The Giving Church

By Jon Weece | Article from  Issue 73: January/February 2015


They asked Jon Weece to turn their failing church around. They got a revolution.

Jon Weece is the first person to admit that “The Dollar Club” is “a terrible name” for a charity initiative, but he defends its purpose as “a clear expression of love.”

“Every week, we collect 12,000 one dollar bills, and every week we call someone in need and let them know we have some money we want to give them,” Weece explains. “We’ve paid for surgeries, wheelchair-accessible vans and adoptions. It is so fun watching people who can’t afford what they need get overwhelmed by the same love that overwhelms me: God’s love.”

Weece is the pastor (or, to use his term, “lead follower”) of Southland Christian Church in Kentucky, which he almost always refers to as “we.” He doesn’t fit the usual pastoral model—he’s gentle, possessed of an inviting meekness that makes many of his ideas sound less radical than they actually are.

Nothing about Weece strikes you as the stereotype for a pastor but, then, nothing about Southland strikes you as the stereotype for a church.

The Dollar Club is just one example of the church’s mission.

“We decided to launch a series of free medical clinics throughout our city,” Weece says. “We are now the primary care provider for 3,500 people in central Kentucky who can’t afford to visit a doctor or fill prescriptions. It takes an army of volunteer doctors and nurses and a lot of donations from major pharmaceutical companies to make it work, but all the effort is worth it.”

Southland has a school lunch program. They run a community garden. They provide tutors for local students. They run a prison care ministry for inmates. They even run a garage to provide cheap auto care for those in need.

The church’s total impact in its community is difficult to overstate—a lot can happen when a large community decides to focus its considerable resources on meeting needs.

But it’s a focus that isn’t without controversy, both currently and historically. It’s one that goes well beyond think-piece fodder and theological inquiry, and right into the heart of what exactly the Church’s mission on earth is supposed to be.

Southland’s service-oriented identity is the outgrowth of an season of intense church-wide soul searching Weece instigated after he became pastor. He says he rose to leadership of the church in the midst of an “identity crisis.”

“We decided we needed to take a season, read through the gospels and the book of Acts, look at the pattern of Jesus and the first church and pray and say, ‘God, what are we uniquely created to do in the Kingdom?’”

The process took a year and a half, and Weece admits it was a difficult season, fraught with layoffs and some disillusioned families. But the church’s mission became clearer for it.

“We started focusing on people outside our four walls, and we found our niche. It was a catalytic season for us in that we determined we’re here in central Kentucky to love people that no one else in our church community was paying attention to.”

Weece is candid about this identity, to the point of drawing lines in the sand.

“People come in and we just tell them, ‘You know, we don’t offer a lot internally for Christians. We’re focusing on the people Jesus would want us to go after,’” he says. “And that doesn’t mean what other churches in our community are doing is wrong. We need them to do what God has called them to do, and we’re going to do what God has challenged us to do.”

The Social Gospel

Critics have a name for Weece’s brand of ministry: social gospel. The term is a holdover from early 1900s Protestantism, when preachers like Walter Rauschenbusch and Richard T. Ely wrote that the Church needed to involve itself in fixing social ills. The movement was perceived as progressive and heavily criticized by the likes of Dwight Moody, who believed the Church’s mission on earth was a particularly spiritual one.

The social gospel suffered twin public perception blows: its close identification with socialism, which was becoming a dirty word among the middle class; and the first World War, which infused the country with a sense of pessimism about ridding the world of evil. By contrast, Moody’s sermons about escaping this troubled world for a better one were hugely popular, and many Protestants set their sights beyond earthly wickedness and on Heaven.

The social gospel became associated with a radical niche segment of evangelicalism that nearly disappeared from public discourse until the 1960s, when Martin Luther King, Jr. incorporated many of its ideas in his own liberation theology. Many prominent evangelicals were not opposed to racial equality in theory, but failed to see the matter as a spiritual issue. A great part of King’s legacy lies in insisting on the moral imperative of the Civil Rights Movement.

Nevertheless, for many Christians, the idea of “doing good” still involves a sort of balancing act. Meeting people’s physical needs is in tension with spiritual development. It’s a tension Weece frequently hears expressed as Southland’s mission has turned outward.

“The most common pushback was, ‘What about me? What about my family? What are you going to do for us?’” he says. “It was a very consumeristic mindset. It’s, you know, ‘What can you do for me?’ as opposed to ‘What can I do for the Kingdom? What can I do to enhance what Jesus is doing in the city?’”

Weece spent much of his childhood in Haiti, where his family worked as missionaries. It grants him a unique perspective on church. He’s uncomfortable with the pulpit, and he doesn’t seem to feel at home in the common American interpretation of “church.” He says the thing he misses most about Haiti is the lack of suspicion around love.

“There’s something wonderful and beautiful about living in a place like Haiti where you don’t have to jump through all the hoops,” he says. “You don’t have to have all the processes and systems to love your neighbor. The needs are so significant that you go to bed exhausted, because you tried to love them and you just run out of time.”

Years after leaving Haiti, that ethos continues to haunt Weece: The idea that loving people ought to be a normal obsession of the Church.

“After studying the life of Jesus, I realized Jesus was criticized for loving people,” he says. “You’re going to receive criticism for something. So why not receive it for loving someone?”

The Tension

Weece is familiar with the tensions between meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs, but he’s not particularly concerned with them. For him, there’s not so much a balance between feeding the body and the soul as much as there is a necessary relationship.

“When we read Matthew 25, the conversation Jesus has with an audience about loving the least of these—I think it had a lot to do with meeting physical needs, because it seems to open a door in a very tangible way for us to address their spiritual needs.

“Two things happen when we express love to someone in need,” he continues. “The person we love is more open to the love of Jesus and so are the people who watch us love the person in need. Our expressions of love come with a ‘so that’ attached to them. We love people so that they will understand the love of Jesus.”

That may sound a bit simplistic—a criticism Weece is used to hearing—but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“I’m very comfortable with simple,” he says. “I think simple can be deep. I don’t think deep has to be complicated. And there’s nothing deeper than the love of God as demonstrated through His Son to a fallen world. I want to take that love in very simple, tangible, memorable ways and extend it to people and let them experience the depth of that love, as well.”

For Weece, that means finding simple ways of measuring the results of the love the church shows.

“The metric we use is connectivity,” he explains. “If someone goes from being unconnected to the body of Christ to connected, and they go to connecting unconnected people to the body of Christ, that’s how we measure growth in our church.

“It’s a very simple metric,” he continues. “So if we’re meeting someone’s physical needs and we’re not seeing people come to Christ, if those numbers start to dip and we don’t see life change happening in people, then we begin to evaluate is that really effective? Or are we creating a dependency like a lot of other social programs out there?”

Feeding the Body to Feed the Soul

“I’ve gotten comfortable with being criticized for meeting people’s physical needs,” Weece says. When churches push back on his model, he has a ready response.

“I would say, ‘Can I share with you our journey and our story and how exciting it is?’” he says. “Because I think in every believer, when we sign up to follow Jesus, the idea of salvation and forgiveness of sins is so great. But … that flame kind of flickers out, and I think that happens in a lot of churches. I love going in and just kind of lighting a little fire under them and giving them some simple stuff that they can potentially try or do. I’ve yet to see a church or group of leaders that hasn’t been willing to try something in their community.”

And for those looking to find something to do in their community, Weece has another piece of advice.

“Always look for dirty feet to wash and you’ll never lack for ministry,” he says. “It’s not about something big. It’s the simple, small, beautiful acts that keep you going and make dying on that cross worth it. Jesus says pick up your cross daily. He started that process by washing the dirty feet of his close friends. I’m always daily looking for opportunities to do that in my own family, in our staff culture and in our community. If you look for dirty feet, you’re going to find them.”