Going the extra mile is the essence of the gospel, Bruce Powers believes. First, though, Christians must be able to hear God’s telling them which mile to pursue. Those miles, he is convinced, usually are ones that lead into the community outside the church walls.
Powers has spent nearly 10 years “helping Christians work on listening for God’s voice” as pastor of Westhaven Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Va.
Now 100 years old, Westhaven is a traditional Baptist church that had once been a force in town, Powers said. Early in his ministry, he walked around to get a feel for the entire community and discovered the church was no longer much of a factor in town life.
Powers realized that missions, particularly international work, remains at the heart of most traditional Baptist congregations. “We started focusing on what missions really is,” he said.
Members began to see missions as more than hearing and praying about the work others are doing.
“My suspicion is most...folks...believe in God, in doing his will...then they leave [worship] and drive past people [with needs],” Powers explained.
Christians might feel God’s nudges to minister “but we talk ourselves out of a lot of things.” People are able to ignore those spiritual prompts, either because they don’t recognize them at all or because they don’t understand what they mean.
Powers knew that if he preached that church members should go out and do ministry, a few might do so. “But the reality is people have a hard time going out on their own,” he said.
Instead of preaching at the congregation, he began conversations about missions and what kind of missions the church should do. As members began to grasp a congregational understanding of missions, Powers started pointing out specific opportunities in the broader community.
Powers believes missions must be as personal as possible — hands-on — and must involve commitment. “We must be involved with actual people,” he said. “I wanted our people to feel a sense of investment.”
The Westhaven congregation looked at needs around the church and determined which they had the resources to invest in. Members realized the local food bank was working in the neighborhood, so they joined the effort. The church served as the food distribution point for the area, with several members volunteering on-site. They also helped with the food bank’s backpack program to provide food for schoolchildren.
They realized they might make a difference for children at the elementary school located just three blocks from the church. The school’s new principal had been praying for a partnership. Now the church ministers through a Saturday breakfast program and other activities.
“That started our motion toward working in the community,” Powers explained.
Then doors opened for the church to assist other congregations and community groups to provide shelter for the homeless during the winter months. Members were unsure about allowing the homeless into the building.
“But after that first time, our people developed...a real vision,” Powers said. Members started thinking of the people as “honored guests,” instead of as intruders. They began seeing people as people, he added.
The latest endeavor to meet people as people and to minister to individuals where they are began as an outgrowth of the pastor’s personal spiritual development. He and wife Traci, also pastor of Westhaven, started working on what generosity means and being more aware of often overlooked people in service jobs, such as servers at drive-through windows and those who man return counters at retail stores.
Powers and church deacons mulled ways to minister to that overlooked segment and came up with the idea of personal thank-you notes with gift cards that members could give whenever they felt a God-nudge to show appreciation and encouragement to service-oriented workers.
When he learned Terry Lucas, manager of a new Kroger Marketplace grocery, wanted to be involved in the community, Powers approached Lucas about a possible partnership. Lucas donated the first batch of gift cards to the church.
The deacons have been giving those away, and now are collecting funds to purchase another package.
Evangelism goes along with service, the pastor believes. He emphasizes servant evangelism and teaches church members to “wait for the why” so that they have an opportunity to offer a verbal witness.
“I don’t think the overt [evangelistic style] is smart because people expect strings,” he said. The person who receives the service no longer views it as a gift.
“We make sure we’re doing what Jesus expects us to do...that we are kind and loving...and ready to give a witness.... If we do it well, people are going to ask,” Powers said.
“This is so much more wholesome in terms of evangelism,” he said. “My hope is that by doing service in a simple, organized way, it will lead people to start doing it on their own.”
Powers emphasized that service, even while partnering with secular organizations, should be more than “just being nice.”
“The way we treat people has to be so different. The joy, gratitude and love have to be obvious,” he said. “It puts the pressure on us to have attitudes beyond ‘I want the world to be a nicer place.’”
The sense of mission and vision allows for “God moments” that make an eternal difference, he said.