Trading the good word for good deeds

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 9:55 PM

Evangelical churches take a break from Sunday services to practice what they preach.

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Dean Marshall, middle rear, and Adam DeGroff, middle front, work on changing the oil and doing other general maintenance to a 1996 Chevy Blazer owned by a single parent and getting serviced for free as a part of CityServe Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012, at Evergreen Church in Bloomington.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Sherri Kadlec won't be attending Hillside Church of Bloomington on Sunday, but she'll still be at church. She'll just be picking up litter strewn around school yards and parks as a form of service.

Kadlec's church and four other congregations in Bloomington are canceling regular worship services to do charitable works in an effort to show they're living out the do-good messages they preach.

Nearly 1,000 people from Bethany, Emmaus, Evergreen, Garden Community and Hillside evangelical churches plan to help their neighbors by painting houses, picking up trash, cleaning school playgrounds and public parks, offering free vehicle oil changes to single parents and hosting a basketball clinic.

"It's kind of breaking the mold, getting outside of the church and connecting with people," said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of nearly 160 evangelical churches helping to organize the event. "We're really serious about our faith and willing to step out and just simply serve people, no strings attached."

The churches join a growing number of conservative evangelical congregations in other states that have canceled Sunday services to perform charitable acts as a way to show they're not only concerned with fighting gay marriage and abortion but also care about helping the needy and other social justice issues.

"I think church people have kind of a bad name, and we're hoping to change that," said Kadlec, who's helping to organize Sunday's event. "As they see church people helping people they won't think we're hypocrites. I think canceling the service on Sunday shows the community, 'Hey, we really think you're important and want to come and share God's love with you. We want to serve you.'"

Bryan Moak, executive pastor at Hillside Church, said he and pastors at the other participating churches knew of congregations throughout the country taking similar action and believed they could do more good deeds if they banded together.

Participants from all of the churches are scheduled to meet at Kennedy High School in Bloomington Sunday morning and then disperse to some 36 different service projects throughout the city.

"Church is, I think, we tend to say, 'Hey people come to us,'" Moak said. "I think in a way, we're not canceling anything. We're just moving church to the community."

Ed Stetzer, a vice president at LifeWay Research, a Christian firm that tracks church trends nationwide, says he's seen an increase in congregations swapping Sunday services for service projects, perhaps once or twice a year.

But what about worship?

Worthy as the work is, Stetzer notes such a symbolic gesture could leave the impression that worship is less important.

"I do think it is tricky," Stetzer said in a statement. "I want more churches to serve and to do it together, but there are 167 hours a week where that can be done. So I am hesitant to cancel worshipping Jesus so we might serve in his name. I think we can do both."

Milan Homola, a pastor at Clear Creek Church near Portland, Ore., said churches in his area have also canceled Sunday services to do charitable acts, but his church decided not to because members already do good deeds on other days.

"Coming together as a body and worshiping the Lord is also a means of making sure you have that heart for the community," Homola said. "To cancel one in place of the other is not absolutely necessary. It could be a slippery slope, where you say the act of serving is the only means of reaching back into the world."

Sunday's action reflects a response to the changing interests of evangelical Christians. In the past 10-15 years, younger evangelicals in particular have become more involved in issues beyond gay marriage and abortion, such as being good stewards of the environment and addressing social ills like poverty and homelessness, notes Dan Olson, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, who's written about church congregations and religion and politics.

"They don't want to be seen as just sort of angry, bitter sort of people who are always nay-saying," Olson said. "They want to say, 'No, Christ was about helping people. People will see we're not just about abortion or ... or saving souls. We're concerned about other things, too.'"

Mike Olmstead, pastor at Evergreen church, said he and the other pastors may repeat Sunday's event in the future. Pastors from the five congregations plan to keep in contact and respond to requests for help through the year.

"The church is filled with people who want to serve," Olmstead said. "Jesus is all about meeting need. The best way to make connections to people is to meet a need."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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