Inner City Replanting

Inner-City Replanting

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Highpoint Church in Aurora, Colorado, a congregation nearly 100 years old, almost ceased to exist in 2008 when the recession stalled its building program and dried up financing — causing forfeiture of a rent-back option on the property the church had sold.

“Our new building was nearly complete when the banking crisis hit and we lost our funding,” says Gene M. Roncone, who served as pastor at the historic church for 17 years. “The new building was literally boarded up for 30 months and we had to move into a local high school. Attendance went from 1,000 to 240.”

The church’s resurrection only took place after the congregation’s leaders did something seemingly counterintuitive: began investing time and money in the most impoverished area of their city. During the downturn, Roncone felt drawn to reconnect with the church’s former neighborhood on Colfax Avenue. Walking the streets, he saw an area plagued by poverty, crime, homelessness, prostitution, and gangs.

“I would often have to slip into alleys to weep in brokenness and shame,” Roncone says. “This was my city, and I was ashamed I never knew it well enough to even see these needs.”

Roncone began spending Thursdays at the library/civic center in the heart of urban Aurora to meet with community leaders.

“We reached out to every pastor, city council member, government worker, teacher, principal, and nonprofit leader we could find,” he says. “I talked to everyone from homeless people to the mayor, asking about the city’s greatest needs.”

After a year, the church was ready to respond.

“God was giving us strategic insight into what we should be doing,” Roncone says.

Highpoint rented a building downtown and created essentially an urban campus to serve homeless people and at-risk school kids, many of whom slept on couches, in the back of cars, or in motels. The church partnered with the largest, poorest elementary school in the city and donated thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours.

“We told them we would take over helping kids with clothing, food, and other needs so they could focus on teaching,” Roncone says.

Highpoint created a Sunday morning children’s church and served free hot breakfasts, and staffed camping trips for kids who had never been outside of the city. The church bought and donated more than 2,000 winter coats, 1,000 pairs of winter boots, and 3,000 books for kids. Within two years, the school, which had been under review by the school board because of low test scores, had the highest increase in test scores in the district.

“Highpoint Church is unique in that it sees its mission as ministering to our city and not just its people,” wrote council member Sally Mounier in support of the church. “Highpoint has been active in praying for our city leaders and supporting our city with volunteers, finances, and helpful resources. … Their work with the poor, homeless children and those impacted by poverty is making a difference … they are building healthy bridges between suburban and urban Aurora.”

As the outreach flourished, financial miracles broke out and helped Highpoint to finish its new building.

“We went from being worried the church would survive, to filling up our new sanctuary,” says Roncone. “God used the crisis to break our pride.”

Roncone, recently elected superintendent of the Rocky Mountain Ministry Network, is encouraging historic and suburban churches to plant campuses and conduct outreaches in blighted areas.

“It is much easier than church-planting experts say,” he says. “You just have to be tied into your community. Relationship trumps money and outside expertise.”

Churches, he says, have a “strategic and sacred role in cities.”

“We had 100 homeless and at-risk kids, but it wasn’t a church; it was an outreach,” Roncone says. “There is also church parenting and multi-siting, which require a strong mother church.”

Roncone describes needy areas as “God-void places,” and believes every city, no matter how poor or wealthy, has them.

“We learned that if you focus your creative energy, finances, manpower, and prayers on those places and problems, God blesses,” he says. “Nothing is as successful as the local church being the local church in a city.”

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