Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter
Sixty-three days. That’s how long the members and surrounding community of StoneBridge Community Church in Simi Valley, Calif., have to read the New Testament.
At least that’s the goal of the New Testament Challenge.
The program, which started the first weekend in October, will see the church read the entire New Testament together and will incorporate Sunday sermons, small group study, individual reading and technology like Twitter and Facebook. It will conclude in mid-December with the church’s customary holiday service project.
Pastor the Rev. Jeff Cheadle is quick to point out that in spite of the short time frame, the challenge is not meant to make anyone feel pressured to keep up.
“If they fall a little bit behind, that’s OK. They can come to worship or a group and just pick up wherever we are,” Cheadle said. “Our main goal is to get them involved.”
Cheadle said he’s amazed at the number of people who have never read the New Testament.
“I try to encourage them to read it as a story, as an overall narrative,” he said. “I find often when they do, they get engrossed and then they actually want to read beyond the assigned chapters. They want to find out what happens next.”
The biggest challenge is perseverance, a principle that is a major theme of the New Testament. Cheadle said he wants readers to keep going, just as those in the stories they are reading did.
The church has also designed the challenge in a way that includes everyone. The sermons will all be based on the chapters in that week’s readings. Small, weekly groups called Growth Groups are also a big part of the project.
“We have groups for our youth as well as our older members,” Cheadle said. “And we have a group for teens and their parents too if they prefer that. We want to make sure everyone is part of this.”
Cheadle is also referring to the Simi Valley community as a whole. He stressed that the New Testament challenge is not just for church members, but for everyone. The challenge was advertised to the community through direct mail and through Facebook’s targeted local ads.
“The StoneBridge church has always focused on community and how to get faith congruent with what the community needs,” said Jan Armstrong, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara. “Right now, there are a lot of people interested in the Bible and learning how exactly it relates to the faith.”
In another nod to modern technology and the time crunch many people feel today, the church took one more step to reach out to the community. First-time visitors to the church during the New Testament challenge are given a New Testament in MP3 format on a flash drive that they can download on their computer at home and listen to.
“I know a lot of people say they just don’t have the time to sit down with a book and read these days,” Cheadle said. “So we thought the flash drive New Testament would give them another easier way to participate with us.”
The church also uses two online social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter, to post daily readings and give readers a forum to ask questions. Readings are also posted to the church Web site.
“It can be a challenge to have someone who can do the tech work to keep content going and engage people,” Armstrong said about using online forums. “You have to figure out who you are going to reach. When that content goes viral, that's when it really has an effect. If you can move into that, it can be a useful tool, especially for youth. I think they are exploring those possibilities well.”
Cheadle said he’s been pleased with the community response, noting that he’s seen a lot of new faces in church and the small groups.
The church’s annual holiday service and outreach program will also be incorporated into the New Testament Challenge and will serve as the wrap-up of the program.
The Community Christmas Shoppe is an annual event sponsored by ACTION, a local interdenominational group. Participating churches collect new toys and sell them for a very low price to struggling area families. The toys are sold, rather than given away, because while the recipient families are struggling, parents still like to be able to buy gifts for their children.
Money from gift sales is put toward buying the gifts for the following year. Stonebridge Community Church participates in the event every year, but this year members found a way to tie it in with the New Testament Challenge.
“Love of other people is a big principal of the New Testament,” Cheadle said. “When we participate in outreach and service programs like this, we are showing God’s love to other people in a practical way.”
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.