by Bettina Krause
Ellen White wrote, “To reach people, wherever they are, and whatever their position or condition, and to help them in every way possible—this is true ministry.” What would happen if Seventh-day Adventists really took her words to heart and put them into practice? One group of dedicated urban missionaries is finding out.
Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States
When it came, the reality check was brutal. For some 14 months, the Simplicity Outreach Center team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, had been visiting and studying with Natasha, a young mother scarred by a difficult past and failed relationships. Since Simplicity had been establishing a Center of Influence in this economically struggling area of Allentown, the main focus of its ministry had been services to the children and young people of the neighborhood—after-school programs, a community garden, worship services on Sabbath. Natasha was one of the few adults who had expressed interest in Bible studies. She’d formed a close bond with the members of the missionary team; she volunteered with various Simplicity programs, and she attended church on Sabbath.
And then Natasha expressed interest in baptism. For Wes Via, who was then director of the Simplicity Outreach Center, it was a moment to savor—this was some much-needed reassurance that God’s Spirit was indeed working through the efforts of his team to reach this neighborhood for Christ.
There was just one problem. Natasha had a live-in boyfriend. She’d said before that she knew it wasn’t a good situation for her and she wanted to leave the relationship. But for now it seemed that everything was in a holding pattern.
One evening, Wes and his wife visited Natasha and sat listening as her words flowed out. She unloaded a weight of past hurts and traumas: a controlling relationship, emotional abuse, and more. Carefully, gently, Wes showed Natasha that her current live-in relationship wasn’t in line with biblical principles. He pledged his and the team’s support as she did what she needed to do in order to deal with the situation. “We’ll be with you every step of the way,” Wes promised.
Natasha’s response was immediate—and it was negative. She stopped coming to church, and she broke off contact with Wes, although other members of the Simplicity team continued their efforts to stay in touch. Later—much later—after Wes had suffered and prayed and had slowly come to a deeper understanding of God’s expectations for him and the Simplicity project, Natasha finally confided what she had experienced that night.
She’d known the status of her relationship stood in the way of her baptism. But that evening, she’d opened herself and bared her emotions in a way that left her feeling deeply vulnerable. For her, Wes’s response had fallen short of the mark. “Later, she told us what she’d needed was for us to pray with her,” says Wes. “To let her know that we’d really heard what she’d confided, that we understood the larger picture of what was going on in her life, and what had happened in her past.”
“She’d entrusted all this to us,” adds Wes, “and yet we focused only on the narrower issue.” At the time, Wes thought he was simply affirming her feeling that it was time to change her relationship—bolstering her resolve with biblical support. “She interpreted all this, though, as us being ‘pushy.’ She felt we’d missed most of what she’d said, and we were focused on getting her to do what we wanted her to do.”
Although his relationship with Natasha was ultimately restored, the experience brought home to Wes, clearly and painfully, that reaching people for Christ in the difficult mission field of the city often requires an added measure of patience, sensitivity, and compassion. And most of all, it demands an unwavering, laser-like focus on individuals and their needs—physical, emotional, and spiritual.
“My work with Simplicity has been revolutionary for me, personally,” says Wes, who has since moved on to another ministry. “I came from a traditional evangelism mindset of trying to figure out how to get people through the doors of the church. And so I had to fight the urge to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.
“My focus has shifted and, for me, the most important thing now is to teach people how to have a relationship with God and how to read their Bible meaningfully,” says Wes. “God can use that and build on that. Even if they don’t make a decision for Christ right then, maybe God will call them to pick up the Bible sometime in the future. And when they do, they’ll know how to engage with God through His Word.”
A five-block mission field
Dr. Jeff McAuliffe, a Seventh-day Adventist layperson, is the driving force behind Simplicity—a Center of Influence model of ministry that is transforming the Pennsylvania Conference’s approach to urban outreach. Jeff’s early research was mainly within the writings of Ellen White, where he uncovered a massive amount of counsel that the church should focus on the cities as a primary mission target. Later, he developed a complementary biblical approach for city outreach based on the apostle Paul’s experience in Ephesus, recorded in Acts 19 and 20.
Over a period of two or three years, Jeff continued to share the results of his research with the Pennsylvania Conference Executive Committee. Soon, Conference leaders had also caught the vision for urban outreach and committed themselves to getting Simplicity off the ground. They chose to begin their efforts in Allentown.
Allentown is a city surrounded and dwarfed by even larger cities. Fifty miles southeast of Allentown is Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in the United States; 90 miles to the east lies New York City, the nation’s largest city; and, some 90 miles to the west is the state capital, Harrisburg. Allentown itself is a part of the so-called Rust Belt of America—those cities that enjoyed a manufacturing boom in the 1800s and 1900s, but which have been dealt with less kindly by the economic realities of recent decades.
Perhaps nowhere in Allentown is this economic decline more apparent than in Ward 8, the city district where Simplicity Outreach Center established its ministry in 2012. The area has a large number of recent immigrants, many with a Hispanic heritage, and many who don’t speak English. Residents tend to work two or three low-paying jobs just to stay financially afloat and to keep their children housed and fed.
The original Simplicity team, Jeff, Wes, and three young Bible workers, mapped out a zone measuring about a five-block radius from their premises, and this became their new mission territory. Jeff had learnt from other non-profits in Allentown that the impact of a service or agency usually extended only as far as people could easily walk, or were willing to allow their children to walk alone.
The key to Jeff’s approach lies in the name of the project: Simplicity. The uncomplicated goal of the project is simply to make meaningful connections with people in a specific neighborhood—through friendship and through meeting real needs—and thus to reveal Christ and His love. Or, as Wes has put it, “At Simplicity we believe the essence of Christ’s method of ministry is to display the gospel before you tell the gospel.”
But “simple” does not necessarily equate with “easy.” If the ministry team wanted to meet the real needs of the community, they first needed to find out what those needs were. And that involved the grind of knocking on doors and talking to people, house after house, day after day, developing an intimate understanding of what drives this particular section of Allentown.
The Simplicity missionaries walked along the streets of redbrick row houses, some in good repair, others bearing signs of neglect. When they knocked on a door, they held in their hand a checklist of services that Simplicity could potentially provide—child care, after-school programs, health or educational programs, help with the home or garden. Their goal was to get hard data that would allow Simplicity to offer targeted services, rather than wasting time and resources on unneeded and unwanted programs.
In Jeff’s model, this period of research is fundamental. Wes draws parallels between urban ministry and cross-cultural mission work. Missionaries traveling to other countries dig deep into the culture of their new territory; they’re intent on understanding the nuances of the language, philosophy, and mindset of those they’re trying to reach for Christ. The cross-cultural missionary takes a long-term view and isn’t focused on quick results. Their goal is to establish a presence within the foreign territory that will continue to grow organically, long after the missionary has returned home.
The door-to-door needs assessment Simplicity undertook was prompted by this same desire to engage the community in a deep and genuine way. The missionaries asked residents, “How safe is your neighborhood?” “What’s the greatest need in the community?” “Is there anything we can do for you, personally?”
What the Simplicity missionaries found after they’d compiled the results of their hard-won data determined the shape of their future ministry in Allentown. They discovered that many hardworking, cash-poor residents of this community were so busy providing the basics of life for their children that they couldn’t give them an equally important commodity—their time. Thus, children and young people were often left to their own devices while adults worked multiple jobs. One of the key needs in the community was for after-school and weekend programs for kids.
By default, Adventist outreach often leans toward health-related seminars or programs. Yet it soon became clear that the time-challenged residents of Ward 8 would be unlikely to leave their homes of an evening or weekend to attend programs such as these.
The door-to-door surveys did quickly unearth one unexpected community need, though—English-language training for recent immigrants.
However, even with this, the Simplicity team learned a hard lesson in staying tuned to the rhythms of the neighborhood. Once they’d identified English as a second language (ESL) classes as a primary need, they set about arranging a teacher and advertising classes. To their surprise, only 12 people signed up, only six people actually attended on the first night, and eventually just four graduated.
What had gone wrong? For their next attempt at offering ESL classes, Simplicity acquired the services of an experienced local ESL teacher who managed to clear up the mystery. Simplicity had offered their classes too early in the evening, making it difficult for working parents to get home, do chores, and get to class on time. With the second round of classes, Simplicity moved the starting time to half an hour later, and the ESL classes took off.
A “bespoke ministry”
In creating an urban Center of Influence such as Simplicity, it’s natural to want to find and follow a blueprint for ministry, says Wes. “Its tempting to think that if I just follow a particular model that’s worked elsewhere—follow step A, B, C and D—then I’ll have success. We want to extrapolate directly from one context to another.
“But that is not the nature of wholistic outreach—Christ’s ministry—which must always be responsive to the culture in which it’s located,” he adds. “Even within one city, such as New York, the needs of people in the Bronx won’t be the same as those in Manhattan or Brooklyn.” Thus, understanding the micro-cultures within cities is crucial to tailoring services that connect with the community and to building trust.
One consequence of this reality is that urban mission will inevitably take longer to accomplish. Programs can’t be imported in a “pre-fabricated” form. They have to be built from the ground up.
The first programs that Simplicity built in Allentown were focused on the number-one need they identified in the community—activities for children and young people. They started with the 6–11 year-old age group, but after a time noticed that 13- and 14-year-olds were coming in too. So Simplicity added activities for that age group, and so the roster of programs began to grow naturally. The small number of kids who first started dropping in to the center became Simplicity’s best recruiters, inviting their friends and siblings. Each week, the Simplicity Outreach Center continues to host various after-school activities: including tutoring, cooking classes a couple of times a week, and a youth group that meets regularly. On Tuesdays the missionaries and the kids work together in a nearby community garden, and on Sabbaths there’s a kids’ brunch following the morning program.
Members of the Simplicity team also began making twice-monthly visits to the home of each of child who attended programs at the center. This way, they were able to start making connections among the adult members of the community, getting to know parents and caregivers, talking to them about their kids, and slowly building trust.
Before adding new programming, the leaders of Simplicity wait until those they serve bring a significant need to their attention. “Our benchmark is usually eight to ten people asking for something repeatedly over the course of six weeks or so before we start anything new,” says Wes. “We want natural growth.”
This natural growth approach has led to after-school tutoring, summer day camps, kids’ cooking classes, wellness groups, yard care for busy residents, and many more finely targeted programs.
Wanted: urban missionaries
Another important value for Simplicity is to build up a network of community volunteers—not just among believers, but everyone who wants to do something positive for the community. “What we’re doing here doesn’t require a heavy theological foundation,” says Wes. “It requires a very practical, human foundation of recognizing what people need.”
And this approach also brings non-believers within the ambit of Simplicity and offers an opportunity to share Christ with fellow volunteers. Several community volunteers have already asked the Simplicity team for Bible studies. “For some people, allowing them to be the hands of Christ is the way to their hearts,” says Jeff.
He says that one of their more interesting groups of community volunteers is a local biker gang. “They come out on a regular basis and help us with various ministries.” The bikers’ association with Simplicity began a couple of years ago during a holiday event, where the missionaries planned to give out clothes and food donations to the community.
“There weren’t a lot of people showing up,” recalls Jeff, “but one of our volunteers said, ‘I know a group of guys and gals who are really into this kind of thing.’ ” Before long the low rumble of motorcycles announced the arrival of the most “imposing” group of volunteers the Simplicity team had ever encountered. Before long, the bikers’ presence had completely revived Simplicity’s holiday event.
“Just recently, one of the biker couples asked us, out the blue, whether they could become members of our church,” says Jeff. “They’re in Bible studies and in church each Sabbath simply because they decided to volunteer with Simplicity.”
Simplicity also aims to refute the idea that Adventist church members should sit back and let “experts” do ministry and mission. “The apostles weren’t paid clergymen,” Wes points out. “They were basically knowledgeable laymen who made ministry their first priority. They supported themselves so they could do ministry wherever they were at the time.”
Grassroots support from six local Adventist churches is crucial to the ongoing success of Simplicity and, in turn, the project has become a place where church members can learn and practice hands-on ministry. Wes says that one of the great joys of his time as project director was “seeing church members ‘get it,’ and become supportive and engage with us; seeing the tears in their eyes during the debriefing process; hearing them say, ‘This is so meaningful.’ ”
But some traditional forms of support haven’t been quite as helpful. Wes recalls one program they ran where, for the first few nights, local Adventists showed up in force to “flesh out” the audience. After the third meeting, though, Adventist attendance dropped off sharply, leaving the three remaining non-Adventist attendees sitting in the near-empty room, feeling somewhat bemused.
Taking the long view
“God takes care of the big picture,” says Jeff. “Sometimes when I speak at different places, people ask me, ‘How are you going to reach the city?’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my job. Our job is to do what’s right there in front of us.’ ”
Today, Simplicity missionaries are studying the Bible with 32 people in the neighborhood, and within the space of just a few weeks in early 2015, six people requested baptism. Recently, four more local residents requested Bible studies following an Easter cantata put on by children who regularly participate with Simplicity.
The Pennsylvania Conference has recently approved the addition of a church school to the outreach center, which will serve non-Adventist children from Allentown’s Ward 8. Jeff says their goal will be to make tuition “very affordable” and to provide sponsorships for students whose family can’t afford even these nominal fees. Already, the Conference has hired a teacher for the school. With this effort, Simplicity is following Ellen White’s counsel to establish church schools in the cities: “Much more can be done to save and educate the children of those who at present cannot get away from the cities,” she wrote. “This is a matter worthy of our best efforts.”
As he looks even further into the future, Jeff says they’d like to establish a free health clinic for Ward 8 residents, which would be a much-needed service for the community. The Conference’s long-term plan also includes opening more Simplicity Outreach Centers in other wards of Allentown and other cities of Pennsylvania.
For now, Jeff believes the Simplicity Outreach Center is modeling the type of urban mission, solidly grounded on biblical principles and Ellen White’s counsel, that can break through some of the barriers that obstruct traditional evangelism in urban settings. People too busy to attend meetings? Not interested in spiritual things? Too stressed just trying to make ends meet? By simply asking, “How can we serve you?” Simplicity is turning these “negatives” into connection points with their community.
It’s hard work, it’s a long-term proposition, and the results, in terms of baptisms, may not be as dramatic as seen in some other places. But day after day, one home visit and after-school program at a time, Simplicity is bringing Christ’s healing, loving presence to the streets of this city. And for Jeff and his team of missionaries, this is more than enough.
Being Christ’s Hands and Feet in Allentown
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- Find meaningful points of contact in community. Just say “Hi” to people and get to know them. Visit them. Be present, active, and engaged in community matters.
- Get to know your mission field—intimately. Research its demographics, talk to other nonprofit or governmental agencies working in the area, and research its history and culture. Understand its undercurrents and daily rhythms.
- Allow your ministry to grow organically. Offer what people want and value, rather than what you think they should want and value.
- Get rid of the idea that there’s a definite “right” and “wrong” way to do things. And let go of the idea that you need to rely on a pastor or paid mission worker to get things done. God has given people passion, gifts, and vision for Christ’s mission. So find ways to funnel that passion into direct ministry.
- Focus on Christ’s method of ministry. It takes time, it doesn’t produce overnight results, but the Holy Spirit blesses and brings “fruit” in His own time.
You can find out more about the Simplicity Outreach Center at www.simplicityoutreach.org.