Radical Kindness for Your Community: Stephen Viars
What if your church—and your life—were known for their radical kindness? Pastor and author Stephen Viars chats about his church's radical, community-altering approach to outreach.
You know, one of the things I love about community ministry is that it's often not, “I have to build something new.” It's more about using what I already have to meet a need. I've been in Lafayette at Faith Church for 36 years, and the gentleman that hired me was named Bill Goode, my predecessor. When I went to Faith, they had just built a new building, and it was very, very nice—brand new. -- Stephen Viars
About the Guest
- Connect with Stephen's church ministry at www.faithlafayette.org and stay connected at biblicalcounselingcoalition.org
- And grab his book, Loving Your Community: Proven Practices for Community-Based Outreach Ministry
- FamilyLife Equip | Find resources to lead others, open doors in your community, and build fulfilling connections
- Check out our mentoring course: Compassionate Mentoring: How to Listen and Love Like Jesus
- Check out the Hartford Hub
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What if your church—and your life—were known for their radical kindness? Pastor Stephen Viars chats about radical, community-altering outreach.
Radical Kindness for Your Community: Stephen Viars
Ann: Hey, before we dive into today's episode, we want to invite you to an exclusive Art of Marriage® preview event on November 1st.
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Stephen: You know, one of the things I love about community ministry is that it's often not, “I have to build something new.” It's more about using what I already have to meet a need. I've been in Lafayette at Faith Church for 36 years, and the gentleman that hired me was named Bill Goode, my predecessor. When I went to Faith, they had just built a new building, and it was very, very nice—brand new.
The Red Cross contacted us since we're so near the interstate and said, “Could we use your church as a disaster shelter, especially in Indiana for snow emergencies?” We said “Yes,” and sure enough, that first winter had a terrible snowstorm. They had to close I-65. People are coming off of the interstate, pouring into our building, obviously with snow and slush and all that kind of stuff getting tracked all over the place. We're quickly setting up cots—it's the first time we've ever done it—and trying to get people situated for the night, trying to figure out food, and all that sort of thing.
So, pretty soon our brand-new gym is filled with cots, the Sunday School classrooms are filled with cots, and there are more and more people coming in. We actually had to talk about, “Are we going to have to shut this shelter down?” And it's like, “Wait, we can't do that. I mean, it's dangerous. We’ve got to get these people off of the interstate.”
And so, the executive director of the Red Cross and Pastor Goode, my predecessor (who at that point was an elderly man), and I were standing right at the entrance to the auditorium, the sanctuary. It had brand-new padded pews. It still smelled new. The executive director of the Red Cross looked in there, and she said, “Is there any way we could allow people just to come in and sleep on those padded pews?” And I'll never forget what Pastor Goode said. He said, “Well, this place sleeps 700 on Sunday mornings. Why can't it sleep whatever it needs to sleep on Saturday night?” [Laughter]
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: Oh, I know when I grew up—you know my single mom took me to church—the sanctuary was untouchable.
Dave: You couldn't take a glass of water in there.
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: [For] most pastors, it's a place they're very careful about. It's not used for that. And I mean, your heart is His heart; is Jesus’s heart. And by the way, if you don't know who we're talking to, we’re talking to Steve Viars again about loving your community, and this is one example of using your church building. Here's the thing: as I hear you saying that again, Steve, I'm thinking the same should be true of our houses.
Dave: We can do the same thing with our house.
Dave: The carpet, you know, even “take off your shoes,” which I get. but it's like, “I don't want people coming to my house messing up my sanctuary.”
Ann: Wait, are you saying this even about cars? So, if I might nick a car or something? [Laughter]
Dave: Can we talk about something else?
Stephen: It's funny that you mentioned that because of the story I just told you about the snow disaster. We were new to working with the Red Cross, and so I didn't know how it all worked. There was a family that came in, and they had a little baby. I said, there's no way we're going to have them stay at a shelter. So, very quickly, I called my wife and I said, “Hey honey, listen. Do you mind if I just bring a—I don't know them, but I want to offer them to just come over to our house and stay.” And so, sure enough, we did that.
I found out later that was really against Red Cross protocol, but I didn't know the difference. What's interesting is, that baby now has grown up as a young adult, and that baby came to our church and introduced herself to me; just to make that whole circle was just absolutely fascinating.
But you're right. It's true of our churches, but it's also true of our homes. It's true of whatever resources the Lord may have entrusted to us. How can I meet a need?
Dave: I love—you said it the first day, and it's early in your book—“Say ‘yes’ unless you absolutely have to say ‘no.’”
Stephen: Yes. I do fear that as we get older, we can become more cynical. We've been fooled. We've been lied to. We've been hurt. One of my prayers for myself and for our church family is that we're just not going to become cynical.
Stephen: I would much rather get to heaven and find out that I had been duped, or someone told me a story and it turned out not to be true, and I helped them and maybe I shouldn't have. I would much rather have Jesus say that to me than for Him to say, “I sent somebody to you that had a legitimate need, and in your cynicism, you judged that person wrongly and did not love them the way you should have.” So many times, you—we—don't know.
Stephen: We don't want to be foolish or risky. I understand that in this culture but boy, if we're so close-handed that we will not share—like you said, Dave, just say “no,” say “no,” say “no”—we're going to miss ministry opportunities.
Dave: How do we keep from becoming cynical?
Stephen: You know, it just seems like the Lord is constantly providing these opportunities and defines joy in the opportunity. It's fun. [Laughter] Serving Jesus is fun; loving—people are fun.
Stephen: And so, to try to find the joy of Christ in the next ministry opportunity. And something else—I know this: if the community sees the church as a place that will say “yes,” they'll keep asking.
Ann: Well, I found it interesting at lunch because you said the community called your church to see if you wanted to buy something.
Stephen: [Laughter] Yes, our mayor. I love our mayor. He and I are good friends.
Ann: It’s your mayor, and you're good friends.
Stephen: We are good friends, and he loves this community, and he knows we do. I have a deal with the mayor that, “If you need something, just call us. Unless it's illegal or immoral, the answer is ‘yes.’” Anyway, the mayor calls, and he says, “Hey, what about the Kooler Keg Bar?” Now, anybody in Lafayette who's been there a long time; they know what the Kooler Keg Bar is. It was a working man's tavern. A lot of people from Purdue University used to go there for lunch because they were known for pork tenderloins. It was just a great working man's bar.
But when the interstates came to town, other restaurants are built, etcetera, etcetera. Finally, the Kooler Keg Bar—because it's in the north, and it's in a really bad part of town—went down. It went bankrupt; it went back to the city for back taxes. We bought the Kooler Keg Bar from the city of Lafayette for $1.00, and, frankly, we overpaid. The roof was falling in, the windows were broken out, but with help from the city and from Subaru Indiana Automotive, the car plant there in town, and from funding from our church, we tore that bar down.
We built a neighborhood park, and then there were four city lots that came with the dollar deal, right across the street, and we were able to build a little neighborhood community center called The Hartford Hub. The children that live in this part of town are—82 percent of them—from single parent homes.
What happens at the Hartford Hub, after school and on weekends—they come and just members of our church, especially Purdue students, just come and love on them; love on them, find out how their day went, feed them a snack, help them with their homework, help them get ready for their spelling test or whatever it might be; and just spend time with them. It's amazing how these young kids—and many of them are from minority families because the North End is the highest concentration of ethnic diversity anywhere in our town.
I do believe the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be a leader in racial reconciliation. And so, that's why we love being down there, but the kids just gravitate to anybody who will show them any love, any kind of attention. We had an elderly woman from the church. Not long after The Hartford Hub was built, she came to me and she said, “Steve, do you think the kids at The Hartford Hub would like to learn how to sew?” At first, I didn't even know what she was talking about. I didn't know that people still—like on a Singer sewing machine; you know those things? I didn't know anybody did that anymore.
And then, when I figured out what she was asking me, it's one of those pastoral moments where I know I'm not supposed to lie, but if I tell you the truth, that's not—and so, what I said was—I said, “Well, I don't know.” She lugs her Singer sewing machine down to The Hartford Hub. She's an elderly Caucasian woman, and pretty soon I start getting pictures from The Hartford Hub, that people are sending me, of this woman being surrounded by minority children just eating out of her hands.
And the next thing I know, the kids are at the sewing machine. They're making little gifts that they're going to be able to sew and then take home to their moms. That's what community ministry looks like. This woman didn't invest additional money, but she knew how to sew, and she knew how to love, and she went down there totally out of her comfort zone. She went down there and just loved on those kids a little bit and had them eating right out of her hand. That's what loving your community looks like.
Dave: It's such a beautiful story because we've said so many times—I know I appreciate—you probably have, too—when people say, “I don't know where God wants me to serve,” it's an easy answer. What's in your heart? What keeps you up at night? What are you passionate about? What's in your hand? She was gifted as a sewer.
Stephen: That's right.
Dave: Who would have thought?
Stephen: I know who didn't think. [Laughter] And you know, shame on me, by the way. Yes, I've preached that sermon, too, but when that woman asked me that question, I didn't connect it the way I should have, because I didn't believe it would happen.
Dave: Here's what I want to ask you. Most mayors of cities, if they get a call from a pastor, or a Christian family, they're not excited about that call. They think they're in trouble.
Stephen: That’s right.
Dave: They're standing up for something that they disagree with. You've cultivated a relationship where the mayor’s calling you. How did that happen?
Stephen: Well, I think it just starts by letting the community know, “We're here to love you, and we're here to meet needs.” The Church is not, “What can we do to make our lives better? What can we do to pour all of our resources into us?” We want to try to pour our resources [out], and people notice that. And by the way, we're not trying to get them to notice us. We want them to know our God.
Stephen: “Let your lights shin among men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” [Matthe 5:16] Our Father is the giver of good gifts. He gave us His Son Jesus. He gives us all that we need for life and godliness, and so the church should not be known as being stingy. I want our community leaders to know that we want to serve them. But what's amazing is, then it starts turning into collaborative partnerships.
We were talking earlier about the skate park. Well, we built that skate park 17 years ago. We've had a lot of fun with the skateboarders, but we're in the process of building a new addition to that Community Center for some athletic training that's going right on top of the old skate park, so we had to dismantle it. Well, we decided as part of the construction we're doing right now that we were going to designate $200,000 to build a new skate park, because we didn't want to take the old one apart without building a new one.
I called the mayor, and I said to him, “You know what would be better than a $200,000 skate park would be a $400,000 skate park because you know Faith has been carrying the insurance bills, the maintenance on all this for the last 17 years on behalf of our city. How about this time if Faith puts 200 in, but the city puts $200,000 in?” Sure enough, he came back and said, “The city will give Faith, no strings attached, $200,000 to add to and double the size of the skate park you were envisioning.”
Then I said “Great!” So then, I went to the county commissioners, and I said, “Listen, the city and Faith is getting ready to build a skate park, $400,000; that’s a pretty nice skate park. But you know what would be better than a $400,000 skate park [Laughter] would be a $600,000 skate park.” And it's interesting, in the car ride over today I received a phone call from that county commissioner who said that was just passed in their budget. And so now we're going to be able to build a $600,000 skate park and, by God's grace, and hopefully for His glory, we're going to have a beautiful professional-grade skate park.
Ann: Let me ask you, Steve, because we've had three inspiring days with you. If you haven't listened to our previous two days, go back and listen to those. Where do we start? I think our hearts can—I feel like the Holy Spirit's nudging us. What can I do?
Stephen: Part of it is, get to know your neighbors. Maybe it just starts by inviting a neighbor over for—and it doesn't have to be a lavish meal. It's really just about time and then finding needs. Maybe it's a time for being sure that the kids in the neighborhood have the school supplies they need, or maybe it's being sure that they've got coats for winter, or just any of those kinds of needs. Sometimes it's not even anything material, [but] just saying to somebody, “Could I pray with you about that?” That can be such a powerful question to a neighbor: “Boy, I know you're struggling with this. Do you mind if I—can we—pray about that?”
And then sometimes, there may be a project that needs to be organized in that neighborhood and the way that you're helping, the way that you're serving, is by organizing. You know, “Let's have a Friday night dinner where we bring in soup, so all the moms don't have to make dinner on Friday night.” Just whatever the need might be in that neighborhood.
We're not focusing all of our time and our resources on ourselves. That selfishness is boring. It really is [true], loving others brings joy. I hope no one says, “Boy, Jesus really jammed us up with all these commands. Now I have to love God and love others.” But He did that because He loves us, and living that way produces incredible joy and satisfaction and fulfillment.
I would say the same thing to churches. I don't think that, first and foremost, it's a matter of, “Well, you have to go out and build a Community Center or you have to have resources.” A lot of times, it's just using the resources you already have. Churches, generally speaking, have rooms, and those rooms are available throughout the week. What is a need that could be met in this neighborhood by letting that room be used? “We've got a nursery. We've got single moms in our neighborhood who need infant care.” The church can figure that out.
And if we're against abortion? Then we better be doing everything we possibly can to help that mom keep her baby, and then provide whatever resources she needs at the time and just love her. I don't need to know the story of how the baby was conceived unless you want to tell me that; that's not my concern. My concern is, “How can I love you and how can I love your little baby? How can I help you be the kind of mom that God wants you to be?” Again, churches have nurseries. Moms need childcare.
Many churches have some kind of an athletic field. Don't let that be just for the church. Let that be for the community. Figure out a way to have community recreation. We just have to share what we have. Then, it's amazing how once we start seeing people come to Christ like that, then it just becomes this flywheel of excitement and all of a sudden, church members are saying, “You know what? I actually have some money. We could do this, we could do that, we could”—and pretty soon another piece of property is being bought, another building is being—
And then it's not unusual for people in the community. Money follows vision, and God will direct that to happen. That's what the Lord has chosen to do with us: just to provide all sorts of resources as we've tried to love our community.
Ann: I'm just thinking this would be a great conversation to have as a family. Maybe you listen to the episodes together or part of it, or sit down with your family and say, “How could we impact our community? What would this look like for us as a family?” You give them something that's risky, that could be out of their comfort zone, that they need the Holy Spirit and God to give them the courage to walk this path; that will light our kids up spiritually.
Dave: Yes. In some ways I think, for a family, what you're saying, Steve, is you—you’re like, “How can I impact my neighborhood? How can I impact my cul-de-sac?” You know what my answer is? Walk across the front yard—
Stephen: That's right.
Dave: —have a conversation—
Stephen: That's right.
Dave: —instead of putting your garage door down and going into the house, which we do, and I get it: there's your neighbor! They're standing there. Walk over and say, “Hi,” and don't go “Hey!” Just go over and say, “Hi.” That just starts something.
Ann: And maybe pray. Pray with your son, your daughter, your family: “Lord, give us eyes, give us a vision, for what this could look like.” And beware, because Jesus is going to answer that prayer.
I've shared this story before, but I was in Costco, and I felt like I need to buy—it was a really nice, warm winter coat and I felt—
Dave: I told you Steve, she buys things for total strangers. [Laughter]
Stephen: I love it; I love it.
Ann: I felt this nudge, like, “There's a woman that really needs that coat.” So, I bought the coat, and told Dave about it a few days later. [Laughter]
Dave: —a few days later.
Ann: But I was leading a high school youth group of girls at that time, so I called a couple of the girls. I think they were 15 and 16. I said, “I feel like I'm supposed to go downtown in Detroit, and I need to find a woman. I feel like this coat is for this woman who's homeless. Do you guys want to go down with me and find the woman?” They're like, “Wait, what are we doing?” because—
Stephen: Oh, I love this.
Ann: —Detroit doesn't have the best reputation, especially at that time. So, we're praying in the car like, “Lord,” and I had this vision, “Her name’s going to be Mary.” It's Christmas time, [Laughter] and she's going to say, “I've been praying for a coat.” Well, we get down to this section, and I have to ask like, “Hey, where are some of the homeless people?” And a homeless person says, “Well, there's this shelter underneath this bridge, and a lot of people are there.” So, we’re walking together. We're like, “Okay, where is she?” And they are excited out of their mind.
Stephen: Oh, I believe that.
Ann: I see this woman walking toward us. She doesn't have a coat on. It's January in Detroit, and the weather's horrible. I say to them, “There she is. This is who we've prayed for,” and so I get to her, and I think—I don't know why I think her name is going to be Mary. I'm like, “Hey, I'm Ann and these are”—and she is not nice at all; not nice at all.
I said, “What's your name?” She said, “Beth.” And I said, “Well, Beth, I saw this coat, and I felt like there's somebody that needs this coat. Is it you? Would you need this?” She goes, “I don't know.” And she was so despondent. It was so depressing; not anything like I pictured, that she’d thank me, and she'd cry. She goes, “I'll take it if you want me to have it, though.” And then she took it, and she was just dragging it along the ground behind her. There was this part of me that was a little disappointed in her reaction. But then I thought, I have no idea what her story is.
Stephen: That’s exactly right.
Ann: And we got back in the car with these girls, these high school teenagers, and they were like, “That was the most amazing thing we have ever done!” Those are your kids.
Stephen: That's right.
Ann: They want to see life change, and they want to do something about the problems in the world. And it could be that God wants to use you and your family and your passion for Jesus to change the world as you're doing, Steve.
Shelby: I'm Shelby Abbott. You've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Stephen Viars on FamilyLife Today. You know, I've been working with young people for over 20 years now, and I found that they genuinely do want to help change the world. What if you were the one to lead them in practical ways of doing that right where you live? Well, stick around, because Stephen Viars is going to give us some practical strategies on how to do just that here in just a minute.
But first, Stephen has written a book called Loving Your Community: Proven Practices for Community-Based Outreach Ministry. You've heard lots of examples of that today. Well, his book is going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And you can feel free to drop us something in the mail if you'd like to. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
You know, we've been talking today about reaching your community, and we want to help you with that at FamilyLife, so we've created a free website for ideas and training and inspiration to guide others toward Jesus and open the doors in your community. It's called FamilyLife Equip and it gives you some practical tools and inspiration on how to do just that. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link in the show notes to find out more.
Okay, here's Stephen Viars with a few practical steps you can take this upcoming holiday season:
Stephen: Maybe that looks—in a family, maybe that looks—like reorienting some things. And maybe it's a family conversation, based on biblical truth, that would lead us to think this way but then to say, “You know what would happen if we backed off on some of the gifts that we buy for one another? And we find some people in our community who don't have any Christmas, and we figure out a way especially to make a hero out of the parent.”
We get the parent aside, we find out what the needs are, and we provide some funds or some gifts that that parent can give that child, that otherwise they wouldn’t. And I believe—
Ann: Oh, that’s good.
Stephen: —that would be far better than just this mountain of presents that many of us have when there are others in our town that don't. Or, “Okay, we're going to have a holiday meal. Does it really just have to be us? Are there some other people in our town that aren't going to have any food? How about we add some chairs to this table?” And it might make for some awkward—there might be some Beths. [Laughter]
Stephen: And Beth may complain about the turkey, [Laughter] and she may say something snide about the sweet potato, but I really appreciate what you said., Ann. Beth has a story. There's a whole lot behind that inability to immediately warm up.
Stephen: But Beth might be the most important guest at the Thanksgiving table. I realize that takes our families out of our comfort zones, but I really do believe those kinds of actions can transform a family. And I believe they can provide a level of joy. And I believe this—see what the Lord does—it very well could be next Christmas, what the kids are really talking about is, “Can we reduce our things some more so that we can do more for others?”
I'd be willing to bet this: 10 or 20 years from now, when people are—when the family is—sitting around talking about Christmas, they're not talking about the new sweater they got. They're talking about the opportunity they had to serve somebody else. So, loving your community, it does start at home.
Shelby: How can a person who's single learn how to find joy, overcome loneliness, and embrace the value of being single in a relationship-focused culture? It's an important question. Well, tomorrow, Sherri Lynn is going to be with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about all that and the journey toward contentment in singleness. That's tomorrow. We hope you'll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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