By Carl Stagner
Ithaca Church of God recently canceled their Sunday morning worship service at 624 East Barber Street in Ithaca, Michigan. The pastor went so far as to say it was a “no-brainer.” But it’s not what you might think. Instead of gathering at the church, the congregation decided to meet at the local park to be the church. For the second year in a row, their Community Service Sunday made a bold statement to the community that they care. While much of our society looks upon the visible expression of the body of Christ with distrust and disdain, locals in Ithaca, Michigan, saw only love.
“We have three core values,” Pastor Tom Whitesel explains. “They are loving God, loving each other, and loving our community. This is just one piece of loving our community.” Though their goal was to love their neighbors and not receive anything in return, word about the church’s heart for the community has spread rapidly on social media. The mayor of Ithaca also commended the church for their work. Individuals that the pastor had never met told him they’d seen the church working in the community and appreciated it. All this over the staining of playground equipment.
Big cities don’t always experience it, but residents of small towns often share a strong sense of pride in their community. It’s prevalent and pervasive. So when a church decides it’s going to do something to make the town a better place to live, not only does the town notice, but the church turns out in droves to help. Though the Sunday schedule and venue was completely out of the ordinary for Ithaca Church of God, most of the congregation participated. Even people who don’t regularly attend worship services pitched in to give back to the community. From the youngest to the oldest, volunteers beautified the popular Playscape for local families to enjoy again and again. This intergenerational component to Community Service Sunday was no accident.
“We’re also really trying to focus on intergenerational ministry,” Tom explains. “Primarily it’s because we believe that the future of the church is going to depend on different generations loving each other and all being involved and enjoying being together. It also gave us all a shared experience outside of the normal worship service. There are shared experiences there, too, but they’re not as easily definable. With this, you can say, Hey, remember when we got together at the park?”
Tom is insistent that his church and the community come to recognize that the church is not about the four walls of a building, but instead about a people that love God and neighbor. Thus, the church’s outreach activities are not at all limited to Community Service Sunday. Another unique project they do falls on Grandparents Day. The congregation actually supplies “volunteer grandparents” for the children in the local schools that don’t have grandparents anymore or whose grandparents are unable to show up and bless the children. For Ithaca Church of God, it all boils down to those three simple core values—loving God, loving each other, and loving the community.
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