If you had told me 8 years ago that I would parachute plant a church in a small waterfront peninsula in Savannah, GA with a 40-70% military officer ratio at any given period, I would have thought you were crazy. I had no desire to plant a church–let alone one in a military community. I simply wanted to pastor an established church. When we finally began to gather a few families together to form a core group, 2 of the 7 or 8 initial families were military. As we grew to 20 families, 8 of them were military. Much of the operational needs of our church plant–nursery, music, set-up, greeting, etc.–have been met in part by military families. Over the past 6 1/2 years we have had close to 100 adults and children come through New Covenant for a short period before moving on to a new military base. It has felt a little bit like day trading–several family moving on and others coming in to help fill the gaps. I quickly came to realize that as long as the Army bases are here this will be the ongoing dynamic of the church.
During the first three years, I allowed myself to become sinfully frustrated by this aspect of our church plant; it felt like I was trying to do college ministry while having to establish a local church. On one occasion, while venting my frustrations, a friend looked at me and said, “What are you complaining about? Think about foster care parents. At best they hope to love the kids they are entrusted with, move them on to a better home and never see them again.” It was like getting hit in the face with a bag of bricks. That was a turning point for me. Instead of viewing the situation as something negative, I learned to view it from the perspective of a foster care parent. In addition to learning to change the perspective by which I viewed the situation, I began to realize all the benefits of ministering to a mobile community, such as the military. Here are 5 benefits about being in a place where you minister to the mobile military:
1. Quick Integration. Military families know that they are mobile, so the ones who come to a local church (as over against merely going to chapel on base) are willing to plug in quickly. I almost never have to wait to ask a new military family if they would like to serve in some capacity. They usually come to me very soon after committing to the church and ask how they can serve. Because they know that they only have a short time here, many will jump into the deep end of the pool right away.
2. High Level of Commitment. Though they are frequently traveling to visit family, military families understand the idea of commitment. Their whole lives are bound up in commitment to the military. They can’t just change jobs when things get tough. This results in a high level of commitment to the church. From my experience, most military families understand that commitment is key to progress.
3. Desire for Community. The military families who want to be away from the base as much as possible often open their homes to others most frequently. They long for community outside of the work environment and therefore want to help fuel the best community in the church. This is an enormous benefit.
4. Respectful Support. With few exceptions, military families understand the concept of respectful support. They have to follow leadership at work in way that our increasingly anti-authority age fights against. The military families that we have had have generally been supportive of the ministry and leadership. From the majority of military families that we have had, I have heard little to no complaining.
5. Connectivity for Mission. One of the things that I came to realize over time was that the military is one of the greatest evangelistic platforms in the world. Not only are believers few in number (making the mobile military one extremely large, collective mission field) but there is a unique dynamic that exists within the military structure that primes it for mission. There is a level of camaraderie among the officers and enlisted that aids reaching unbelievers with the Gospel. I have noticed that believers in the military possess a level of trust and respect from those with whom they work most closely day in and day out in a way that you don’t have in most civilian settings. Perhaps it is the fact that they are required to work together as a team; or, perhaps it is on account of the fact that they are deployed together and are committed to defending one another. Whatever the reason, I have had many opportunities to preach the Gospel to unbelieving military men and women on account of this dynamic. I often try to encourage those in the military in our church to invite unbelieving military to our services. Almost without exception, those with whom they work with most closely will come to New Covenant at least once. We have had self-avowed atheists, practicing wickens and devote Romans Catholics come to our services because of this dynamic.
Add to this the way in which the connectivity works across state and city boundaries. The military is a sociological phenomenon. The military becomes the city. The mobility of the military makes this sector of society ripe for global evangelism and discipleship. Many of the unbelievers in the military that I meet usually move away shortly after I meet them. I try to connect them with others in the military who have the same job description. If they fly an Apache, I ask them if they know the other Apache pilots that we have had at New Covenant. If they end up being re-stationed by one of these families, I try to connect them so that I know that they will have Christians in their lives.
Finally, this connectivity is seen in the way in which those who have been stationed near us–and who have been part of the church plant–send others, who they know will be stationed here, to New Covenant. Since there are only so many military bases in the US, there is a connectivity dynamic that should not be overlooked. In fact, more needs to be done with regard to training those who come through churches near military bases for understanding this unique opportunity to connect believers and unbelievers alike to a solid church where they will be re-stationed.
There are so many other benefits that accrue from pastoring a church in a military community; however, these are a few to help us remember what an enormous privilege and opportunity it is to minister to the military. Interestingly, we see how God worked in the days of Christ and the Apostles through the military. We see how God used this dynamic in Jesus’ interaction with the Centurion who, understanding the nature of authority, expressed faith in Christ and acknowledged His authority over life and death. We also see it in the way in which the Gospel spread into Caesar’s courts through the imprisonment of the Apostle Paul. In Philippians, Paul said, “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ” (Phil. 1:12-13). At the end of the book of Philippians, Paul explained that some in “Caesar’s household” had become believers. In the words of Stephen Burch, “If you get chained to Paul, you get converted.” Since the military is a unique field for evangelism and discipleship, may the Lord give us wisdom and contentment to enter in on this work with great joy for the sake of the Gospel and well-being of the church.