Christian Stronghold Baptist Church: A Passion for Holistic Ministry
Christian Stronghold provides an example of a holistic church which interweaves word and deed through a variety of ministries. Senior pastor and founder Rev. Willie Richardson laments that so many churches get hung up on the question of providing services versus saving souls. "We who are ministering in the city cannot afford to engage in that debate," he says, "because our people are dying." In response to urgent spiritual and social needs, the church blends multiple evangelism strategies with a dedication to serving the community.
At Christian Stronghold Baptist Church, says Rev. Richardson, "Everything we do is an evangelistic outreach in nature. Every opportunity we have, we witness to people." Diverse service ministries connect people to the church around various "felt needs," ranging from the need for food and health to the desire to do better in school to the aspiration to own a home. While there is inherent merit in meeting material needs in the name of Jesus, says Rev. Richardson, feeding and healing are only part of what Jesus modeled. People who have had their physical needs met without an explicit evangelistic encounter "came to eat the appetizer and never got the rest of the menu." This does not mean that every person who comes to the church for help is forced to listen to a sermon. Ideally, however, the act of providing the service is part of a larger process in which relationships are formed, church members have the opportunity to verbalize the gospel, and the recipient makes the connection between the social need that was met, their underlying spiritual need, and the promise of the gospel for a better life.
The youth group, for example, sponsored a free car wash. While some youth washed the cars, others talked to the owners about Christ. In a program that helps new home-owners obtain a mortgage, recipients hear about God's plan for their lives as part of the process of financial counseling. Counselors encourage new homeowners to give God the credit for this life-changing blessing: "It is because of the Lord, and because of the Lord's people, that you are able to move into this house." At church-sponsored health fairs, doctors integrate spiritual and medical advice, telling hypertension patients not only about exercise and proper nutrition, but also "that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that you have a responsibility to be a steward of it," explains an associate pastor. "We don't want [doctors] to bombard the participant with Scripture, but we want them to know that they do have accountability to the Lord in how they treat and respond to their bodies."
Another example of a holistic service ministry is a GED preparation program, started as a response to welfare reform. The director of outreach and evangelism, describes how the ministry incorporates a spiritual dimension:
When they step in the door, we give them the gospel. . . . We open up with prayer, and every opportunity we have we witness to people. . . . Our purpose is to help them with their education. With that in mind, when the opportunity arises, we turn the conversation to Christ. . . . We have opportunities within the lesson plan to discuss the way God would have them handle the situation. . . . You have to rely on the Holy Spirit to bring back into remembrance all you have studied. If you rely on God to help you, it makes it much easier.
About half of the GED students are not from the church; some were recruited for the class through the ad placed in the church-published community newspaper. Students are invited, but not required, to attend church services. One year about a third of the non-members in the class ended up joining the church.
Not every social ministry has an overt evangelistic component. In some ministries the faith-sharing occurs through informal witnessing by church staff and volunteers. The church's Youth Self-Esteem Ministry, for example, works with at-risk boys from the local elementary school. The program is not explicitly Christian because of its connection with the public school, but God's love is displayed in the caring relationships staff develop with the boys. "I take them to my home on weekends, and I ask them, ‘Why do you think I do this?'" recounts the director. "I tell them, ‘I do this because I love you.' They don't know what that means, so I have to demonstrate it."
Christian Stronghold believes that spiritual transformation is the cornerstone to developing the capacity of individuals, and that empowered individuals then become the key to transforming the community. Reaching African American males with the message of salvation is a particular mission focus. Associate pastor Kenneth Staley describes the vision for ministering to "people that are burdened and beat down":
To give them hope, to give them direction for their lives. To help them to understand that God wants them to be all that He created them to be, and that . . . because they're of a lower economic standard does not mean that they have to remain there; that there's pride in being Black; that they're supposed to have a positive self esteem in Jesus Christ because they're a new creation in Him; and that as they submit their lives to God and as He shows them their gifts, talents and abilities, they're going to rise above that economic condition they are in.
Noting that men are in the minority in many African American churches, Christian Stronghold launched a "Win 1,000 Men To Christ" campaign which brought many men into the Kingdom of God-and increased the number of female church members as well! A core component of this outreach is the "Glory and Honor Groups," or care groups for men, which mingle church members and spiritual seekers. The format combines fellowship, Bible study, and education, giving particular attention to social and health issues pertinent to African American men. The care groups encourage network evangelism by offering a friendly environment where men can invite other men for support and counsel.
While its social ministries focus on individuals and families, Christian Stronghold has also invested in community development. Christian Stronghold helped organize and support the Nehemiah project, a coalition of churches which built or rehabbed 128 homes, and launched the Phoenix Project to renovate 300 abandoned city-owned homes for resale to lower and moderate income families. Other projects have involved negotiations to bring a decent supermarket into the neighborhood, a job placement collaborative, and plans for a new recreational center. The church also created a Community Action Council "to be the salt and light from a biblical perspective" in response to moral and political issues affecting its membership. The Council has undertaken a wide range of actions, including planning a health fair; "adopting" the local elementary school; lobbying to upgrade a public bus stop near the church; and blocking the liquor license of a nearby business. Such initiatives respond to the disconnect between neighborhood conditions and what God desires for the people of West Philadelphia.
Christian Stronghold views community development as a way to overcome the obstacles of racism and poverty that prevent people from full empowerment, as well as the spiritual forces that keep people in despair. As a testimony to God's goodness, community development and advocacy also have evangelistic implications. Hosting Town Watch meetings and other community events creates evangelistic opportunities by bringing non-members into the church and facilitating interactions with church members. Speaking out on political issues from a Biblical perspective offers a moral and spiritual example to public officials. Just as meeting a felt need makes it more likely that a needy person will be open to an evangelistic message, displaying a commitment to community development helps to create openness on the part of those who share a concern for the community. Church leaders can point to members who have joined Christian Stronghold because they appreciated the church's involvement in the community.
Christian Stronghold's dedication to a holistic vision is one major factor behind the church's explosive growth. Average adult Sunday morning attendance is about 1700-about half of whom had never belonged to a church before Christian Stronghold.
[Adapted from Churches That Make a Difference, chapter 5].