My apartment is my mission field

By Lee Kemp 

{ Apartment life ministry is a big ministry. Ninety-five percent of people living in multi-housing have been disconnected from the local church. If you survey apartments, they don’t have a sense of community; it’s just their social behavior. They live here because it’s affordable and convenient, not because they want to make friends. }

We’ve done lots of things for the kids in this complex—like swimming lessons and ballet classes—to get to know kids, which has allowed us to get to know families.

 swimming lessons 2013When I first met Becky she was yelling at her kids at the pool. She needed to be watching her kids, but she was drunk and mad that they had spent the last bit of change for a soda because she couldn’t buy alcohol. We helped her kids get out of the pool.

 After that I started seeing Becky around the complex and just got to know her. At one point she asked, “Who are you? Why are you here?” She knew we didn’t fit the socio-economic model. So I told her I started a church in Fort Smith and that I felt should live here. She laughed, but now she’s accepted Christ, been baptized and discipled!

{ “Who are you? Why are you here?” She knew we didn’t fit the socio-economic model. }

Becky’s a single mom struggling to make ends meet, so Forefront gave her a car. This has helped her get out of the complex and into nicer housing. I just saw her the other night and learned that she’s helping another church in our city as a VBS volunteer.

That is a search-and-rescue for the Kingdom!

Elisha's kids, car
Becky’s kids in the car Forefront provided

 

If I didn’t live at the complex, then I wouldn’t have been swimming at the pool with Becky’s kids, and I wouldn’t have met her. If I hadn’t continued to live there, then she wouldn’t have been able to watch me. That’s how she realized I was a safe person. The Gospel came later.

The apartment culture

Apartment life ministry is a big ministry. Ninety-five percent of people living in multi-housing have been disconnected from the local church. If you survey apartments, they don’t have a sense of community; it’s just their social behavior. They live here because it’s affordable and convenient, not because they want to make friends.

Just by nature it’s obvious who is selling drugs. I started to realize there are people who have really nice stuff but never go to work and who have lots of visitors. The apartment manager and I also have this open relationship, and he has told me about people to watch because he is trying to create a positive place to live.

 I’ve taken the ministry approach and just try to get to know them. I’ve gone out and introduced myself to runners while doing laundry or just being out and around. If I find out that so-and-so has a felony and several drug charges, sure I’ll watch them, but I want to get to know them. My ministry isn’t to judge people, it’s to know people.

Still, I usually see someone five or six times before I introduce myself. That’s how I do it, anyway. If I try to be some spiritual Johnny-boy running for president then they won’t trust me.

{ My ministry isn’t to judge people, it’s to know people.}

Bridging the barriers

This one guy in the apartment ministry, Joel, is white like me. He has asked me, “Why don’t they like me?” and I’ve had to tell him, “Joel you’re acting too white. You talk slower and louder and you speak overly proper. You need to relax and just look at how they say hi, then go and do likewise.”

It’s a cross-cultural training. The barrier isn’t just ethnicity. We are missionaries! And there are missions to be done in our own city, in our own state. Some people just don’t know how to say hello.

This is how we train our church members and why we do what we do. If I’m not willing to drive by my neighbor and smile and wave at them in my own vehicle—not a church van—then our church will only be exactly like me. All I’m going to do is reach people like me. Which is not the point.

Paul says you become all things to all people so that you can reach them (1 Corinthians 9:22). I can’t become all things to all people, but I have to be willing to go be with them.

I need to be so close to these people that I know their concerns and fears about their community: that their kid will be just like them, will be kidnapped or not get an education.

What are their concerns? If I’m not close to them, then I don’t know.

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Planting the Gospel vs. planting a church

By Lee Kemp 

It’s the old, worn out elephant wearing the fresh, sparkly tutu. She’s sitting in the room, and we can’t help but notice the mismatched pair. We silently observe that the glittering tutu does nothing to mask the giant, sagging wrinkles of the tired figure wearing it. It doesn’t seem to work.

Church plant launching is sparkly. It’s fresh. It’s attractive. It’s a brand new tutu. The issue at hand though is not the fact that there’s another new church plant, but rather the issue is the body that gathers under the newly sewn hems. 

Instead of reaching unchurched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just “gather” Christians looking for some new, fresh “fabric.”  Perhaps this is what truly disheartens some pastors and other leaders when they are asked to consider being involved in church planting.

It’s the difference between planting the gospel versus planting a church.

One thing we have sought to do in starting Forefront Church is to “plant the Gospel” and not just “plant the Church.” This is the truest calling for church planters.  

{ Instead of reaching un-churched people groups with the gospel, new church plants often just gather Christians looking for some new, fresh fabric. }

Sustaining 

Let’s be honest and transparent for but a moment. This is hard, dirt busting work and this work requires us to be continually spirit-filled. The unchurched are not amused with religious showmanship (which is quite easier for us, requiring less of the spirit and more of our “churchiness”). They care not for the things that will draw existing believers by the masses. 

This work is hard for established churches as well, hence, the majority of churches gaining new members by transferring from a sister church in our area. It’s not that there’s not enough money or resources to do the work, it really doesn’t take all that. It’s that there’s not enough satisfaction for us to carry the work on. Unchurched people take much, much longer to develop into the churched folks we feel good about and want to fill our pews. 

I think if we were all deeply honest with each other, we would catch ourselves talking about how we need more magnetic leaders to grow our churches instead of being overwhelmed by reaching the lost in our community. 

With such a focus, we develop strategies and programs that are highly internal rather than external in focus.  All the creative brainstorming and focus is directed on things that really only would excite and encourage response from existing believers rather than generate response from the unchurched community in which we exist.

Plant DNA 

One thing I am realizing is that the concept of keeping focus on the Gospel and lost-ness in our faith community will run through a process of an “ebb and flow.”  Andy Stanley once said it best when he stated, “Vision leaks” (read what I mean in “The Struggle is Real…”).  

When we started Forefront Church, my wife and I moved into an inner city apartment complex and had all the church functions on site at the complex while focusing only on people who lived with us there.  In my thought process this gave us two large benefits… 

One is that anything the church would do in the future; we would have done since the beginning.  Even though we have a Sunday morning gathering now at another location, we still have a couple from our church living at those apartments and hosting weekly worship gatherings on-site.  And because of this strategy, apartment ministry is in our DNA. 

Second, since Fort Smith was my hometown where I was a youth pastor, it kept my Christian friends from joining us. Most of the Christians I know in my hometown would never join a church in an apartment complex. This may sound harsh, but it really kept our focus on the Gospel.

 

fort smith
Fort Smith, Ark.

 

“Elephantish” 

However, fast forward the tape.  Although we have started this church in what some may call radical ways, it still amazes me how I can catch my vision and heart leaning away from the Gospel. New tutus can be itchy and my elephant is pretty untrained and doesn’t act like one. Although the fresh fabric fits the fresh body, the rawness of teaching an elephant to be one can be tiresome and takes time. I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. 

We now have a Sunday morning gathering at one of the Boys and Girls Clubs in our town, located in the inner city of Fort Smith.  The thing I continue to find challenging for me is to guard my heart from coveting or envying the leaders in some of the established churches in my town.

{ I am prone to wander at times and leave the vision I have from God. }

Their “elephant” is big, experienced, able to balance a ball on its trunk, performs well at the circus…just more “elephantish.”  “Churchiness” and churched people feel good to be around, they are excited by what excites me, they perform with ease, and I know how to get them to gather. 

We have one of the best worship bands I would argue in my area and for sure who I have ever worked with in ministry thus far.  This many times causes me to start thinking about how we should just start a huge marketing campaign and do some of the strategies I know we can do to get a crowd of people to show up.  However, the thing I also know is that most of the time, the people who you hook through these ideas tend to be already saved.

Just an old, tired elephant in a new fluffy skirt. 

They are either upset or playing the Christian church circuit (which I can’t understand why we Baptist pastors allow this game to be played…another post though.)   

Caught! Thank God! 

Before I sound like a church cynic, let me acknowledge that there are many churches reaching people with the Gospel.  Many of these churches are great Arkansas Baptist church plants too.  Forefront has seen 30 people trust in Christ this year for salvation and had 9 people last year.  Currently we average around 60 adults, which if you do the math, you know that we have not abandoned the heart of planting the Gospel.  However, I would say for a portion of this year in planting Forefront, we have gotten caught up in the details of church a little too much. 

Our leadership and people have wandered from the passion of seeing the Gospel planted and we got caught ourselves planting a church instead.  Already, we have had to repent and recalibrate our focus towards advancing and planting the Gospel. 

People sometimes ask, “Pastor, what is truly the focus of your church today?”  What is even more convicting for me is, what is truly the focus of my life currently?  And what fruit do I have to show that to be true? 

May we all plant the Gospel in our ministries!

Pray for us as we plant Forefront that our focus will stay on reaching the lost and not gathering the saved.

No more old elephants in new fluffy, skirts. It is all too easy to abandon the Gospel and start gathering the saved.  We know the kingdom of God demands us to surrender our spiritual envies and push forward with a God-sized vision.