SYRACUSE, NY — Georgia Baptists have had a loving working relationship with Bill Barker for many years. Barker was born in Boone County, WV and grew up in the state’s rugged coal mining country.
When Barker left in 1969 he did not plan to return, but almost 16 years ago God told him to return to his home state after a 32-year absence. Today he is the director of Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM) where there is great poverty and 70 percent of the region is unchurched.
Few people have more meaningful and heartwarming testimonies of what God is doing in American today than Bill Barker. He recently pointed The Christian Index to a young church planter in Syracuse, NY, through whom God is doing some amazing things.
Ronnie Wyatt is pastor of The Neighborhood Church, located in a very impoverished, high crime, drug-riddled community in Syracuse. Wyatt explained, “We realize that to serve where God has placed us, we must be a little different than some other churches.
“We are not better than other churches,” Wyatt added. “We are not ‘right’ while all other churches are ‘wrong.’ We just know that because of the uniqueness of our community, our philosophy of how we ‘do’ church is not necessarily the same way everyone else ‘does’ church – and that’s okay.”
The words imprinted on the window of their storefront church facility are: “Struggling though life? Past haunting you? Heartbreak got you down? Good, then you will fit right in with us!”
Wyatt expresses the philosophy of the church by saying, “If you are already a faithful attender of another church then we ask you to continue to be faithful where God has placed you. We are out to reach those that either have no relationship with Jesus Christ or may be a Christian without a church home. We are going to be focused on reaching the unreached.”
From community to core
Wyatt started his ministry by trying to reach out into the community, to those who did not have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ or were unchurched. Wyatt commented, “For example, we do an Easter outreach every year. Last year we had over 26,000 Easter eggs and shared the Gospel with over 300 people. We also have a ministry in a local elementary school. We have shared the Gospel with over 70 kids in public schools. We also have a ministry to the homeless.”
Secondly, Wyatt centered his focus upon the crowd, or attenders (those who would show up for special events). He stated, “These folks are not necessarily committed to the church or Christ, but will attend as they feel is convenient. Every week we have a free meal before our worship service on Saturday. My wife, Michele, and our children fixed a meal for 25-50 people who filled up every nook and cranny of our living room, kitchen, and dinning room during the time we were tying to assemble a crowd. That was before God provided a building.”
Wyatt indicated that from a crowd you can begin to build a congregation – those who have actually made a public confession of faith in Christ and united with the church fellowship, a group that can generally be counted on to be present for most of your church events.
The next level, according to Wyatt, is the committed. This group constitutes the maturing members who are growing spiritually and making sacrifices to become the person God created them to be.
Finally, there is the core group. This is the committed remnant that has found their ministry in the church and uses their gifts to reach back into the community and make a difference for the Kingdom of God.
Wyatt explained that the goal of the church is to take people from the community to the core. He remarked, “In 2017 we will begin to move those from ‘the community and the crowd’ into ‘a congregation.'”
God with a bigger plan
The path to having a strong, viable church has not been easy, but exciting evidences of progress are becoming obvious. Last September a group of four girls called the Joy Club were challenged to raise money for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. The girls were told about Lottie Moon and her sacrificial life and that the offering in her name would help missionaries all over the world.
Wyatt said, “This small group of little girls live in deep poverty and were very unchurched before coming to The Neighborhood Church. One has parents who are openly practicing witches (Wiccan). One has every brother in her family over the age of 16 in prison or jail and two older sisters who dropped out of school this year.
“Another little girl has a 13-year-old sister who recently had a baby, which is normal for her family. When asked how much they wanted to ‘raise for missions’ they suggested $150. This was $100 more than we anticipated, but I love it when God has a bigger plan than we do.
“Between the sacrificial giving of church members, the gathering of bottles and cans (which have a 5-cent value in NY), and the gifts of church friends, the total they raised was $900. How awesome is our God!”
Some of the backpacks given by Georgia Baptists may have found their way to Syracuse, because Wyatt stated, “Thanks to our faithful friends down south, God has allowed us to give away 90 backpacks, over 50 coats, 300 stocking caps and scarves, and many sets of gloves to those in our neighborhoods to help them during this bitter winter where Syracuse measures their snowfall in feet rather than inches.”
‘God is real’
Wyatt continued, “Last week during our regular Saturday night meal we have every week before our service starts, a woman came in after driving by and noticed we were having church. She had two very young children in the car, but said they had not eaten that day. We gave her a whole pizza to take home and share with her little family. Almost speechless, she could not hold back the tears.
“We have learned we must show Jesus before we can share Jesus, “ Wyatt exclaimed. “We were given boxes of toys from some very close friends of our ministry. We had some of our church family visit some relatives out of town and were given a ride back to Syracuse by a neighbor of the family member they had visited. They did not really know this gentleman other than he was a neighbor.
“On the way back to town he shared with them that his grandchildren were now living with him due to a fire his daughter had which caused them to lose everything. He shared with our church family members that they had nothing at all for Christmas. They brought him by our church when they got back into town and picked up four age-appropriate backpacks filled with school supplies and Christmas goodies. He also was able to pick through our ‘boxes of toys’ and find a number of gifts for his grandchildren.
“As he left, he said, ‘For the first time in years I believe God is real. He has to be. No one knew I was coming here today and God had everything laid out and waiting for my grandkids.’
“Over the Christmas holidays our little church blessed over 100 kids with Christmas gifts.”
God will surely bless the church that understands that they must “show” Jesus before they can “share” Jesus. That is precisely what The Neighborhood Church is doing in Syracuse, NY.