Relational Living for Cultural Relevance

“We intentionally take Christ to people who are least likely to find Him on their own,” says Ken McKinney, the part-time, one-staff Alliance church planter in San Francisco, where less than 4 percent of the Golden Gate city’s population attends church. “Love is the context for all mission, and everything we do is based on relationship. We are trying to be incarnational in our community, so relevance to culture is not optional.”

In a city where churches and Christians are perceived negatively, Ken believes, “We need to do more than invite people to Christian events and hope they’ll come. We also have to call believers to intentionally exemplify Christ within the culture. That leads us into culture rather than away from it, joining people in existing activities in order to demonstrate His love in a tangible way.”

An Unexpected Call

Ken sensed God’s call to the U. S. mission field while working for Compassion International, another faith-based organization with which Alliance workers partner in several countries. “My wife, Leah, and I thought that we would work internationally, supporting international workers with leadership training and resources,” Ken says. “Planting a church in San Francisco was not the journey we were anticipating.”

While seeking God’s wisdom and direction, Ken attended a church-planting conference where he met C&MA Central District Church Planting Director Ray Van Gilst. “‘If you ever make it out to San Francisco, give me a call,’ Ray told me. Two years later, we moved to the city and immersed ourselves in the San Francisco culture. Then I called Ray.”

With no C&MA background but realizing a strong personal resonance with Alliance core values, Ken began to cultivate a relationship with The Alliance, pursuing credentials as an official worker. “O’B O’Brien became my church-planting coach; he and Ray worked with me through the licensing process, and I became a C&MA official worker.”

Since Ken’s background is with Independent Christian Churches under the banner of Stadia, a church-planting organization with which he was partnering, the venture became a collaborative effort between The Alliance and Stadia, modeling a unified Church to a skeptical, postmodern community. “The watching world views Christianity as a fractured religion that can’t work out its own unity and says, ‘Why should I be a part of that?’ says Ken. “Through this collaborative effort, we hope San Franciscans will see the Church come together in Jesus’ Name.”

Cultural Experience

As Alliance workers, Ken and Leah continued to serve, partnering through various faith-based and secular nonprofit organizations, as they had been doing since their arrival. “We felt like, as salt and light, it’s not about starting a faith-based nonprofit but rather sending faith-based people into San Francisco’s existing nonprofits,” Ken says. “This is a city where people are highly motivated, with a strong sense of volunteering and giving back. Community service allows us to build relationships and gives us opportunities to invite people into discovering Jesus. We want to be an inclusive community in which people feel they belong in the course of coming to a place of belief.”

For two years, the church-planting couple did not have a church building but established many relationships that garnered a core group of believers, who joined them in their efforts to reach San Francisco. As their network of acquaintances grew and learned more about following Jesus, Ken realized that, in the eyes of the city’s accomplished professionals who place high value on credibility, it was time for the church to go public.

“If we’ve succeeded relationally in preparing them to step into a Christian environment,” says Ken, “then we want to give them an authentic Christian experience with true worship and solid teaching.” With that principle in mind, Ken and Leah launched New Community San Francisco, located in the heart of Golden Gate Park.

“We spend a lot of time describing what will be experienced, who we worship and why, creating a safe and relational environment to explore the life of Jesus in a community that follows Him,” says Ken. “We tell people, ‘You are welcome, included; you can belong even while you explore.’ But it is clear that this is a community that follows Jesus.”

Relational Living

Today, about 50 people are included in the New Community family, including Chris, a young man who felt rejected culturally and spiritually in his home state and made his way to San Francisco. Chris had been living in a homeless shelter and had lived on the streets for some time before Ken met him. “About three years ago, we happened to be visiting a church at the same time,” Ken recalls. “It was Chris’ first step back toward God. Besides Chris and me, the church service included 11 other people who were all seniors. I introduced myself, and Chris opened up to me.”

Chris agreed to meet with Ken, who began discipling him on a regular basis. It wasn’t long before Chris shared his struggle with his sense of self-worth and how in his pursuit of love and acceptance, he had been living a lifestyle he no longer wanted to live. “Chris said that lifestyle did not have the reward he was seeking and didn’t fulfill the longing he had,” Ken says. “We helped him find a safe place to live with safe relationships to recover his sense of self and discover his identity in Christ.”

Chris walked away from his old lifestyle and little by little, is discovering life and love and acceptance in Jesus and the community of His followers. His desire is for God; he was part of the church launch, attends Bible study, works part time, and recently received his associate’s degree.

“Ezekiel 34 has really influenced our sense of calling,” explains Ken, “where God says to the religious leaders, ‘You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost’ (Ezekiel 34:4). Then He says, ‘I myself will search for my sheep . . . I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness’ (Ezekiel 34:12). Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd and the Light of the world. He says He has come ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10) As His Body in San Francisco, we make that our mission.

“Whether we get to introduce someone to Jesus or seek out those who have gone missing, we ask, ‘Are we presenting people fully mature in Christ?’ It is a process and the fruit of a very relational and personal path that we have taken. The Gospel of John says of Jesus, ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind’ (John 1:4). Life attracts people who are desperately seeking life. It’s our hope that people will see that life in us, and that life will be the light that helps bring them back from ‘all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness,’ drawing them to the light of Christ.”

Learn More

Read more stories about U.S. Alliance churches impacting their communities. www.cmalliance.org/news/topics/gochurch/

Read additional stories of the worldwide work of Alliance ministries supported by the Great Commission Fund. www.cmalliance.org/news/2011/10/24/gcf-celebration-stories/

What You Can Do

Give to the Great Commission Fund. In doing so, you partner with Alliance workers who are lighting the way for people trapped in spiritual darkness.

Pray for Alliance workers around the world.

Check out how your church can begin a Ministry Partnership with overseas Alliance workers.

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