southside’s property. This clinic serves children in the neighborhood by providing inexpensive healthcare. Also, in the same year, the congregation completed an expansion of the church facility to allow more space for the pantry and clothing ministries as they outgrew their former areas. This year, we are launching a community garden and are also starting a partnership with a nearby family justice center that seeks to deal with family violence. Church attendance has grown as Southside has caught a vision of being a church that shines its light within its neighborhood.

Yet this transformation has not happened easily. Besides taking a lot of time, we had to learn several lessons (and are continually learning) as we walk this missional journey. First, we had to learn to choose people over tradition. My favorite story along these lines is one of a recovering addict who came to Southside and sat down by one of our older ladies. The addict was a little embarrassed because up and down her arms were scars from shooting up heroine and other drugs. This older lady, with pure grace, leaned over and said, “Don’t worry. Jesus had scars, too.” We have had to recognize that people—broken people—are more important than what our tradition dictates. We must put their needs above our own. Southside has learned from Jesus’ habit of often placing the needs of people over the rules or traditions of humans (e.g., Mark 3:1-6). We had to learn that if a person attends our worship and is dressed differently or their looks do not fit our typical “church mold,” that is okay.

Secondly, we have had to learn to choose faith over fear. When the opportunity came up for Southside to partner with JPS Hospital and Fort Worth ISD to create a clinic on our property, immediately questions, risks, and concerns surfaced. What about the long-term financial sustainability? What about tricky medical issues, such as prescribing birth control? What about the liability? What about raising the money for the initial start-up? Someone has said, “Faith is being in a situation where, if God doesn’t show up, we are in trouble.” Our culture has tutored us on how to calculate risk and liability, so that even in church leadership, the first question often asked is, what does our insurance company say about this? But at Southside, we have learned that God expects his children to step out in faith, even in risky situations. Just like Peter, we hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come,” and, despite physics telling us we will sink, we must obey and walk toward our Master (Matt 14:22-33). There have been many occasions in which people have questioned the dangers of being in our neighborhood. Occasionally, the liabilities are brought up of welcoming in addicts and the poor. Sometimes those risks have been difficult to handle. Several times, items from our church building have been stolen. But when God opens a door for his people to step through, we must follow him. So when the leadership discussed the new clinic, we knew where God’s direction was pointing. And over and over again, as new community ministries have begun, God has been faithful, not only in protecting his people, but also in blessing them for following in faith.

Third, we have had to learn to choose discernment over planning. The corporate world is built around efficiency, control, and strategic planning. Good organizations have viable business models that work effectively. Certainly some of those principles are good for church leadership as well, but sometimes God works counter to the current corporate culture. Case in point, in Acts 16:6-11, Paul thinks he and his companions are to go to Asia, probably to Ephesus. It seems to make good sense, but God stops them. They decide to go to Bithynia, another good plan, but God stops them again. Instead, Paul receives a vision that reveals that God desires for them to go to Macedonia. At Southside, ministry opportunities have arisen, not through strategic planning, but by being aware of what God is doing: an addict who walks across the street; an invitation to teach in jail; a college student wandering in seeking God; a neighborhood leader who approaches the church about starting a clinic. The list goes on and on. I have had other church leaders ask me, “Steve, tell me about the programs at Southside.” But what I want to say is that it is not the programs that bring missional revitalization. It is just listening, looking, and discerning where God is moving and seeking to join him there.

While Southside has been on this journey for many years, there are still several potholes that we must avoid. How do we develop a sense of family among people who are diverse economically and ethnically? How do we reach out to the upwardly mobile young professionals that are flocking back to the city in droves? How do we keep Christ’s agenda of self-sacrificing love central when it is so tempting to think like selfish consumers about church? How do we develop greater diversity in leadership: training ministers who are non-white, elders who are recovering addicts, and teachers who come from backgrounds of poverty? Today, if one were to draw a circle with a three-mile radius around Southside’s church building, that circle would contain over 100,000 people. Within that circle would be homeless shelters, million-dollar homes, college students at TCU, the county hospital, a Hispanic shopping mall, and bars that cater to the homosexual lifestyle. How do we, as a church, minister within a neighborhood that is incredibly diverse and growing more so every day? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know that God has called Southside to be a light in this neighborhood.

On top of our 1959-built church building is a tall steeple that shines a blue light out into the neighborhood. At one time an anomaly for Churches of Christ, today it is a powerful symbol for Southside. As Southside was beginning this missional journey, there was an occasion when the steeple needed to be repaired, so the light was shut off during that time. Immediately, some of the residents at First Choice became worried. They asked the women coming to mentor them, “What has happened to the light in the steeple?” They explained that it was being repaired and would soon be shining again. The residents were quite relieved because, as they explained, every night when they said their prayers, they turned toward the light in our steeple. For mothers in recovery seeking to turn their lives around, that light represented the hope for new life that could be found in Christ. Today, the picture of the light in our steeple represents who we are at Southside—a church that is committed to shining the light of Christ within our neighborhood and city.

Steve Cloer has been the preaching minister at Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX for the past 6 years. He and his wife, Lindsay, currently have three children, Joshua, Bethany, and Lydia. Steve is pursuing his Doctor of Ministry degree in Congregational Mission and Leadership from Luther Seminary. He can be reached at scloer@sscofc.org.

1 Alton H. Howard, ed., Songs of Faith and Praise (West Monroe, LA: Howard, 1994), 1016.

2 Throughout this essay, I will use the word “missional” to describe the shift at Southside Church of Christ of conceiving its identity as being derived from the mission of God. For more on the use and understanding of the “missional” concept, see Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 8.

3 For more on the South Central Alliance of Churches, see http://fwscac.org. The social worker offices in the Southside church building.

4 For more information on the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Centers, see

http://satruck.org/rehabilitation-program.

5 The HOPE ministry began offering group meetings for recovering addicts on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings as a part of our regular Christian Education curriculum.

6 I became the preaching minister in 2006, so the grammar of the rest of the essay will reflect my involvement at Southside.

7 For more on this special program within the Fort Worth ISD, see http://fwisd.org/ppe/Pages/aas_about.aspx. The past two years, Southside has received the Golden Achievement Award for her involvement with Daggett Middle School.