Church on the Porch
by Steve Addison
When tall, blond American Jeff Sundell began spreading the gospel among Tibetan Buddhists in the politically sensitive and remote villages of the Himalaya Mountains of northern India and Nepal, he stood out like a sore thumb. Realizing there was no way he could reach this people group alone, he began instead to train local believers to make disciples and plant churches.
Sundell sought out best practices from church planting movements around the world. He learned to identify leaders not by their knowledge and gifts but by their obedience. Local believers with little or no education faced persecution with courage and boldly declared the gospel—they learned to obey what they knew. Sundell discovered that a disciple who is obeying the little he knows is on the road to maturity.
Over the years Sundell and the leaders he trained equipped thousands of local believers to share the gospel and plant churches. Across the region tens of thousands of new disciples formed new simple churches—many of them in regions officially hostile toward Christianity.
In 2009 Sundell and his family moved back to the US and began applying what he had learned to their new situation. They moved to an old mill town in North Carolina that had been in decline since the ’70s. Unemployment and substance abuse were rampant. With help from the police, Sundell identified the three toughest neighborhoods in the county and chose them as his mission field.
Sundell met with pastors in the wider area to cast vision and offer training to anyone interested. He gathered a small group of men and women on Monday mornings and began training them in how to share their story and Jesus’ story. Then they went out prayer-walking, expecting God to lead them. They walked, prayed, and looked for opportunities to connect with people who were far from God.
These neighborhoods are known for their pit bulls and meth labs. As Sundell and his coworkers met people, they asked, “If God could do a miracle in your life today, what would it be?” Then they prayed for people on the spot.
Sundell recruited his parents, Norm and Paula, to the team. On their first day out, they visited an African American neighborhood. The day didn’t begin well when Sundell’s “Yankee” father asked two middle-aged women, “How are you guys?” They thought he was addressing them as men and began cursing him. (A real Southerner would have asked, “How are y’all?”)
Norm and Paula persisted in the conversation, however, and eventually one of the women, Ruth, asked them to pray for a severe pain in her chest. The other asked, “Just pray I’ll get through the day.” Sundell’s parents prayed for them and promised to visit again.
A week later Norm and Paula returned and met a man named Randy sitting out on his front porch drinking at 10 a.m. Randy’s porch was the place to hang out if you wanted to party. He invited them to come back to share some stories about Jesus.
Randy’s porch was the place to hang out if you wanted to party. He invited them to come back to share some stories about Jesus.
They moved on and visited Ruth to pray for her again. Word spread that they had returned, and a woman named Annie came looking for them. She’d heard there were some folks praying for people and wanted them to pray that God would provide a stove for her and her family. They prayed for her—and for a new stove. A few days later a friend of the Sundells heard about the need and donated a stove.
The next week Sundell’s parents were at Annie’s house enjoying the cookies she had baked in her new stove when Ruth came banging on the door. She wanted prayer. The doctor had just told her that the pain in her chest was breast cancer. They prayed for her.
Norm and Paula began a simple discovery Bible study with Randy and his drinking buddies on Randy’s porch. They read stories about Jesus and asked, “What does this say about God? What does this say about people? Is there a command to obey or an example to follow?” Norm had them reading the story of the four friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof so that Jesus could heal him, when Randy realized he needed to do something about Ruth’s condition. Since being diagnosed with cancer, Ruth had missed all her medical appointments out of a combination of fear and her drinking problem.
Randy and his buddies knew this, and when they read the story of the four men who brought their friend to Jesus, they knew what they had to do. Before Ruth’s next appointment, they stayed up all night to make sure she didn’t get drunk. The next morning she arrived at her appointment on time.
The Bible studies on the porch continued until one day Sundell’s dad got a call from Randy saying, “I believe! I believe!” Ruth also gave her life to Christ. Six weeks after his conversion, Randy told Norm, “You know I’m an alcoholic. Would you pray that I’d get healed?” Today Sundell’s parents have a ministry on Randy’s porch, praying for people and asking that “alcohol would taste bad in their mouths.” They also pray for people to find work, and God answers.
Randy, Ruth, and other new believers in the community consider that porch to be their church. Where the parties once happened, now no one is allowed to drink. Instead those who are still drinking bring their bench as close to the porch as possible so they can listen in while the church meets around God’s word. Over 20 people have been baptized, and disciples are meeting in three simple neighborhood churches. One of the groups meets in a hotel room.
Sundell and his coworkers continue to prayer-walk the community. They pray for needs, share their story, share the gospel, and make disciples. Discipleship can be a challenge as new believers grapple with drug and alcohol addiction and fractured relationships. But Sundell never compromises what the Scripture teaches; he knows that making disciples takes time.
Steve Addison leads MOVE, a mission agency devoted to training and deploying workers who multiply communities of Jesus’ disciples everywhere. This article was adapted from his book What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement to Change the World (InterVarsity Press, 2013) and appears by kind permission of the publisher (IVPress.com).
Read “Front-Porch Revival,” about porches as places of significance!