“I live two doors down from the porn store. The one with a big triple-x sign.” That’s usually how I respond when people ask me where I live. I don’t do it for shock value. I estimate that about fifty-percent of the locals know exactly what I’m talking about. The other half? Well, they respond by dropping their jaw. They can’t imagine such a place exists in Grand Rapids, the city with a church on every corner. They’ve spent time only in the “safe” parts of the city, where neighborhoods like mine, Burton Heights, seem to exist only in a parallel universe.
“Does Grand Rapids really need another church?” When I began to share my vision for church planting in the Burton Heights neighborhood, I was consistently met with the above question. In my mind, there is no doubt that the answer to that question is an absolute, yes! But, to be fair to the questioners, Grand Rapids is church heavy, that is, if you’re looking at the church buildings. The reality is that several of these church buildings hold a sparse number of Christians on any given Sunday. Young people are leaving the church in droves, looking for other ways to express their faith. The product of White-flight to the suburbs has resulted in the growing emptiness of the sanctuary as commuters no longer make the trek into the city for their hour-of-power on a Sunday morning. What does remain is the cultural disconnect between the pulpit and the sidewalk. Many churches are fighting the tides of change, singing the praises of the old-glory-days, while trying to keep their doors open. Near Burton Heights alone, two staple churches have closed in the last two years. A large church building that has been vacant for years just sits there, with no light behind its stained-glass windows, while nature sends grass and weeds to upheave its parking lot by seeding every available crack in its structure. Maybe you don’t even have to live in West Michigan for this description to feel familiar.
In Matthew 28:18 and 19, Jesus tells his followers as they stand on a mountain, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” Why does it seem easier to send missionaries to other nations, when we neglect to do the same in our own cities? Our cities are just as much a part of Christ’s mandate. Is it that our vision isn’t high enough for ourselves? Have we become satisfied with only looking from the distance?
“Mission is like hiking up this mountain,” Victor told me. Recently I took some vacation time to visit with two fellow church planters in Colorado. One of them, Victor Perez, decided to take me on a hiking trip to Seven Falls in Colorado Springs. After we parked our vehicle, we walked upward on a long winding road to see the falls. Every time I saw a trickle of water falling over a collection of rocks, I asked Victor, “Are we there yet?” To which he only chuckled, even though it was a serious question.
Eventually we came to a set of 204 stairs that were lined near the actual falls. 204 stairs. Again, 204 stairs. Do you feel it yet? We started going up, and I knew that looking down was a bad idea. I held on to the hand rails and looked only forward. But, when we made it to the top platform the site was so beautiful. I cheered at the top of the steps. That’s when Victor looked at me and said, “This is just the warm up.” And he kept walking.
I’ll spare you most of the details. But, I’ll tell you that the climb was rocky. It was always steep. We stopped a number of times to catch our breath. And every time we did, we saw groups of people turning around. They decided they couldn’t go on any more. One lady making her way down happily told me, “It’s just around the corner!” I figured she must have missed the marker for the continuing trail because when we turned the corner there was a rock you could stand on to look at the valley below, but about ten feet behind it, the winding trail only continued higher.
On our final rest, Victor told me jokingly that this hike is like church planting. I considered Victor’s words for a moment. Getting people to talk about the beauty of outreach and mission is easy. It would be so beautiful to see neighborhoods transformed. It would be so awesome if we started baptizing new adult converts. Wouldn’t it be great? But, when we get to the parking lot and see how long the road to change is and how much work it is to reach our mission, some of us decide we are only willing to go so far before turning back. Some of us ask, “Are we there yet,” happy enough to see a creek instead of the waterfall. When we see other people turning back with all their climbing gear, we think that if it is too much for them, then who are we to continue? I remembered that even in starting En Vivo Church, there were many people excited about the possibility. Many said they would join us. Some of those folks met with me one on one, and said they were ready to go to work. Others came to the vision casting meeting. But, of all those who put their name on the list, only eight of us decided to make the climb.
Victor and I eventually made it to the top. To a place called “Inspiration Point.” We spent about an hour there appreciating the view. While we were there, just two other hiking groups met us at the top. Most of the time, it was just us. And when we finally decided to make our decent, Victor asked me, “Was it worth it?” But, I had already answered that question for myself while I sat at the edge of the mountain. I would do it all again, and hope to bring others with me.
In our neighborhood, prostitutes work day-time hours on the main street. Men driving their new cars feel comfortable enough exploiting the women and pick them up. Drug dealers claim the corner by the liquor store. Homelessness seems to increase by the day. One night I drove home to find a man being placed in a body bag in the parking lot. Apparently, he drank himself to death. Why should we look any further for disciples? Is this work difficult? Yes. It is worth it? Yes. I know that God is at work in Burton Heights. While its challenging, I wouldn’t trade this mission for anything.
What about you? Are you engaging missionally?
Are you playing it safe?
Are you willing to leave your comfort and make the climb?
Rev. Ricardo Tavárez
En Vivo Church