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Article Date: Jan 18, 2007

Giving It All Away

Successful evangelism lies in community service, not self-preservation, Linthicum tells PHEWA


By Jerry Van Marter


NEW ORLEANS – Renowned urban evangelist Robert Linthicum recalled being asked by San Gabriel Presbytery to “intervene” with First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, CA, a once-thriving PC(USA) congregation now facing extinction as the neighborhood around it changed dramatically.


Robert Linthicum“The church, which had more than 2,000 members in 1939 was down to 80 members 50 years later,” Linthicum, a former urban pastor who is now president of Partners in Urban Transformation, told participants in last week’s Social Justice Biennial Conference sponsored by the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA). “Business and industry had fled and the population, which in 1939 was almost entirely white, was now 93% racial ethnic and many of those were undocumented immigrants … illegal aliens if you will.”


Linthicum said he “was a terrible failure as an interventionist. I found the leadership and membership utterly terrified and intimidated by the troubles of the neighborhood. They could only envision themselves as the Pomona Church of 1939 and longed to return to the glory years. All they were interested in was to preserve what had been and restore former glory, which was slowly destroying their church.”


Linthicum reported to the presbytery that the church would have to be closed within five years. “But I failed to take into account what God might do,” he added.


A group of six Claremont College students, looking for “the sorriest church they could find” to use as a learning laboratory, chose Pomona First “hands down,” Linthicum said. This handful of young people eventually moved into the community and slowly drew the congregation out of itself and into its radically redefined neighborhood.


In 2003 the congregation quietly launched “Pomona Hope” — a brand new approach to ministry by Pomona First that focused on community organizing, community education and community economic development. They were joined by other churches in San Gabriel Presbytery, nearby presbyteries and the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.


A little over a year ago, “Pomona Hope” was formally established at a worship service that, for the first time in more years than all but the hardiest of old-timers could rember, filled the sanctuary of Pomona First church.


Surveying the widespread devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaches which left 80 percent of the city underwater, Linthicum said, “How often do our cities face similar disastrous situations, perhaps not as dramatic as Katrina, but every bit as daunting?”


Citing Luke’s gospel, Linthicum said, “Jesus told people that those who lose their lives will save them and those who try too hard to save their lives will lose them.”


Losing life to save it is profound, Linthicum said. “If the church is caught up in trying to preserve itself and its institution, then preservation and continuance is exactly what is going to slip out of its grasp. Trying to save the store is the surest way to lose the store.”


On the other hand, he continued, “The church will not be saved by trying to preserve it but by giving its life away in service to the world. Such service and ministry to the world is the surest way to salvation.”


After serving urban churches in Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, Linthicum directed overseas urban community organizing efforts for World Vision from 1985-1995.


“We consistently found that the most successful congregations were those who didn’t seem to have much going for them — located in the worst slums and squatters settlements, occupying abandoned factories or other buildings rather than fancy church buildings,” he said. “They had nothing to lose and everything to give and their Christian love and ministry showed it.”


Few of these successful churches employed trained clergy, Linthicum added. “In fact, we found that successful evangelistic ministry has nothing to do with the location or ornateness of the church building or with the theological capacity of the pastor.”


Linthicum said that three common factors are present in successful evangelistic congregations:


1.Each effective church was focused in mission which was perceived, affirmed and articulated by most of the congregation; rather than trying to do all things well, they all focused on a single, primary mission — they were always about one thing and all existed to serve that one mission; and the mission was owned by the entire congregation, not a decision made by the pastor or session.

2.The mission of each church was outside itself, not about preserving its own existence but in reaching out in a particular, focused way; “Let’s not build a church for us, but for all those people who never go to church,” Linthicum said of the attitude; and all members saw the mission as being the job of the entire congregation, feeling personal responsibility to carry out the gospel.

3.Each church, no matter the style or focus of its ministry, saw its essential task to be that of empowering and equipping its people so that they could carry out the church’s mission together in the world; the ministry is not simply a common mission, but a structure and strategy in which every member can carry out their unique ministry within the context of the congregation’s focused mission.


“The church has always talked about mission,” Linthicum said, “but we organize ourselves for preservation, not mission. Karl Barth said, ‘The worship of God is the service of humanity.’


“When we lose ourselves this way, God will renew and restore,” Linthicum concluded, “for this is the promise of the word of the Lord.”