A tattoo-covered arm reached for my empty cup as I sat down for dinner. My eyes followed a trail of colorful, hard-core images up to the man’s elbow. Quite a contrast to his formal, white pressed shirt.
The man’s name tag read “Ronnie.” And as he poured me some lemonade, I realized Ronnie was living out the whole point of this conference.
The topic of the gathering at First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., was how ministries can serve those in need more effectively.
First Baptist operates a “ministry village” on its campus called the Christian Care Center. One ministry, the Men’s Residence, is a four-month recovery program for men who have struggled with substance abuse. Ronnie and other enrollees were helping out with the conference.
The ministry helps men overcome their addictions and establish stable, independent, drug-free lives.
Staff members don’t focus on physical needs alone. They also address emotional and spiritual needs that often turn out to have driven these men to abuse alcohol and drugs in the first place.
The folks at the Christian Care Center understand that men are unlikely to kick their bad habits unless they can kick-start their own hearts.
Jay Walsh, director of the Men’s Residence, says it takes patience, mercy and tough love to help such men overcome self-centered addictions and build authentic relationships with others.
That’s why the center has program participants stay in residence for four months. That’s also why it places the men in mentoring relationships, classes and Bible studies, and assigns daily in-house chores.
And that’s why these men serve meals at church-sponsored events such as the conference I attended.
It seems to be working for Ronnie. He has turned his life around, those who know him say, and plans to marry the mother of his child in October.
The success of this comprehensive, relational approach is one reason First Baptist Church is highlighted in a new study guide from The Heritage Foundation on how to overcome social breakdown.
Called “Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives in Need,” the six-lesson DVD and workbook are designed to help small groups understand why institutions of civil society are so powerful in meeting human need. (This resource, featuring Chuck Colson, Al Mohler, Star Parker, Marvin Olasky and other Christian leaders, can be viewed and read at www.seeksocialjustice.com as well as ordered there for the cost of postage and handling.)
Families, churches and local ministries tend to be more creative, flexible, efficient and personally invested in others’ lives than any big government program could ever be. By forming relationships and walking alongside those who are hurting, these institutions can do what government assistance simply can’t.
And this includes empowering those at the end of their rope to step into perhaps the most transformational, fulfilling role of all: serving others.
“When the ministry clients work alongside us,” First Baptist executive pastor Art Ayris explains, “they see how we handle problems and stressors and display grace in dealing with people. It’s a valuable component of the mentoring process.”
And the approach fosters a focus on others, rather than a sense of personal entitlement.
Programs that involve addicts such as Ronnie in mentoring relationships, spiritual counseling and opportunities to serve don’t get the same headlines as multibillion-dollar government programs out of Washington, D.C.But policy makers should take note: These faith-based efforts on the local level offer a better hope of achieving real, long-term change.
Sitting next to me at dinner was the director of First Baptist’s newest ministry, Samaritan Inn. The church has joined with other congregations in Leesburg—Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish—to turn an abandoned hotel into temporary housing for the homeless. The goal is to provide qualified families with a safe place to live while the parents get job training and search for employment.
As it happens, Samaritan Inn backs up to the property of the Men’s Residence. So you can guess who will serve dinner to those families-in-transition each night.
Even while they experience real transformation in their own lives, Ronnie and fellow participants in the Men’s Residence are equipped to help transform the lives of others in need.
Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Evangelical Outpost