When I was called to a little, dying congregation in the inner city of Chicago, it seemed that all they were looking for was an ecclesiastical Dr. Kevorkian, but God had other plans," said Charles Lyons, pastor of the 2,000-member multicultural Armitage Baptist Church in Chicago.
Lyons, speaking at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in April, challenged students to get involved in what God is doing in America's urban centers, noting while God has been massing His creation at church doorsteps, churches have been going out the back door.
Using the Apostle Paul's example and experience at Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19, Lyons said, "As Paul walked down the bustling avenues of this crossroads city without a computer mailing list, a cell phone or a fax machine, he probably thought to himself, 'What's a nice Jewish boy like me doing in a place like this?'
"To answer that, we have to go back further," said Lyons, "because, before what we call time began, God had determined He would save those who would be sinners. The plan was that the Word would be made flesh and dwell among us. God did not yell down from heaven, 'I love you.' He wrapped Himself in flesh and came.
"Jesus didn't come for a weekend trip, a summer mission tour, nor did Christ commute. He didn't move onto the planet Pluto and say, 'This is as far as I am going,'" Lyons said. "There wasn't an ascension after supper every night. He moved into the 'hood,' the worst neighborhood in the universe.
"He didn't come just knowing it might be dangerous," Lyons continued. "Jesus came knowing He would die. God determined that He would lay down the life of His Son to rescue us. Jesus came knowing that it would end in a bloody mess on a cross, knowing that people would think He was a failure and knowing that He would be scorned and scoffed."
Lyons explained to a chapel audience at the Kansas City, Mo., seminary that after Jesus conquered death, broke from the tomb and finished His mission, He looked at His disciples and said, "Just like the Father sent Me, I send you."
"This looking for the easiest, cushiest job has to go, folks!" Lyons warned. "We are losing the battle because we are not following the example.
"Paul was in Ephesus because that was the divine plan," Lyons said. "He was there because he was following Jesus' orders to go to the cities of the empire, lift up the resurrection power of Jesus, and plant churches.
"God is organizing His world," Lyons noted, referring to the statistic that more than 50 percent of Americans currently live in thirty-nine metropolitan areas and that by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will live in urban centers. "He is moving masses of humanity into the urban centers of the world. Why? So they can be more easily reached.
"Which way are you going?" Lyons asked. "While God has been massing His creation in the cities, have you looked around and said, 'These folks are not like me. I am out of here.'? What must God think of that? White evangelicals from coast to coast have fled the center cities. God put people on our doorstep and we went out the back door. What must God think?"
Continuing with the story in Acts 19, Lyons noted God sent Paul to Ephesus to plant a church. It was not the best choice of locations. There was no hope of "transfer growth."
"Paul moved in and we see unfolding in this chapter a model for how God works in a place that is demon-plagued, filled with perversion, and linked to pagan religion. We see how God works in a place where people worship fleshly indulgence and materialistic gain. We see how God works in a place that sounds like a modern city," said Lyons, citing God's supernatural activity in Ephesus.
"The needs were being met, not like the Red Cross can do it, not like the park district can do it, not like the Boy's Club can do it, but only like God can do it. We're here to be agents of the supernatural. God expects us to move in the power of the Holy Spirit.
"The trouble is," said Lyons, "many of us don't need any miracles. If you never get in a place of need and spiritual desperation where you say, 'God, if you don't break through in this place, nothing can be done,' nothing will be done. If you can do it, what do you need God for? We ought to look and hunger for situations where, if God doesn't come through, it is all over.
"God shows His power to draw attention to Himself. Verse 17 says that the name of Jesus was being magnified. God has a plan. It is to bring redemption to people," Lyons said. "The issue is ultimately not about what we may have to say on some subject. It is about Jesus. The issue, the whole message we have, comes to Jesus so that the name of Jesus is being magnified."
Lyons closed with a call to obedience. "When God's Word prevails, the number of disciples are multiplied. Jesus didn't say, 'Take up your Twinkies and follow Me.' He said, 'Take up your cross and follow Me.'"
Changed Lives at Armitage Baptist Church
A former prostitute who had been drunk every day for eighteen years, Betty Cherry attended services at Armitage on New Year's Eve, 1982. She gave her life to Christ and is now director of Armitage's ARMS (Armitage Reaching Many Souls) evangelism ministry.
"Right away I was discipled," Cherry said. "The church became a second home and a second family – often times my first family. I don't glorify the church, but the people here have been wonderful to me and helped me grow."
Juan Rivera was a self-professed "menace to society" until about six years ago when God used Armitage Baptist Church to intervene in his life.
Rivera, who lived across the street from the church, was an alcoholic and addicted to crack cocaine and heroin. Many times he wouldn't even eat because he was too busy doing drugs.
He had been in jail on several occasions, and eventually lost custody of his children.
"I never even knew this church was here," Rivera said. "But, then again, I wasn't looking for a church."
Rivera recalls how one Saturday night six years ago on his way to buy drugs, the church's sign caught his attention.
"Something said in my heart, 'You're going to go in there tomorrow,'" Rivera said.
He usually didn't get to bed until 8 a.m. or later, so he didn't figure there was any way he'd get up for church on Sunday morning. He was wrong. "For some unknown reason to me, I got up the next day and I came to church," he said.
Charles Lyons, pastor of the church, preached on hope that day. His message had an impact on Rivera.
"Here was a man sitting in his congregation with a $400 crack habit and a heroin addict with no hope," Rivera said. He responded to the invitation at the end of the service, telling a counselor, "I'd rather die than continue living a slave to what I was doing … .
"There was really nothing good in my life," Rivera said. "I couldn't see my children. I was depressed. Little did I know that was the first day of the beginning of my life. From that day on, God started working in my life."
Members of Armitage helped Rivera through some tough times. Some volunteered to sit with him on Friday nights, when his normal habit was to cash his paycheck, buy a case of beer, then start on the drugs. Another member let Rivera move in with him for a brief time.
"The people in this church, they showed me something," Rivera said. "They showed me that they cared. These people embraced me. I love the people in this church."
With God's help, Rivera started putting his life back together. He kicked his addictions, remarried, bought a house, and got custody of his four children, who had been living with their mother who had drug problems of her own.
"God really turned my life around," Rivera said. "What no program, jail, or anything else ever did for me, God did for me."
He now takes advantage of every opportunity to share his faith in Christ with others.
"I never want to forget where I came from," Rivera said. "I always want to keep a fresh memory of what God saved me from."
The members of Armitage are unified in their purpose to evangelize the lost of Chicago. John Montanez can attest to that. Montanez is a former drug addict who attended the church from time to time before his profession of faith.
Armitage members often witnessed to Montanez, even when he seemed like a lost cause.
"They didn't give up," Montanez said. "It got to the point where I'd see someone from Armitage and would pretty much cross the street and run away."
Compiled from stories by Tim Ellsworth.