Domestic missionaries share passion for San Francisco
Paul Crites and Paul Fletcher are two of the three domestic missionaries — along with Wes Woodell — who work with minister Richard Blythe at the Lake Merced Church of Christ.
Crites, Fletcher and Woodell all attended the Center for Advanced Ministry Training at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
In separate interviews, the two “Pauls” visited with The Christian Chronicle about their ministry in San Francisco.
First, can you share just a bit about why you are in San Francisco and why you are passionate about the ministry here?
Paul Fletcher: First and foremost, we believe God has been the one who has opened the doors every step of the way to bring us to this point in the work here. I first became aware of the opportunity in 2004 while I was attending the Harding School of Biblical Studies. My dear friend and classmate Paul “Bull” Crites had been approached by Marvin Crowson, director of Outreach America, who had let him know about the Lake Merced Church of Christ in San Francisco, Calif. We shared the news with several others in the HSBS program and began forming a team. I remember telling Wes Woodell about it for the first time at a HSBS function. Along with Marvin Crowson, several other of our dear friends and classmates — Ryan Lloyd, Alex Wilson, Maggie Hlasta and Kyle Clarke — contributed greatly to the planning of this mission effort. Today, three of those families are now serving here. Paul Crites, now married to his wonderful wife Noemi, came to San Francisco in July 2006. My wife, Dory, and I and our two children, Caleb and Shiloh, came out the following month in August 2006. Wes and Airiel Woodell and their two children, Naomi and Conrad, arrived in December 2008.
The church was apparently searching for a team of domestic missionaries to come and help revive efforts in order to grow. I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of, a team who could help proclaim the good news of Jesus to one of our well-known, big cities in the U.S. I really believe we need to be sharing the good news with the same passion in the U.S. as we do overseas, not taking anything away from the latter. Besides that, San Francisco is one of our cities in the U.S. where the world has literally come to us. But as important as that is, this mission included more than that.
It was and still is a mission to show that we care about churches in the Church of Christ who have been “fighting the good fight” for a long time. These churches have been and are being brought along, by the grace of God, over the years by some of God’s finest sons and daughters, but for one reason or another have come to a place where they don’t have the able workers or direction they once did to make a strong effort to reach out with the mission of Christ in a lasting way within their communities.
Here was an opportunity, as Jesus entrusted to Peter, to “feed my sheep” and to also “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” It’s the biblical passion we all have for those of us who’ve given our lives to Christ and service in His Kingdom, and it was that passion that brought us to do the work here in San Francisco. I believe that now, more than ever, this work has proved to be worth it all as we see our love growing for one another, the embrace of the new people God sends our way and the dreams of many, past and present, taking shape. Praise God!
Paul Crites: I believe that Paul Fletcher and I would answer this question the same way: We came to San Francisco and stayed because of our love affair with the city, the lost and the local church here. While studying at Harding, we were blessed to learn that there was a small, close-knit, loving, faithful family of believers in this city who were committed to serving the Lord, one another and their community. This church family invited us along on their evangelistic faith journey. This type of invitation is unique and exciting.
We could have come to San Francisco and planted a brand-new church on our own, but we would have really missed out on the blessing we have found in working alongside faithful men and women who were already in place here. I thank God daily for the wisdom and maturity of the believers in this congregation. Their many years of faithful service are to be celebrated and held in esteem as a great model for the new generation being grafted into the church here. This congregation is to be commended for their forward thinking, adaptability and selfless desire to continue building a Christian legacy for generations to come.
Lake Merced did not need a domestic mission team to come in and think for them; they invited evangelists to come in and work with them. This type of mission excited me very much. I understand this work as a ministerial partnership, where I could follow in the footsteps of great soldiers for Christ like Carl Mitchell, Bill Jimenez, Harry Tudor and Riley Kelly, just to name a few. This church honored us by integrating us in as co-workers with them.
This has been the remarkable advantage to being part of a renewal effort, not a reliance on our own individual abilities, strategies or efforts; but, a group truly operating as a body; prayerfully, faithfully and lovingly working together to listen to God and follow his lead for the direction of his church. There is a lot of talk right now about the church’s need to be indigenous. The ability to follow God and interpret the Gospel in your context is the mark of an indigenous church, you can’t accomplish that by instituting outsiders’ prepackaged church models or growth strategies. Becoming an indigenous church in your context can only be accomplished by the local body at your particular time and place watching God and following him in your place in His way.
This is our true advantage here. We had no strategy to rely on, no textbook or system. We’ve had only God and each other to rely on. We work together, and that is exciting not only to us who have been here working the past several years, but it is also exciting for our new family members. People want to see a church that works together, and that’s creative and interesting.
People want to see that the Body of Christ as alive and growing as a body, not systematized and engineered as a dehumanized machine or program. Our goal is that together we can demonstrate the love and power of God to our city and through Christ, transform ourselves more and more to become a place of healing and renewal for God’s children. This is our shared passion. From the oldest member to the youngest member, I believe we all share this common goal. I cannot think of anything in this world more worthy of our passion and effort.
Second, can you give me a few examples of the ways you’re trying to reach out and share Christ there?
Paul Fletcher: Based on that particular mission we’ve accepted by coming to the Lake Merced, one of the ways we’re trying to reach out and share Christ is by giving our hearts, time and prayers to the unity and love of the church that already exists. Spending the quality time getting to know one another and growing closer together as a church family is vital in reaching out to share Jesus with our community. If we don’t have that love and trust among one another, then what do we have to offer as a church striving to share the good news with the world? Growing in our love for one another and patiently coming to be on “the same page” as a community of believers is an inseparable part of carrying out the great commission.
We are only at the beginning of our fourth year here and from what I’ve learned in my limited experience in ministry, it takes about that long to develop that kind of love and trust in order to really pull together and really start working together as a church family. We know we need to be able to model the love of Christ to those who we would hope to receive, touch, teach and see God give the increase to. And what’s made it possible for the church to grow that way is the willingness of everyone involved to bear with one another in love even through the tough conversations when formulating the vision for the work here.
It’s also being willing to forgive one another in those times where we as human beings do not always handle that so well. Karl Mitchell shared with me last year at the Pepperdine lectureships that the willingness to give this kind of patience, love, respect and attention to one another in the church is an outreach and ministry in and of itself that is more than worthy of the time we all give to it. It seems that all too often we speak of ministry as something that’s going to happen once we get “the whole machine” put together, but what Karl said confirmed in me that spending the quality time and growing in our love for one another is in fact one of the truest kinds of biblical and godly ministries.
One of the things we’ve always tried to keep in mind is allowing God to show us where to best focus our efforts when reaching out to the people of San Francisco and the surrounding areas. The church here and the city itself is made up of so many different people of various ages and races, it made sense to not exclude anyone in regard to who we would be willing to reach out to. There are many trends that want to focus on a particular age group, but we stayed convicted that the body is just that, made up of all different parts and we wanted to honor that in representation of the church here and the city we were reaching out to.
1. I met the first young man who we taught and baptized, Rory Moore, in a courtyard behind our townhouse. He was down on his luck and drinking a bottle of Crown Royal. Rory moved out of the city but we still stay in touch and he visits from time to time. We’ve met so many wonderful people right here in the Parkmerced community where we stay.
2. I’ve been so blessed to be a vocational minister the first two and half years here in the city. I worked at Ellis Brooks Chevrolet my first year and invited many co-workers to our home Bible studies and church. The next two years I was able to work for Bridgemont High School because of a door God opened through my teammate Paul Crites. I still teach a Bible class and coach the girl’s basketball team at the school. My students mean so much to me and I have always been prayerful and mindful of my example and constantly looking to serve, encourage and share Jesus with these young people. We have been able to get the students involved in many different ways over the years. They are such a blessing to us all.
3. When God sends us His precious children as visitors to Lake Merced, we always try and show then we care and strive to reach out to them as soon and as much as possible. We have people over for dinner, to our home Bible studies and look for ways to serve them when we can. We are striving to be genuine and authentic in our relationships with people God sends us. And he has sent and is sending us people who we’ve become close with and who have become Christians and are now are a part of the family here at Lake Merced.
4. Because we live so close to San Francisco State University, we always have students who visit the church and we have always reached out to them, having them in our homes and inviting them to be a part of our weekly home Bible study groups in addition to church on Sunday. San Francisco is said to be, by some,
“a revolving door.” And it’s true, because of the high cost of living, many people, including the students, end up going where it is more affordable. We’ve tried to look at it as a “sending” city. And regardless of how long these precious children of God are with us, we hope to offer them love, a safe place to grow and be involved so that if and when they do leave they take that much more of Christ with them. We are so thankful to have the Woodells here now to give an even more concentrated effort and the quality time to our university age students. The Woodells and our students here are such a blessing to this church and there is a great work happening there among that group.
5. We have held a Vacation Bible School, Fall Festivals and Thanksgiving Day Dinners at the church building in order to encourage our members as well as reach out to others. All of these have helped re-energize church life and expose others to the church here.
6. One amazing connection we’ve become involved in is our work with recovery houses and men who are in early recovery from alcoholism, particularly the Fresh Start Program. Paul Crites worked hand and hand with the brothers at Fresh Start and as a result, several of the men he met and worked with became Christians and have identified with the Lake Merced church. They have been a great blessing to us all. Through all this, we have made connections with several other recovery houses in the city.
7. The final thing I will mention is the work Paul Crites is doing through pre-marriage counseling. Many people from the city want to rent the church building for weddings and Paul has made a deal with several couples by waiving the minister fee if they are willing to have a Bible study. I’ve had the privilege of serving with him in one of those ongoing studies and it is going great.
Paul Crites: In a work like this, it is paramount to be flexible. This city presents numerous challenges, and it would be really easy to spread ourselves too thin. Fortunately, our team model has divided the ministerial obligations into ministerial areas that seem to fit our giftedness the best.
My title here is Domestic Missionary/Minister of Cross-Cultural Ministries and Benevolence. In other words, I am tasked specifically with evangelism through word and deed to our community as a whole; paying special attention to the various ethnic make-up and diversity of our community and reaching out with the goal of helping our church resemble more accurately the community we live in; while also offering healing, aid and comfort in the name of Christ to those who are burdened, suffering or disenfranchised.
1. I have been heavily involved in personal Bible studies and small groups. These have been the center of the work here. The Lord has blessed us with many seekers who have been baptized and added to the Lord’s Body during our time here.
2. I initiated a ministerial relationship with a private non-denominational Christian academy here. I served as a chaplain and Bible teacher when we first arrived here. Paul Fletcher was later able to integrate into this school later as a teacher and since then he has really formed quite a strong connection with the kids there and formed a dynamic youth ministry there. When Paul Fletcher became more involved there, it freed me to pursue other ministerial opportunities, but I have remained involved in varying levels with that mission school. I have just been invited to take over the chaplaincy there in a more official capacity.
3. I formed a relationship with the Metropolitan Church of Christ Fresh Start Recovery House. This is a program that offers a Bible based approach to addiction recovery. I serve as a chaplain and Bible teacher there. We have baptized many men that I’ve mentored in this program. It has really awakened me to the need for Christ-centered recovery as part of our healing ministry, so I have committed to starting a celebrate Recovery group at Lake Merced this month.
4. My wife and I have initiated an evangelistic outreach to the Hispanic community. We have been heavily involved with weekly Spanish prayer suppers, Bible studies, and Friendspeak evangelism, (Using the Bible to teach English for immigrants), and occasional bilingual preaching if necessary for ourselves and the Golden Gate Church of Christ.
5. I have also been providing a premarital-counseling service, (currently I am studying with six couples!). This service is a Bible study for couples getting married. This has turned into a very exciting and I believe will prove to be a profitable ministry.
6. Homeless food and clothing outreach.
7. Christmas adopt-a-family.
8. Hospital visitation.