Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Serving the City; Not Just the Sanctuary

“You will be called a Mender of Broken Walls; a Restorer of Livable Streets.” Isa. 58:12b

I grew up in denominations that was completely infatuated with what happened within the walls of our buildings. In all the sermons I heard during my childhood and adolescence (usually at least three a week, more than 2,000 total) I cannot ever remember once when we were challenged to get out of our sanctuary and go into the streets to serve the community. Oh, we were challenged to arm ourselves with our huge, “I’ve seen Jesus” Bibles and knock on doors with solicitous questions about eternal destination and issue the threat of damnation, but never did we feed a homeless person in our city’s center (just a few blocks away) or build a home for a single mother.   Our “get out of hell free card” was punched and we’d be happy for you to come join us, but don’t expect us to do much else for you other than provide a cadre of religious experiences and emotionally charged worship services.
These churches had adopted the “a might fortress in our church” form of ecclesiology and, despite praying for God’s “kingdom come” every week in worship, lived like we were God’s kingdom just waiting for God to come and get us.

As I got older I did something radical. I read the gospels. The penetrating, self-giving life of Jesus began to penetrate my soul and I recognized the disparity between what we were doing “in church” and what the people of God were called to do in the gospels. Let’s face it, a relationship with Jesus will really mess you up. When I took these theological questions to my pastor, he shrugged them off saying that we were in “the end times” and that God would put everything right, our job was to simply remain faithful and recruit people into our spiritual tribe. I mean, according to the man I thought held ultimate spiritual authority, we are essentially the only ones who have it right. The rest of those poor souls were destined for hell so we better bring in as many as possible. Only one thing troubled me, that didn’t sound like the Jesus I read, the one who healed wantonly, invited constantly, and gave his life selflessly. Shortly thereafter I left that church and began some spiritual wandering.

Now, years later, I am being given an award for serving my city. Being named a N.C. Main Street Champion is an amazing honor and one I am humbled to receive. You see all I’ve tried to do during the five years I’ve lived in Rocky Mount is to be actively engaged in the community I’m called to serve. After reading the gospels, the works by John Wesley who challenges us to live lives of “personal holiness and social holiness,” and books by authors like Leslie Newbigin and Reinhold Niebuhr, I have come to realize that we are all invited to do all we can to make God’s kingdom a reality now. I have taken up the challenge to make a difference in the city I am in. I believe that it is time for the people of God to be more interested in serving the city, than just serving in the sanctuary. That we must be active in building bridges, and not just holding one more Bible study. That if we take seriously the words of Jesus, we must actually work every day to restore our city, and not just conduct an annual prayer walk.

It is time for the people of faith to begin serving in the city, not just the sanctuary. I love worship. I love the gathering of the “saints” for the worship of God. I love a good old-fashioned revival service with stirring sermons and music that shakes my soul, but when the service is over the service should begin. How can we claim to be transformed by encountering the presence of the Son of God who gave his life in service to the people who crucified Him and not get our hands dirty rebuilding our city? I am not taking about having one more service, I am talking about building homes for those who need shelter, feeding hungry children, and using our church networks to find, recruit, and encourage businesses to return to long abandoned facilities and re-start the engine of growth and prosperity in our community. We do not need one more worship service, we need the people in our worship services to move out into our streets and create opportunity. We need to join Nehemiah up on the wall and start rebuilding the city one brick at a time.

The people of God in our community also need to begin building bridges, not just holding Bible studies. I believe that most people of faith are already educated well beyond their level of obedience. They know what to do, they just don’t do it. I love to study scripture. I love to teach Bible studies, hold prayer meetings, gather the faithful and pray, but prayer should lead to action. Go back and look at the Bible; every time God shows up in a person’s (or people’s) life there is a challenge to “go.” God never invites them to just sit in the temple and only worship; on the contrary, God is about scattering the people of God as frequently as He is about gathering them. We must build bridges that overcome the deep divisions of our community. If those who agree on Jesus can’t overcome the divisions of economic disparity; racial injustice; and poverty then our city will continue to struggle. I love working with our city's leadership, our leaders have a genuine heart of servitude and a desire to make our city better, but at no time has government been the answer to the issues we face. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities.” If the faithful will lead, the leaders will become faithful. It is time to build bridges. 

Finally, the people of God need to begin working, not just walking. I love our annual prayer walks where people from various churches visit city sites like the Imperial Center, the Veteran’s Memorial and City Hall and pray over our city. After five years I’ve noticed something, it is during those walks that I see people downtown who I never see downtown at any other time. They come and pray for the city and then abandon it for the rest of the year claiming that it is “unsafe.” Funny, a look at crime statistics says the opposite; downtown is actually safer than some of the
“nicer neighborhoods.” We need to keep walking, don’t get me wrong. We need to keep walking and praying, but it is time that we also begin working. We need to look at the entrepreneurs and business owners in our congregations and say, “this is your city.” We need to help them see that God’s kingdom can be restored by the faithful work of God’s people investing in the future of our community.

I received this award because I am constantly bringing people downtown and asking them to see the potential of our city’s center. I walk them by buildings that need to be restored and ask them to see brew-pubs and antique shops, restaurants, galleries, and entertainment venues. I even have the dream to create a place where young adults can live and work for the good of our city while living downtown, but I need you to believe it with me. The restoration of the heart of our city, like the restoration of our personal hearts, will cause renewal. Hope will be restored, and when hope is restored, life and light returns and dark must retreat.

I thank those who nominated me for this award. I have learned much from those who mentor me like Rev. Garland Jones of Mt. ZionChristian Church and Ron and Hillary Vetere who own Bel Air Artisans Center and live downtown. They are the real downtown heroes because they have put their lives and livelihoods on the line by staking a claim downtown. Thank you to the dedicated staff of the City of Rocky Mount, past and present. I thank God that he didn’t give up on me but called me to a city where I believe He seeks to have the people of God renew their commitment to serve the city, not just in the sanctuary.

Consumed by the Call,

Dr. Marty J. Cauley
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