How God is Drawing One City’s Churches Together to Serve and to Bring Him Glory
Last week’s tornadoes in Tennessee brought back rough memories of Memorial Day here in Dayton, Ohio, where we experienced similar tragedy — although, unbelievably from here, Nashville suffered even greater destruction. Many more lives lost there. Our prayers are certainly with them. God works through tragedy, though.
Days before the Nashville tragedy, I met with Caleb Ingram, director of a region-wide church-uniting movement called Declare. I knew there was a story there, how God had raised up Declare and equipped it to be ready to help when help was most needed here. As our conversation unfolded, I found out it was an even better story than I’d realized. Here are Caleb’s answers to my questions. — Tom Gilson
What is Declare?
It’s been a morphing journey over the last five years. Currently Declare is essentially a uniting space, a neutral ground where churches can come together under one banner, ultimately the banner of Jesus. Declare is just the brand we’re using — uniting to declare God’s glory throughout the greater Dayton region, and praying that any community around the nation or world, that aren’t yet doing this, that God would use this to encourage them to do the same.
How did it begin?
Five years ago I was worship pastor at a church in the Troy area north of here. It struck me that, as another church moved in 100 yards down the road, some staff in our church said, “Oh, no, what if people leave here and go there instead?” It started questions percolating a lot of thoughts in my mind. “Really? Are these the kinds of questions we should be asking? Is this really how we should see other churches? Are they competitor churches or are we all the body of Christ working toward the same mission and Great Commission?”
So that started the crazy idea, “What if we go talk to these people in the church 100 yards away, or even have coffee with them?” So we started building relationships, with them and also with other churches in town. Out of that, in 2014, spun out the first Declare worship night. We didn’t have this 5-year plan, the idea that it would connect/unite churches across the city. Instead it was, with all these churches in Troy, “Let’s have a worship night together, uniting as God’s people and connecting.”
But we thought it doesn’t have to be just a worship night. It could be a serve the city opportunity.
How many churches are involved?
We don’t officially have memberships, with dues and so on, so I don’t have hard numbers. But I can say with confidence that throughout this 5-year journey we’ve easily interacted in a relational way with 100-plus churches around the Miami Valley.
What kind of denominational span?
It’s pretty wide. Depending on the project, from Baptist to Assemblies of God to United Methodist to Christian and Missionary Alliance. Post-tornadoes, we had Catholic brothers and sisters involved. We might express ourselves differently on a music/worship/prayer night, but we all pick up tornado debris just about the same way. (Laughs)
So we serve together and share the hope of Jesus together. We were able to connect one major Catholic non-profit here with many of the Protestant churches, mobilizing volunteers to help deliver furniture to displaced families.
We have a core belief statement, actually 10 statements historically held by the Christian Church. Churches that partner with Declare in our worship gathering might not agree with all 10 or say them exactly the same way. What we’re asking them is that, for the sake of unity in this gathering, they be willing to honor those principles. That they’re not going to come in and say, “Let’s teach this instead.”
How did the Living City Cleanup prepare churches for the tornadoes?
God was at work in that, absolutely. Only God could have put that timing together. We didn’t see it coming that way.
In 2018 we had our city-wide worship gathering called Declare Dayton at Dayton Dragon stadium. After that gathering God stirred my heart to say, “This is amazing, unbelievable, thousands of believers lifting up Jesus together. What would it look like if we served our community together in some way as an expression of the love of Jesus? We’re saying God loves this community, we love this community, how do we show it?”
That’s when we started toward the Living City Project Cleanup. It happened on April 6, 2019, following six months of preparations. We said, “Anywhere a church wants to host a cleanup, let’s do it there.” So we had 29 different host locations in 29 neighborhoods. More than 1300 volunteers picked up trash, a total of 125 tons of trash in one morning.
Then came the tornadoes.
Yes. There was a great testimony for Jesus there, and it served the community, too. The next morning we looked at each other asking, “What do you think is next? Maybe next year we’ll do it again.”
And then at the end of May the tornadoes hit. We looked at each other and said, “This is no accident how God has prepared us. He’s built relationships for us across the community, with public works and everything else, to mobilize large numbers of people to come and serve.
Six months earlier we wouldn’t have known the first place to start. God gave us a training environment with six months to plan for it. When the tornadoes hit, we had just six days, yet we were miraculously by God’s power and people’s willingness to mobilize over 3,000 people to help. We don’t want to try to take credit for it. God prepared us and got many churches engaged so that when the crisis came, we were ready to jump on it.
How do government, safety and other officials look at the Church as a result?
That’s one of the most incredible things about this whole journey. City leaders, prominent non-profit leaders, and others see the Church differently now than they did pre-tornado. For example, there was one woman who helps coordinate a lot of the response region-wide. In the beginning she wasn’t sure what place the Church would have. She wasn’t trying to be discriminatory, she was just saying, “We’re looking for people who’ll do something; why would churches be at the table?”
I don’t fault her for her perception. The amazing thing is now, 7-8 months later, everyone is saying, “Wow, the churches were among the leading partners in this recovery.” They noticed that if they asked for helpers in the recovery process, 8 out of 10 came from the churches. So yes, this has changed the perception among leaders here.
How do you see churches changing in their relationships with each other?
One dynamic I saw was, after the crisis, most people were willing to jump right in and serve together. We knew we couldn’t afford to get hung up on the things that don’t matter. It was so obviously ridiculous to ask, “So, do you speak in tongues?” That didn’t matter because our community was in crisis. We were here to jump in and serve together.
It’s like in wartime, if you’re in the trenches and someone’s shooting at you, it doesn’t matter whether the guy next to you in the trench is Republican, Democrat, white or black. In that moment, you’re on the same team. “We’re in the foxhole together and we’re being shot at.” I think there was some of that wartime dynamic. We knew we couldn’t afford to squabble over whether our logo was visible, or whether we baptize frontward or backwards.
I’ve seen a lot of that, and my prayer is that we don’t revert back to the old normal; that we continue in the spirit of collaboration. And prayerfully without having to have another tornado to keep us united. Because there are still great needs in our community, physically and spiritually. If we as a Church collectively understand the urgency of our call to be the salt and light of the earth and share the good news of Jesus, we shouldn’t need at tornado to wake us all up and server together.
Greatness most often arises in urgent times, and it seems we’re in more than usual urgent times now.
I would definitely agree with that, and I think that is true here in the Miami Valley. I’ll say say that as I have more and more conversations with other leaders of unifying church-city movements like this, we’re seeing similar things happen all over. It might not be formatted exactly the same way, but it shares 90 percent of the heart of it. Here or in Columbus or on a national level or in other states, we are in a season where God is calling and inviting his Church to say, “It’s time, let’s do this.”
Have you seen God change individual lives through this?
Yes. At one of the worship rallies a few years back, a young man showed up. He’d heard about the event somehow and felt he was supposed to be there. He was there on the outskirts, the fringe, with a few hundred people there. When we shared the good news of Jesus and invited people to respond, God just drew him forward. That was a life-defining movement for him. It was so great to be able to get a glimpse of that: With hundreds of believers from dozens of churches there, for one person whose name was Chet, God used this moment to change the trajectory of his life and his eternity.
Through the tornado recovery time, even as we were delivering furniture, I made sure I was one of the furniture deliverers, not just the behind-the-scenes coordinator. Every time you show up at a home you’d hear the story of how “we were living in this neighborhood or that, and we lost everything, but just look at how people come and care enough to help bring us furniture.”
We would ask every one of them, Can we pray with you? And 98 percent would say they’d love that. After we prayed, 88 percent were in tears because they were so overwhelmed by the love of God, by His people bringing a couch and dresser to their house.
Anything else you want to add?
It’s easy to look at the surface of what God has done, and that’s all good. It’s like beautiful car, though: a lot of preparation went into building it. People don’t always see the backstory, the thread of what God has done here, what’s undergirded this. There has to be a spirit of unity and humility, and the focus has to be on God and his glory.
Historically there have been other efforts to unite the Church. I think God is honoring the heart and spirit of a large number of servant leaders across this region, to have the humility it takes, and the commitment to unity. These leaders have put God and his glory being the center of it. Those are the building blocks by which all the beautiful things God has done have been possible. Take away those building blocks and it could all dissipate.
If we ever think next year’s success is because of what amazing things we did this year, that won’t be the fuel for it. It has to continue to be the Holy Spirit working through God’s people, as we surrender to him and just say, “God, what’s next?”
Do you ever look out the window and pray?
Often people come and say, “The perspective is different from up here.” I’ll answer them, “That’s a lot of what God has called us at Declare to do. A lot of times each local church or ministry is on the ground somewhere. From there you don’t have much visibility. But when you come over and take the big picture and see what God’s doing here and here and here, it allows you to see the connection and how it’s all part of the same movement.”
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.