Jimmy Dorrell is the pastor of Church Under the Bridge, an interdenominational church that grew from a Bible study with 5 homeless men in Waco, Texas, in 1992 underneath an interstate bridge. Today, there are 300 diverse people of many races and economic backgrounds who meet outside under the same interstate bridge each week. He and his wife, Janet, have four children, Seth, Josh, Zach, and Christy.
NEW LIFE IN CHRIST
Genuine Christianity or Cheap Grace?
By Jimmy Dorrell
CBN.com Change is not about words, but about actions. The Scriptures teach that a new mind and new patterns of living are evidence of transformation. Change is hard, but the church must.
Our doorbell rang again, as it does almost hourly in our home of 25 years in the inner city. The woman on the porch asked, “Are you the preacher under the bridge?” “Yes, I lead a Bible study there. What do you need?” With tears in her eyes, she relayed the story of her sister-in-law found in a vacant field dead from a drug overdose. “She came to your church, and I was just wondering if you would do the funeral.”
Her name was Dolly and we did know her. She came to our door almost weekly, usually black and blue from the beatings she received from her boyfriend. Each time we would bring her in, she was determined not to return to her life as a prostitute and never back to him. But the crack cocaine ruled her decisions more than any short-term logic and back she would go, at least until the day she was found lifeless and half-dressed across town.
The funeral was awful. It was a cold, rainy day in the pauper cemetery with a sordid crowd of onlookers unsure of what to say and how to react. Most had used Dolly or drugged with her and likely wondered how God would deal with them when their time came. Scripture passages read of a future hope of glory and a caring God somehow seemed as cold as the tiny marble footstone marking her birth and death years.
Charlotte, Dolly’s sister; Charlotte’s live-in boyfriend, Rusty; and their new baby stood among the crowd. I encouraged them as we parted, knowing full well it would be the last time I saw them. But I was wrong. Three weeks later, all three showed up under the bridge. They sat at the back, smoked cigarettes, and headed out at the end of the service before I could get to them. Two more weeks passed. There again on the back row of the metal chairs they sat. My wife got to them and gave a quick hug to Charlotte, assuring her she was welcome in this place.
Over the next few months, they came more and more, each time moving closer to the front of the rows of chairs. Through Charlotte’s eyes of passion and struggle, you could see God bursting through her pain with a love she had never known. Within a year, she and Rusty submitted to that irresistible love and chose to follow this God talked about under the bridge.
What followed was nothing less than transformation. Still using drugs at the time of her conversion, still living with her boyfriend, and still caught in broken family relationships, Charlotte continued to listen and obey the inner voice of the God that she heard first at the graveside. Slowly the cocoon like threads unwrapped the captive butterfly inside. Charlotte went cold turkey and quit the drug use. Her suppliers knew she would be back. But she never came, at least not for a while. Submerged in Bible study, prayer, and new relationships, her highs were now deep and meaningful. Together with her new friend, Janet, Charlotte returned to the trailer park and the crack houses she frequented. This time instead of money to purchase her former drugs of choice, she had her new Bible and several helium balloons. At each site of her dark past, the two of them read a Scripture and released a balloon, a symbol of the past now vanishing into the sky. While tears of joy filled their eyes, dealers peeked from behind covered windows and wondered what had just happened.
There have been more joys since then. After the Sunday worship service ended a few months later, Charlotte and Rusty stood at the front of the church. With joyful passing, they repeated vows of commitment in marriage to each other, and the church threw rice and celebrated a covenant love that has matured through these years.
She was subsequently hired by a Christian nonprofit, called Mission Waco, to run a thrift store, her first real job. Within a few years, Charlotte advanced to become the director of their walk-in center to help hundreds of other people in need with basic necessities. No one could be better suited for the job. She had been there on the streets and she could intuitively sense who was “frontin’” and who needed to be confronted. She is an in-your-face kind of lover of people who knows that the blunt truth is what most of those who are running from God and personal responsibility need to hear.
Still more change. Charlotte had been exposed in her new church to a wider world of missions that she only knew about through books and television. Ready to see the work of God in other places, she saved a little of each check and went on a mission/exposure trip to Mexico City. There in the barrios of the world’s largest city, she saw the overwhelming needs of the poor, the orphans, the street kids, and the addicted. She told her story of this God who brings new life and changed her life. She returned with a commitment to take her children so they, too, could be exposed to the real world and become compassionate instead of self-absorbed as she was in her drug days.
From the mud of a graveyard in Waco to the dirty streets of the world, the transforming power of God continues. Charlotte’s life has been a living witness that the gospel does change old patterns, heal hurts, and forgive sin. She shares her life story some, but most people who knew her do not need the words. They see the life.
Change is painful. It requires an incredible honesty and humility to acknowledge that the behavior of the past must be replaced with new patterns of life. Yet as a “dog returns to its vomit” (2 Peter 2:22), so often short-term intentions of change succumb to the destructive former ways of the past. Genuinely converted prisoners return to their jail cells because their faith was too weak in the world. Addicts who swore they would never return to their drugs of choice more often than not do. Women caught in the cycle of domestic violence, decide the next man will be different only to awaken again with bruises and cuts. Even greedy consumers convicted to destroy the credit cards and share their resources with the poor often find themselves back at the mall buying another pair of shoes.
One of the greatest freedoms of Church Under the Bridge is the freedom to be honest. Confessing their sin and their insanity for repetitious choices that only lead to unfulfilled dreams, these troll-like followers of Jesus tend to be much less pretentious and secretive than most church folks. In fact, the honesty is sometimes frightening. From my protected background, I still find myself startled at some of the confessional statements I hear. “I assaulted a man, Rev.” “I’ve been on a two-week binge, only to wake up and not know where I was.” “I went out on my old lady.” “I spent my whole check on crack and lottery tickets.” And the sordid stories roll on.
Yet even in their depravity, the beginnings of change are in the works. Without the gut-level, honest admission that sin is destroying them, the process of renewal cannot begin. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This first beatitude is there for a reason. Without the poverty of spirit that admits one cannot fix it or cover it any more, the human spirit tends to deny, avoid, and blame others about its condition. But conviction of responsibility is the platform that produces movement. The alcoholic who refuses to admit he is one almost never overcomes. The sexual predator who never admits to God and others the perpetual lust that drives his destructive behavior cannot get well. The consumer who cannot stay out of the malls will never overcome. Confession is basic to healing.
I grew up in churches that suggested that the sinner must change to come to God. Biblical wisdom suggests otherwise. The power of conviction does not belong with the pastor, Sunday School teacher, or Christian friend. That is the unique role of the Holy Spirit. Although biblical teaching and loving confrontations are part of the Spirit’s work through the church, only as the sinner experiences the safety of God’s love can they risk change. Vulnerability of the soul follows unconditional acceptance.
The work of the church is to love the sinner in such a way that he or she can find the courage to look inside and see what is really there.
At Church Under the Bridge there is hardly any need to remind our people that they are sinners; but there is a strong need to remind them that God has not given up on them. When surveyed, those who attend say repeatedly, “I come here because I am loved and accepted for who I am.” And in that womb of safety, the still, small voice of the Spirit convicts and confession is made.
The Next Step
Change demands more than honest confession. Many with addictive behavior can admit their enslavement, but a new mind and new patterns of living are critical for genuine renewed lifestyles. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2) is Paul’s admonition. As a living sacrifice, “do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” Break the old habits, change your circles of influence, and you “reckon dead” the patterns of the past.
Though empowered by the Spirit, changing old habits comes not from some metaphysical, outward experience. It is the work of the sinner. Superficial spiritual language, like “I’m waiting on God to change me,” is usually a cover for an unwillingness to go through the responsibility and pain of altering patterns of life. “Sin no more,” Paul says in his confrontational way. Stop the behavior. Change. Put up or shut up.
Zacchaeus, the head tax collector of Jericho, was probably the greatest example of such behavioral transformation (Luke 19:1–10). Once convicted of his sin, he stood and announced that he would repay fourfold to those he had cheated and then give half of his possessions to the poor.
It is in this context that Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Conversion was not just words of confession but included actions of change. In an evangelical culture where words are too often taken as the basis of salvation, we are reminded that faith without works is dead. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17). “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
Our churches have gone easy on us by allowing us to openly admit conviction with no accountability for change afterwards. Reducing salvation to a single-point-in-time occasion, we ignore the threefold tenses of conversion. “I was saved, I am being saved, I will be saved.” Our cultural bias to ignore the biblical integration of these means we are guilty of what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” Zacchaeus’s salvation involved both word and deed. Change is the stuff of transformation. Though relapse and sin will certainly be a part of our lives until heaven, modern Gnosticism, which divides soul and body, word and deed, and accepts a half gospel, is no gospel at all.
Transformation in the church follows the same pattern as the individual sinner. Honest admission of sin and compromise are basic to change. The church must corporately repent if it is to be healed. Each congregation has the capacity to examine its values, budgets, priorities, and impact and see if they line up with the revolutionary church of Jesus, who refused to accept either the values of His culture or the religious piety of the synagogue. We must find room for corporate examination. Revivals and Bible conferences could be replaced with open dialogue and confession. Small groups and even Sunday School classes can become atmospheres where honest struggle is encouraged. Sunday morning worship services can highlight testimonies of fellow sojourners who are asking the harder questions, not reciting religious platitudes. Pastoral leadership can encourage vulnerability by their own personal honesty and struggle.
Yet in our fear of hurting the feelings of members who passively accept the mere institutional role of the church in society, we sell out the gospel and its organic yeast in our culture. We have silenced the prophets who stand as reminders that God will not tolerate our private piety alone. We continue doing what we did last week and think somehow this week will be different.
Just Do It
Church Under the Bridge has not arrived. If anything, we are more and more aware of the gap between what we say and what we do than ever. But the freshness of honesty disarms any false piety and reminds us of the grace that changes us. Each public confession of sin and affirmation of God’s power over it is a reminder of our common condition and failure to be all that God created us to be. There is safety in honesty. Charlotte was free to admit that she was a drug user, living with a man, and struggling with life. A church of broken people can find ways to affirm, not judge, her actions and God’s grace to overcome them. Communion, even under the noise of overhead traffic, is a reverent and powerful time of personal examination and confession. But the sending out following the confession has equal impact. Just do it.
Charlotte’s former life was repugnant to most churchgoing folks. Yet there was room for her honest search within a body of believers that accepted the Spirit’s timing in her life and knew that as God convicted, she was free to change. She is still changing. And her life of word and deed has brought humble reality that the power of the gospel is a transformed life that lives out the truth.
Adapted from Trolls & Truth: 14 Realities
About Today’s Church That We Don’t Want to See, by Jimmy Dorrell. Copyright © 2006, New Hope Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Note: This book will be available at bookstores everywhere Sept. 1, 2006. You may also order it by calling customer service at 800.986.7301.
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