Pastors often challenge churches with the question: Would the community notice if your church disappeared overnight? One megachurch pastor says his community would "definitely notice."
Over 20,000 people flood into Salem Baptist Church of Chicago every weekend. It's the largest African American church in the state. And beginning this month, the megachurch is closing its doors to dispatch the thousands of congregants to the streets.
"Church has become a football game that's never played. Imagine the frustration fans would feel if their favorite football team suits up for the game, goes into the huddle, gives the pre-game interview but never steps on the field to actually play," said the Rev. Senator James T. Meeks in a statement. "Well that's the current routine of today's church. Members pack the pews, sing worship songs but never go into the streets to help the people God called on us to take care of such as the homeless, the sick, the hungry and the lonely."
Shaking off the routine of "church," Salem Baptist has kicked off Vision 2007 – a 26-week community outreach initiative will get churchgoers not just talking the Christian talk, but walking the walk. Instead of Saturday choir rehearsals, Salem congregants will head out for a 10 a.m. to noon day of service – outreach activities that range from feeding the hungry and conducting worship services in prisons to building houses and tutoring young students. Instead of Sunday school, church members will engage in "Service School," applying the Bible's command to serve in their local community.
"The people of Chicago can expect us on their block, in the streets, in the hospitals and the shelters," said Meeks, who is also a state senator.
Of course, congregants will still be hearing the Word every Sunday.
"Faith cometh by hearing," said Meeks.
The megapastor had prepared the congregation for the ambitious outreach through a series of sermons in March. The initiative launched on Apr. 7 and every Sunday, congregants will still be flooding in to hear the Gospel message, but until the end of September, they won't just be hearing the Word, they'll also be "doing" the Word.
Local residents, however, won't be surprised by the major outreach projects. Salem Baptist is already well-known in the area for its "highly active congregation," as Meeks described it.
Real Estate Corporation Century 21 even sells homes in the community by mentioning Salem Baptist Church in their advertising and how congregants are changing the neighborhood, noted Meeks.
While reaching outside church walls is nothing new for the Chicago congregation, Meeks hopes the 6-month initiative can serve as a prototype for other churches, and not just megachurches.
"I'm convinced that not many people are doing it (reaching out) on the magnitude at which I just described to you," Meeks told The Christian Post. "Churches have the responsibility to impact the community around them."
For Salem, serving the some 100 blocks in their local community doesn't end with just one initiative. Meeks hopes to double the effort or even triple it, depending on the number of people who come out of the outreach thrust impacted and willing to help.
"We're using Vision 2007 as an opportunity to close the church doors so we can go out and meet people right where they are."