It is time to get radical

Alabama congregation extends the loving hands of Jesus to its community

January 24, 2013

LOUISVILLE

Praying, worshiping, listening—anything but judging. That seems to sum up the Blue Jean Church ministry best.

This casual, contemporary service includes live and recorded music, speakers from the community, and whatever else the Spirit inspires—and in no particular order. What some may view as chaos, others see as transforming. Include Bob Armstrong, at least, among the latter.

Armstrong is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Selma, Alabama, and a local judge. As the church session brainstormed ways to increase attendance and reach out to the community, Armstrong decided it was time to think radically.

“We needed to remove every barrier that was keeping people from coming to church,” says Armstrong. “There are folks who are right now living in hell and dying without knowing Jesus.”

At Blue Jean Church, they don’t care who you are, what you wear, or what you have done. This unique outreach was based on the parable of Zacchaeus. The Bible tells us that when Jesus called out to the diminutive man in the tree, he didn’t require him to change or qualify himself. He just said, “Hey dude, I want to hang out with you for awhile,” Armstrong says.

Now, five years later, approximately 175–200 people meet in a casual space outside the actual chapel, where a variety of religious and community leaders come and speak. The services are intentionally not Presbyterian. No offering is taken, nor is membership spoken of. Twenty-five percent of attendees are people from other denominations who are drawn to the contemporary, casual, and compelling service. Another 25 percent are members of First Presbyterian who enjoy the less formal, less traditional experience. The other 50 percent are made up of previously unchurched people who are finding what they need spiritually at Blue Jean Church.

“We have seen people’s lives radically change,” Armstrong says. “People who want to be disciples and share the relationship they have with Jesus.”

Tired of seeing the same faces appear before him in court time and time again, Armstrong decided to try a different approach. By including “attending church or a faith-based program” in the options of community service for offenders in the Selma court system, Armstrong felt he was removing yet another barrier.

Interim pastor Sidney McCullum still leads a traditional service at First Presbyterian. The Blue Jean outreach is intended for the unchurched in the area, and worship includes fellowship, hospitality, and nurturing—all things essential for newcomers to feel integrated into a faith community. Serving the needs of the city and showing grace to everyone by modeling Jesus’ extended hand, the Blue Jean Church is breaking down the walls of class, economics, and dress code.

“God is for the broken and lost and the people nobody wants,” Armstrong says. “And aren’t we all at one time or another?”

One example is a man named Charles. Charles was “very country, very rough,” says Armstrong. He was about 70 years old, with skin like “sandpaper.” When the announcement came at one service that they needed someone to drive the church van, Charles stepped up and said: “There are people out there hurting that need to be here. I will drive them.”

For the next year and a half, Charles transported people to and from Blue Jean Church. Unfortunately, Charles passed away last fall after a work injury. Armstrong says that during the intimate funeral in a family member’s small country home, he was moved by the testimonies of Charles’s family. They all knew him to be a rough, lonely man, but one by one they referred to a change that occurred in Charles after he started “going to that church.”

Armstrong believes the Holy Spirit spoke to him in those moments, and he realized the full impact of what Blue Jean Church was about. “That man would have died without knowing Jesus if it wasn’t for Blue Jean Church,” Armstrong says. “We are talking about people’s lives, their eternal lives."

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