This pains me to say, but almost 10 years ago (I’m getting so old!) I was an angsty, wide-eyed college student when I heard a guy named Dustin Willis speak at FCA at Anderson University. He made us imagine that we were becoming missionaries to the country of Rwanda, and went through a presentation of the country’s many physical and spiritual needs–one primary physical need being lack of access to clean water. Then he asked for some crowd interaction about what we would focus on when we arrived in country.
Many students said helpful things, but we seemed to be missing the primary answer he was looking for. After a bit Dustin finally said, “Wouldn’t you first try to get them access to clean water? After all, they can’t hear the gospel if they are dying of parasites.”
I remember sitting there in my seat, dumbfounded that not one of the Christian students in that room–not even one of us Christian Ministry majors–had come up with such an obvious and blatant answer. That was one of the many times I started wondering about the nature and health of the church in North America.
I had heard that Dustin was helping start a new church in Columbia, SC two hours away from my school, and that the focus was going to be on actually being family with other believers and serving tangible needs of the community in light of the gospel. As soon as I heard those my ears perked up, because they were two majorly lacking aspects of many churches in the South I had seen.
So after Dustin’s talk that night, I walked up to him and said, “Hey, I’ve heard about the new church plant. I have to do an internship this summer for school, so could I move to Columbia for a few months and be an intern?” For some reason, not even knowing me, he said yes.
So in May of 2006 I moved down to Columbia with several of my best friends, and that summer we saw the infantile stages of a baby church–one that very much so had a lot to figure out, but it was the healthiest community I’d ever seen. So we all went back for our senior year, then packed our bags and moved back down for good to help start this church family we’d fallen in love with. Somewhere along there Midtown Fellowship was born (now a family of 3 local churches in the Columbia area).
I’ve been a pastor here since 2010 and this church family has been an immeasurable grace in my life. What Jesus has done here has in many ways been a balm to my disenchantment with American Christianity and I’ve learned that the picture of an Acts 2 type of church that once felt impossible is in fact far from it. I’ve seen believers in Jesus become true family with one another in light of the gospel and turn that family love outward in mission in a hundred breathtaking ways. It has not been easy or painless and we are far from a perfect church, but I am often speechless at what Jesus has done.
Dustin has since moved on to serve and strengthen other churches by working at the North American Mission Board in Atlanta, and he continues to fight for churches to be what we’ve fought for from day one: to be “a Jesus-centered family on mission with Him.” Just this week Dustin released a book called Life in Community: Joining Together to Display the Gospel and I wanted to let you guys know about it because it is in many ways what we’ve learned as a church over the course of these years. It is an invaluable resource for Christians and churches and one I hope that many people are challenged by.
Western culture swims in individualism and consumerism, but the church was designed to be neither of those. When believers actually join together as family through Jesus and love others with the love they’ve received, it’s a staggering thing to witness. I pray that the Lord will use this book to challenge, encourage and strengthen Christian communities across the map to be little Jesus-centered families on mission with Him to put the gospel on display for those around them.
Distance from Christian community is a sure sign of distance from Jesus Himself. -Dustin Willis
I encourage you to grab a copy and study it with your small group (and if you don’t have a group of believers you do life and live on mission with, hopefully this book will spur you to want that!).