Because most of our members have been together since their college days, our church retains the stamp of the college campus experience. The culture of campus life and the patterns of ministry made possible there became deeply embedded in the soul of our church.
LIVING IN CLOSE PROXIMITY
Berkeley is a college town, and everyone pretty much lived within a mile from campus. With predictable and similar schedules—early mornings in class, late nights at the library— community just happened for us. No one needed to preach to us about “community,” because we lived it.
This living-in-community continued for those of us who decided to stay after graduation, first as bona fide working adults, and then for some of us, as parents. You’ll find many of us post-Berkeley folk in Alameda. Why? It just happened that way – the first wave of graduates who decided to stay at our church settled in Alameda and a pattern ensued as a significant portion of subsequent graduates followed.
And so, a striking feature of our church that people notice almost immediately is that most of our members live close to each other. Many of us even live within walking distance from each other, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. As a church, we’ve read many Christian books voicing the vital need for Christian community in our society today, and how the church cannot function well by meeting only one day a week, with everyone spread apart the rest of the week, living separate lives, not knowing what anyone else is doing. We believe that being the church means being a part of each others’ daily lives, which just won’t happen if people live 30 minutes away from each other.
Both in Berkeley and in Alameda, we try to live out the picture of the early church in Acts, enjoying close fellowship, sharing our time and resources, and trying our best to be the church together. Harried parents of young children and single guys who can’t cook can often find an open home to crash for dinner. Children often play and study together, and the parents share the many child-related tasks, tasks that can make life a chore at that season of life. Serving God in this kind of community not only makes it much more of a joy, it also makes it possible. Trying to live out a counter-cultural Christian life would be nearly impossible without such a close community of shared values.
SIMPLE LIFE AND MISSION MINDED
College taught us the joys and the freedoms of a simple and mission-minded life. All we had was a small dorm room roughly the size of a 6-man camping tent, and all our belongings fit into a VW Beetle. And life was good even though it was simple and uncluttered by many possessions. Differing levels of wealth, which can become a wedge between friends later on in life never entered into the picture. In tiny apartments or tiny dorms, we ate too much ramen while we all had tons to study. No one boasted about nice furniture, and for the most part, clothes were chosen for comfort — with some people even walking to class in their pajamas. All this made sense because we were all “heaven-bound” in a way; we were headed for graduation, and whatever wonders post-graduate life held. There was an overarching sense of mission that was unspoken and simply assumed: we were students, and we were here to get that college degree. Common mission bound us in camaraderie, made our differences less significant, and diminished the impact of our different income levels and family backgrounds. Each person was a student, a fellow Cal Bear, and that was the relevant identity.
This attitude translated smoothly into our sense of ourselves as missional disciples of Jesus. Just as college students look at their academic career as a brief stint, during which their identity is “student”, and mission is “academics”, we as Christians view our time on earth as a brief sojourn, during which we have the amazing mission of sharing the gospel and bringing our friends to eternity with us. Wealth, the niceties, become secondary to our life purpose, because it’s all about pouring out our lives in love into people for the sake of the gospel. It’s the main show. That being the overarching purpose of our lives, we are able to continue our college nonchalance regarding things like our standard of living. Dishearteningly, some of us have seen, in the lives of our parents and friends, that sometimes after graduation, friendships continue and discontinue, based on career and income. Knowing this to be a reality for some, we became determined to not let these worldly things intrude on our relationships. Experientially, we learned that we could all be pretty content at a simple standard of living, while trying to love the people God sent us. As long as we had enough to cook up huge vats of curry or chicken stew for hungry college students, and had enough of those folding tables to put out when they came over to study, life was good.
HARD WORK ETHIC
In college, most of us were not all that hard working, actually, but we all had periods of intense hard work during midterms and finals. We stayed up nights experiencing caffeine, stress, and the adrenaline and thrill of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles (i.e. learning a semester’s worth of material in 1 day). This was not the healthiest way to view life, but there is a certain toughness that forms during those times, and a sense that hard work can be quite thrilling. There’s joy and friendship, too, even if your friend is an Econ major and you are a Chem major – you’re both stressed. After several nights of intense studying, sharing cans of energy drinks and snacks — after finals, you are ready to hug each other as brothers and sisters.
We are a hardworking church, but our hard work is never separated from our main thing, which is a sense of close camaraderie as Christ’s servants. Some people separate cause and community, but in the Bible, and for us, they are vitally related. It’s the cause that brings us together, and it’s the suffering through hard work and obstacles that binds people closer than anything else. The higher the cause, the more overwhelming the challenge, the closer you get, and the greater the joy you experience when you overcome the challenge.
We think ministry is like that. Jesus says to us: make disciples of the nations… and teach them to obey all that He’s commanded. “Do what, Lord? Us?” To provincial Galileans, that must have been a wildly overwhelming challenge, just as it was to us, when we started to personally embrace Jesus’ challenge as our very own life purpose. It’s brought us greater closeness than we’d ever have managed on our own, and the thrill of seeing people come to Christ has been all worth it. Every year we baptize people, many from unchurched backgrounds. The joy of celebration we have during times like that – it’s a piece of heaven.
A big part of how we can work hard and do a lot without feeling burnt out is through the things listed above: we live in close proximity, we live somewhat counter-culturally, and we help each other a lot.
One caveat: saying that we “do a lot” is a bit embarrassing. Personally, we don’t feel like we are doing all that much, especially in view of the brothers and sisters serving much more zealously all around the world, and in much harsher conditions. On the other hand, it’s something we hear all the time, to the point of occasionally being accused of being too much in how much time and effort we put into ministry. Many of our staff works all day, and like artists who have day jobs, they labor at Kingdom work most weeknights and weekends. That’s why some people say that we are working too hard, perhaps.
However, there are many factors that make our lives easier, too, given the close community, and the high level of trust we have for one another. We watch each other’s children, often eat together, and just do many things together, which seems to have the effect of making things just not so tiring. Like if you get a flat tire on some lonely country road by yourself, it’s a personal crisis. But if you have a carload of friends with you, then it’s just an adventure and a fun story to tell later.
We personally feel a lot of respect toward many of those in ministry who do it alone in ministry settings much more difficult than what we experience. Also, there are often the handful of lonely lay leaders in every church, too, who bag the trash, lock up after everyone leaves, who load the equipment for the retreat, print out the maps, and assign the cabins. They do this year after year without much recognition, or a close group of like-minded friends. It’s admirable. So when we work hard, giving up a big part of our privacy, our time, and labor for God’s kingdom, we don’t feel like we are doing all that much. We have a legacy and resources of support that keeps us buoyant, more resources than many other Christian workers. And when compared with brothers suffering throughout the world, it’s really nothing close to suffering, or working hard. (1 Peter 5.9)
ROLE OF LEADERS
The difference between a freshman and a senior: significant. An average freshman looks at a senior and sees someone who is wise and mature, someone who has survived the rigors of college, weathered enemy fire (final exams), and returned safely from many missions. So naturally, the discipleship ministry by older believers worked very well at our church, in terms of the automatic sense of respect the “elders” got from the younger classmen. This was an important early layer in the soil of our church that later gave rise to the very robust role of spiritual leaders in the life of our church.
Because the upperclassmen, and then, the recent graduates, were showing the younger ones the ropes when it came to studies, stress, and staying away from harmful elements of college life, it became natural for them to also show them, in close, life-on-life settings, how to do their daily devotions in the Word, how to apply God’s Word to their roommate conflicts, how to steward their time and studies properly, how to plan for the future, how to behave toward members of the opposite sex, how to develop their character, etc. Today, we enjoy this legacy as a church in that everyone understands the role of leaders as vital to their spiritual growth, and as a huge resource for their spiritual growth.
In the Great Commission, Jesus charges the disciples to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” There’s a world of difference between teaching someone, and teaching them to obey. The words “to obey” add quite a lot. Most of the challenge in ministry is right there. It’s the role of leaders to do this. Like having a coach really helps with training, or having a mentor instructing you in your professional field, having a spiritual leader is a tremendous blessing. Unfortunately, this kind of strong, influential, personal role of spiritual leaders in the life of the members of the church is rare in the local church setting. Yet the Scriptures envision this as the essence of ministry (2 Timothy, Titus, for example).
Some people think that having strong spiritual leaders means a weak disciple or a weakened role for the Holy Spirit. We disagree. The early church produced very strong Christians, and it had both strong leaders and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Practically speaking, we believe that raising disciples happens in a community of leaders, peers and younger ones, and frankly, we reject the idea that there’s an inherent conflict between developing personal convictions and having a life centered around the church. It’s something about our modern, individualistic society that resists seeing a connection between personal and communal faith, and poses an unnecessarily false dichotomy. Personal convictions have so much to do with the community because the very stuff of personal convictions—dying to one’s ego, dying to the self—inevitably exists within the context of a community. For the Christian, personal convictions need to be forged within the body, since loving and submitting are actions that require other people. To have a community in which people learn to love and submit to one another, we need influential leaders who are a part of people’s lives.
We think we are blessed to have this kind of thing very well established at our church. Our vision for each of our members is that they will, in turn, grow into leaders themselves, with significant roles in some aspect of ministry. In other words, we take bi-vocational lay ministry to be the norm for Christian life. (BTW, a “bivocational minister” is a Christian who views himself as having two vocations: his regular career, and the role of being a minister.)
Certainly, not everyone can grow into this kind of role all the time, and issues having to do with personal capacity, commitment level, or season of life all factor in. However, what we have seen in our ministry over the years is that the majority of our members tend to grow into such roles, which then enables us to start new ministries, venture out to serve less fortunate neighbors, and to plant churches.