Season of Service - A Witness Louder Than Words

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PORTLAND, Oregon -- Fewer people go to church in the Pacific Northwest than in almost any other region of the country. And in this proudly liberal city along the Willamette River, sometimes conservative Christians say they have felt an almost open hostility directed towards them.

However, for the last two years, Christians have been doing something so huge and striking, they have been earning the church a second look -- and even gaining it some respect and admiration.

Re-Connecting the Faith

Believers like Kevin Palau, son of famed evangelist Luis Palau and a prominent member of the senior Palau's Portland-based ministry, were tired of "doing" Christianity the same old way. They felt the faith was getting further and further disconnected from the culture and in many cases irrelevant to it.

"The church has lost its ability to engage the community because we've built buildings and then we retreated behind the stained-glass windows," said Eastside Foursquare Church's senior pastor Eric Bahme.

Then Palau met up with believers like Milan Homola and Gary Tribbett of Compassion Connect. The two had been exploring a different kind of ministry -- getting numbers of churches in a community to combine forces and sponsor medical outreaches to needy neighborhoods, sending in mobile units manned by doctors and dentists to examine and care for those who couldn't afford health care.

It would be a daunting enterprise for a single church, but could be accomplished if a number of congregations worked together. Homola and Tribbett also managed to get secular agencies to partner with them.

Around the same time, Randy Thomas, a Portland school district maintenance director, was watching his staff get reduced from 26 to two, leaving the schools to grow unkempt, their lawns quickly overwhelmed by weeds and tall grass. Thomas rallied 1,200 members of his church to voluntarily do a thorough cleanup and sprucing up of one of the district's schools. The effort was so successful, that led him to approach the Palaus' para-church ministry about taking the idea city-wide.

500 Churches Band Together

Gathering with like-minded believers in some 500 churches, the Christian leaders approached Portland city officials and asked a simple question: Could believers ally with the city to simply serve Portland's neediest citizens, homeless and schools?

One concern raised by some of the city officials was that the Christians were just looking for opportunities to proselytize. But Palau and the others assured them the offer came with no strings attached. There were no plans for evangelizing or verbal witnessing -- just to be of service.

Rushing to the Rescue

So City Hall took the churches up on the offer, and the secular and spiritual forces put aside their sometimes huge differences to unite in what's become known as the Season of Service -- doing literally thousands of good deeds throughout the city.

The recession has made the Season of Service particularly helpful. The economic downturn has meant stripped budgets for many of Portland's city services. The churches have united and rushed in to fill the gap. They have sent more mobile medical and dental units into poor neighborhoods. They have fed the homeless and the hungry. They have prepped the unemployed for job interviews. They have adopted the public schools and have done the painting, pruning and landscaping that the schools can no longer afford.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

These kind of good deeds haven't been going on for just a day or week, but for two years now.

"To mobilize 26,000 people from 500 churches to serve not just on one day, but over a long period of time, that has really broken down a lot of negative stereotypes in this very un-churched part of the country," Palau told CBN News.

Two dozen members of Clear Creek Community Church spent hours on a recent Saturday morning sprucing up the outside of their adopted school, Davis Elementary School in eastern Portland. Church members advanced on the property around the school with spades, rakes, wheel barrows and even a tractor. By the time they had finished, every weed was gone, every garden area mulched, and the land all around the school building was perfectly manicured.

Church member Ron Johanesen headed up the day's efforts to spruce up the school grounds for its staff and students.

"We love them and we want them to know that we care for them, so that's what we're doing," Johanesen said.

Palau said the lavish, unselfish service of such deeds becomes a witness in itself.

"It's given an entirely different view of who are these people who claim to follow Christ," he explained.

It has drawn media attention, too. Reader's Digest named Season of Service the best group service project in the nation, including it in an article about 10 reasons Americans have to love their country.

Jesus' Favorite City?

USA Today religion writer Tom Krattenmaker wrote that the secular and spiritual authorities in Portland were so proud of the Season of Service, they were declaring Portland, a wee bit tongue-in-cheek, "Jesus' Favorite City."

Krattenmaker, a non-evangelical, described how Portland's evangelicals are teaching loudly about Jesus without words by "doing fascinating things. And more and more of the non-evangelical rest of us are becoming fascinated."

Homola said the churches' decision to be quiet with words, but loud with their deeds was quite deliberate.

"We have to earn the right to be heard," he said. "And to do that you have to show that you care for a whole person, a whole community, not just the spiritual."

"Can't He Hold a Normal Conversation?"

Palau said Season of Service Christians are trying to do something much more than a quick drive-by witness.

"You get out and build genuine relationships, which means you're not necessarily hammering home the specific message of Christ every conversation," he reasoned. "I mean, if we were doing that with our neighbors, people would say, 'Get this guy away from me! Can't he hold a normal conversation?'"

David Walmer and his fellow Portland Eastside Foursquare pastors decided to radically change how they did church, because they felt the normal model was becoming increasingly irrelevant.

"I think the church has disenfranchised itself by holding itself so separate," Walmer explained.

From Meth Lab to Church Sanctuary

The Foursquare church broke the mold by buying, moving into and operating a hotel that used to be one of Portland's most drug-infested locations. Worship services are now held in an area of the hotel that used to be a meth lab.

Walmer manages the hotel business.

"Every guest is treated as though they were Christ, and so that raises the level of customer service up very, very high," he said.

It also often opens the door to sharing Jesus.

"Our love for people and our service for people gives us entrée into their lives to speak the Gospel," he said.

1,500 Hotel Guests Come to Christ

"We've had more than 1,500 people receive Christ now since we've been operating the hotel," Eastside's pastor Bahme told CBN News.

The Foursquare Church is exploring both a new way to be evangelical and a new way to pay for it, a model Bahme wrote about in his new book The Mission-Based Entrepreneur Revolution.  The church's profitable hotel and cafe provide the congregation with funding with which they can sustain the ministry in tough economic times.

It also gives church members working at and visiting the hotel and cafe a way to get close everyday to the unchurched.

Walmer insists Christians can't expect non-believers to come through the church doors.

"We have to go out where they are and love them where they are," he said. "And the Christ that dwells in us will draw them. That's what the Holy Spirit does."

A Party of Good Deeds

As part of Portland's Season of Service, the Eastside Foursquare church opened up its hotel pool and courtyard to the public the day CBN News was there. Christian bands and singers provided the entertainment. Church members who attended jammed backpacks with supplies that would later go to needy students.

A big truck with its back doors stood open as organizers hoped to fill it with donated food from party-goers. The joy of serving and giving has so caught on in Portland that the food flooded in by the ton, way more than would fill just a single truck.

Ministries manned booths offering all kinds of assistance. One of those ministries served Paul Kimbrough several months back by pulling him out of a life of alcoholism and homelessness. He's now a student half the day and volunteer with that ministry the other half.

He said he's living to witness through serving.

"By putting out a hand and helping someone in need. And for me that is being Christ-like," he explained.

Gay Mayor Praises Evangelicals

Portland's openly gay and liberal mayor Sam Adams admits the evangelicals' efforts have totally surprised him and others at City Hall.

"Our modest hopes were greatly exceeded," he said at one Season of Service celebration.

Portlanders hope congregations everywhere will start to unite and copy what's working here.

"We're saying why not do it with as many churches as possible, go to your mayor, go to your city council and officially ask the question 'how can we serve?,'" Palau said.

Portlanders recently took the Season of Service concept to Africa, banding together with 350 churches and the government in Kigali, Rwanda to serve its desperately poor. They held a big festival at the end of the effort where some 5,000 people gave their hearts to Christ.

When last year's Season of Service wrapped up in Portland with 100,000 people gathering at a festival on the city's waterfront, some 2,000 made decisions for Christ. It appeared that the good deeds have spoken as loud, if not louder, than words.

Love Your Neighbor

"The Gospel isn't just what we say, it's what we do. Jesus said, 'I did not come to be served; I came to serve, and to lay down my life,'" Walmer said.

"Wouldn't it be great if when people thought of a Christian 10 years from now, it's 'those people: you cannot stop them from loving their neighbor as themselves?'" Palau asked.

So in Portland, they are definitely exploring a new form of evangelism. But that doesn't mean that Jesus Christ isn't getting preached. It just means a whole new group of people are starting to listen.

*Original Broadcast Date: October 13, 2009.

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.