Soma in Tacoma, WA is a church that has been leading the way in the Northwest in developing “Missional Communities,” which have been highly successful in reaching people for Christ. The pastor of Soma (until recently) has been Jeff Vanderstelt. I heard him speak at a CBNW (Conservative Baptist Northwest) conference in 2005. He was speaking on the Gospel and how to reach people effectively in the Seattle / Tacoma area. He started by talking about what does not work anymore. He shared how churches in the West traditionally have been able to build a church building in a community and that many people would automatically attend because, for the most part, everyone was either Christian or had a Christian worldview and knew that they were supposed to be in church. He pointed out that the reason this doesn’t work in the greater Seattle area is because a large percentage of people are un-churched and have no desire of ever setting foot in a church building, and that a large percentage of Washingtonians are de-churched (they once attended church but for some reason do not desire to come back). Vanderstelt pointed out that a majority of people who have never been to church only know what they know from the media and first hand experience with Christians. Therefore, depending on the experience, there are a lot of misperceptions out there and it is our job, as disciples of Jesus, to fulfill the great commission by sharing the gospel with people and showing them what true Christian community is all about.
Pastor Vanderstelt gave an illustration when he shared about his experiences trying to get to know his neighbors and from there trying to start a missional community. He shared that the neighborhood he moved into was relatively disconnected. He and his wife started trying to get to know their neighbors and invited people over for dinner. Pretty soon they were being invited over to other people’s houses and eventually the topic of the gospel would come up. But Jeff and his wife focused on other people, being intensely interested in them, their interests, and needs, taking the spotlight off of themselves and showing love to others.
One night the Vanderstelt’s had a couple over for dinner and they asked the question, “So, Jeff, what do you do for a living?”
Jeff said, “I’m a pastor.”
The couple said, “You’re a Christian! Wow, you’re so different than the other Christian in the neighborhood…” and then that couple proceeded to make fun of the other Christian and complain about him for being a jerk (you see, the other Christian was a Seminary Professor, and he had a private parking space in front of the condos, which reads, “No Parking!” – and so whenever someone would park there, like a friend or neighbor coming over for dinner, the seminary professor would put glue on the windshield of the car and stick a sheet of paper to it, which said, “Can’t you read?”).
As Jeff Vanderstelt heard his neighbors talk about this other Christian he cut them off, politely, and said, “You know, he’s a friend of mine, you should really get to know him…he is not like what you would think. I know it is wrong of him to stick a piece of paper on your friend’s windshield…I’ve talked with him about that and he feels bad.”
The couple then felt a little uncomfortable, but eventually agreed to have dinner all together with the Vanderstelt’s, the Seminary Professor, and the un-churched couple and the relationship was resolved and peace was made. In other words, Jeff was able to bring about what only the Gospel can begin to bring about in people. Eventually this turned into a “Missional” community and many un-churched people from the neighborhood became Christians and started attending Soma in Tacoma.
This last week I had the privilege of meeting with my area mentor, Pastor Jeff Wall from Soma Communities in Tacoma. He has worked with Jeff Vanderstelt and has been a part of leading and shepherding “Missional” communities. You might ask, “What is a missional community?” A missional community is a group of Christians who live in a neighborhood and who are intent on serving one another, being the church to one another, and saturating that neighborhood with the love of Jesus Christ eventually earning the right to tell the story of the Gospel.
Jeff Wall’s group meets weekly on Thursdays at his home. In the Fall they use curriculum called The Story of God, which goes through the story of the Bible from Genesis to the cross of Christ. Each week there is one rule, you need to answer the questions related to the Bible story for that week and you are not allowed to rush ahead to Romans or some other story in the Bible. The goal is for everyone in the room, no matter their biblical knowledge, to start at the beginning and come together as a group as the learn the whole story together. By the time they get to the cross everything is in its proper context and the light bulb goes on for many people because the cross is the climax, which has been built up to in the Old Testament and in the life of Jesus. Those who respond to the story are given the opportunity to continue the story in the book of Acts and beyond to learn to form a church community (an EVERYDAY church as Chester and Timmis would call it).
Then when summer begins, Jeff Wall switches his group from Thursday nights to Friday nights and they invite their neighbors to a weekly bond-fire, BBQ, roast marshmallows, hang out and build relationships between the churched and the un-churched. Then at the end of the summer the invitation is given to all to join the group starting on Thursday nights and they would begin again The Story of God. The one rule about joining this group is that if a person has been through The Story of God, then they are not allowed to come unless they bring someone who has not been through it before.
This is awesome. This is a missionary way of living the gospel on the mission field called “Chronological Bible Storying.”
Friends at Grace Church Seattle, if we live in a mission field and if 42% of the people in our community have not been to church and have no intention of going to church, then what could we learn from above about how to tell the story of the Gospel to reach people for Christ?