In the Autumn of 2012 Phil Strout was installed as the new National Director of Vineyard USA. In this article from the vaults he is interviewed by Cutting Edge magazine about about the need for the church to be outward focused.
CE: These are really desperate times both in the U.S. and abroad, even dark. How is the church faring during this period?
Phil: This is not the hour for the church to lose her collective nerve…but in certain ways, that’s what it feels like. This is not a time for us to back up and shrink away from who we are as the bride of Christ. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is time for the church to recognize that we have been invited into the mission of God. We need to re-familiarize ourselves with Paul’s statement in Romans 1:1 (“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”), and Acts 13 (“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’”) There is an air of supreme confidence in these passages. I believe we’ve lost a little bit of that confidence, and we need to rediscover it. We can find that in the Scriptures, by reading about men and women who understood their calling in the midst of a different set of dark times.
Thousands and thousands of churches are also rallying for a people they don’t know, in a country they don’t know much about
It’s popular sport to bash the church for what it is and isn’t. We criticize how it responds to the needs of the culture. But when you get out of the realm of the theoretical and see what is happening in the day-to- day, the nitty-gritty across everyday life, you find that good things are happening. Look at how church is providing a support system for people all across the country by using small groups. When people are in small groups that stem from local churches, those groups meet people’s real everyday needs. That is being the church; that is missional. It’s kind, and it’s outward-focused.
CE: There have been some major tragedies at home and abroad. Natural disasters, etc. How have you seen the church responding in a way that brings hope to people?
Phil: One of the things that is so wonderful, even though it’s in a tragic setting, is to see the response of churches to the tragedy that just happened in Haiti. Relief and care are happening through governments and so many non-government organizations (NGOs) all over the world, but thousands and thousands of churches are also rallying for a people they don’t know, in a country they don’t know much about. They’re asking, “What can we do?”
There are a lot of professional groups already there, and many of those organizations are backed by dollars from local churches and filled with workers who are Christians. I believe we’ve got to keep our nerve and say we are a people called by God to…well, fill in the blank! Put your name in there. Put your church’s name in there. And then add what it is that the Holy Spirit has called you to do. Our calling as a church, and as local church bodies, are not to be taken lightly.
CE: When times get difficult for churches, it’s easy to turn inward and focus on the problems of the church…i.e. giving is low, pastors have to be let go, people are unable to give as much of their time. How do churches turn their focus outward, not inward, in these tough times?
Phil: The church is the hands and feet and heart of God, the true people of God today. Wherever we find ourselves, we find ourselves on a divine assignment. It’s not just by chance we ended up in a place.
The church is the only institution that serves people who “aren’t there yet.” The church honors people who have not arrived. If you’ve lost that premise and that direction, then you need to turn back to being a people for people who aren’t there yet. Be followers of Jesus for people who aren’t following.
There are pastors who don’t care about the size of the church. Instead they focus on their church’s scope of influence. The number of people who show up isn’t what’s important, and they recognize that. I like the phrase that some groups use (and we use it in our church): “Called to contribute to the redemptive history of this state.”
We automatically get involved in people’s lives because the whole city is our parish.
And I truly feel that about my city. I look at the city of Lewiston, Maine, and think of this city as my parish. Some of those people get up on Sunday morning and gather in a public worship service. I can consider myself a pastor of the heads and leaders of this city. If you take that perspective, then you take on a different approach to ministry.
We automatically get involved in people’s lives because the whole city is our parish. You’ve been placed in a certain community, and you’re there for the non-followers of Jesus. That makes you much more collectively part of the community than as an outpost trying to pluck people out of it.
I have a hard time separating mission out from the neighborhoods and the nations. From my perspective, if it has to do with the church, it’s part of the global community. It moves that way naturally. But our desire to help others abroad shouldn’t be affected by tough economic times. Our 401(k) shouldn’t determine what we do or don’t do among the nations. We need to be reaching people no matter what.
CE: What are some practical ways you encourage the people in your church to do this in your own community?
Phil: Encourage your people to be involved and volunteer for things that go on in the community. For example, in small towns and large cities, you can volunteer in places like libraries and hospitals. Sometimes when we talk about volunteering in our churches, we talk about only what people can do in our particular church. But what about when we look at the volunteer fire department or Red Cross, there are so many citizens working to make the community better. Why wouldn’t Christians want to do that?
We encourage people to go to other places like hospice care or drug rehab facilities—any service that exists but is weak because of the lack of volunteers. What the church can give is a lot of work hours. When people know their hours will be used wisely, they’ll be more likely to volunteer.
So when I say, “Let’s give some work hours to the community,” it’s not just giving away bottled waters or Coca-Colas to have a direct impact for our church; we’re living intentionally in the natural flow of life within our community.
If you only have 3-5 free hours per week and only give that time to the church, you will only minister to church people. But there is one group in our city that works with teens and has drop-ins, and volunteers tutor them in reading. Some churches aren’t big enough to develop their own community center, so they need to realize they can volunteer for some of these things outside of the church. We encourage our people to get involved in the community, otherwise I don’t know if they’ll truly have a heart for the people around them.
Why would I want to go to a church that thought it wasn’t important enough to help a city?
Look around your community and see what’s already been built. The connection is holistic and integral. When you hang around in situations like that, Jesus always pops up. People are always running into Jesus in the middle of that. Sooner or later, there’s going to be some level of encounter. You couldn’t avoid it if you tried.
CE: You mentioned that you want to be part of the “redemptive history” of your city and your state. What does that mean to you? And what does that mean to the broader picture of missions?
Phil: Someone challenged me by saying the “redemptive history” phrase sounded high-minded. My response was, “Why would I want to go to a church that thought it wasn’t important enough to help a city?”
As a follower of Jesus, I don’t want to be led by someone who wouldn’t say in their heart, “I was sent by God to do this.” Why would I want to be in a church that doesn’t believe theologically and philosophically that it is sent by the Holy Spirit, like Paul and Barnabas were? I think the nerve of the church and its leaders is being shaken. We can’t lose that nerve. We’re always in the fight and we don’t always see it.
For us, playing a role in the redemptive history of our city looks like many different things that are easy to do. For example, how many churches in America are using Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University? How many are families are learning sound, good financial philosophy and how many are choosing not to go any further into debt? What does that do?
It contributes to the well-being of the community and drops the need for people to be in situations where the state and community has to help them. It’s where the church can contribute to the well-being of society. The church doesn’t get credit for a lot of things, and that’s okay. But it is important for the church to understand that they are playing a role in the redemptive nature of the community to where God has called them.
When you talk about the redemptive history of any country—let’s use Spain as an example—we’re not talking about simply the saving of souls, getting people to punch a heavenly ticket. We’re talking about redeeming everything that is great about these people!—culture, environment, everything. Following Jesus is part of the process of redemption, and that eventually leads to the renewal of so many other things in a culture.
Where there is reconciliation among people in history, the redemption of history occurs. Anything that fosters forgiveness, reconciliation, care for people or creation—all that contributes to the redemptive history of people and their culture.
Using Spain again—there have been so many famous Spaniards and people who have influenced the cause of Christ for good in that country. We want to see redemption continue to take place. We’re hoping that Christ comes full- circle there and in other countries like Russia and Germany.
CE: Where are places you are seeing the church rise up? What are the opportunities?
Phil: Marriage help is a big one. Marital problems can often boil down to three things: communication, money and sex. How much time and effort does the church put into that? I think a sterling effort toward that is happening. It’s one way the church can help in an area that really needs it. I think financial counseling is another one. That’s an untold benefit that the church is doing in America right now.
There are opportunities for churches to make a major contribution to the redemptive history of their communities through caring for families with marital counseling, premarital counseling, divorce care, and also care for children whose parents are divorcing. Those are huge contributions. Or there’s Celebrate Recovery, which infuses Christian values into AA principles. Those are awesome contributions churches can make.
Also, if you want an example of why ecology and the environment need to be at the forefront of a church’s mission, just look at Haiti. That country has so little arable land, and the issue of deforestation and soil erosion is a major contributing factor as to why Haiti remains so impoverished. It’s a very real thing.
I was just with a pastor on the border of Haiti. He asked me, “Do you think churches would sign up if we created a nursery for trees and recommitted to a long-term replanting of trees all through Haiti?” He said the church needs to help the people of Haiti in the short term, but the environmental issue is so long-term that if we don’t do something now, we won’t have anything in the pipeline. He wants to develop a greenhouse and nurseries for trees to then be replanted. More trees in Haiti would replenish the soil and make it rich in nutrients again.
I’d love to look every pastor in America right in the eye and say, “Don’t forget, you were sent here by the Holy Spirit. And if you were called to do this, you are set apart.” The Bible says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If we are given an assignment, then we have the power to do it.