If You Want to Change Your City, Get off Church Property.
Welcome to the latest City Gospel Movement podcast where we speak with an engineer, pastor, philanthropist, author, educator, filmmaker and playwright. Believe it or not, this is one man in the studio.
Dr. Roger Valci is the lead pastor at Valley Christian Center and oversees a K-12 Christian school in Dublin, CA. In addition, he is the founder of CityServe of the Tri-Valley, a non-profit of 27 churches who have donated over 200,000 hours of volunteer time to their city and raised over $1 million in the last two months.
What was your “ah-ha” moment that encouraged you to change the way you were doing your work?
That moment happened for me in 2005 when a group of pastors in my hometown of Fremont, California approached government leaders and asked them, “How can we help and serve the city?” Fremont is a unique city and has more languages than New York City, and they were very skeptical of this evangelical branch of Christianity asking them what they could do. They responded by pointing us toward a place known as “The Family Resource Center.”
The Family Resource Center was a genius idea that the city founders had put into place in our community. It’s made up of two buildings where all the non-profits reside. This included the government, independent, and faith-based organizations. We were told to go here and see if we could help the Center. When we got there, we did a tour of the Center and all of a sudden we had an epiphany: what these non-profits were doing was basically what the Bible says we should be doing!
Once we realized this, we talked to the person who ran the whole building about opening an office here to host volunteers from our churches to serve the non-profits. I was the pastor designated to open the office and I started interacting with all these non-profit and government agencies. For the first time in my life, I was off church property. For my entire Christian life, we had held this belief but never stated it: “If you want our Jesus, you have to come to our property.”
All of the sudden I was spending a good portion of my week getting to know the noble people who are helping people in crisis and painful situations, and it just made sense that somehow the church should help these people succeed. We had to get over the idea that they were not all Christian organizations. Our approach became, “We don’t care if you are faith based or not; we just want to help you succeed because you are helping people God loves.”
Then what? How do you take this and expand it into the next steps of what God wants to do?
I believe I stumble into the will of God because I’m not smart enough to figure it out. I worked in the Family Resource Center for almost 3 years in Fremont, and it really changed my philosophy of church. While I was doing that, another church in Dublin, California called me and asked me to be a lead pastor.
When I went through the interview process, they asked me all these philosophical questions, and I just told them frankly, “If you hire me, I will take you off this property. God plants churches to reach cities.” Ultimately the church that they were asking me to be a part of had been in that community for 50 years, and it had begun because there were people in that community who God wanted to reach. I wanted to get the church back to that, but at the time, I was only thinking of what I would do with our church and body.
This busted open for us when they hired me, but I found out two weeks into my new job as a lead pastor that I inherited a building campaign where I was responsible for raising $5 million. I tell people that I interviewed well enough to get the job, but not well enough to know what job I was getting.
I said, “Let’s make this campaign an outreach event called, ‘Vision for our Valley.’” I went to the missions’ committee and said, “Can one of our volunteers bring four non-profits to this church service where we will have pledge cards.” At the same time, I had started meeting with the mayor and I asked the mayor to come to church too. When we collected our pledge cards, I put a space for volunteer hours dedicated on one side and finances on the other. After we collected them, I said, “Mayor, as part of our donor campaign, we are going to give our community 2,500 hours from this church to these non-profits, and I am going to give monthly reports to you on how these people are serving.”
This started a reporting mechanism which we have done for 10 years now. The first year we gave 4,000 hours and the second, 10,000, and then in year three, churches started calling me saying, “Hey, I would like to join your serving network.” And I said, “I don’t have a serving network; I have a building campaign. Would you like a pledge card?” It evolved after that. Once more churches kept coming to me, I thought, “Why don’t we take this out of our church and just make a non-profit where the pastors are leading?” We created CityServe of the Tri-Valley, and that’s how the movement began.
We were more naïve than courageous, but it hit the heart of God’s people and the heart of God. It seemed the more we served, the more the money came in. This was a miracle of miracles. This was in 2008, I had never been a lead pastor, never raised money beyond car washes, and I watched in that 4-5 years $5 million come in, in the middle of a recession. It was an unbelievable story that birthed this non-profit.
What does the non-profit do and in which areas are you serving your city?
Our mission at CityServe is composed of caring, coordinating and connecting in our city. At first this looked like a newsletter we sent out every month. This was to coordinate and connect volunteers and non-profits. Every non-profit usually needs two things: money and volunteers. That position of serving was the right place for people of faith to be, not to change their organization, but to help them succeed because their organization is near people God cares about. We did that for five years, then we started realizing, “Wow, this government agency and this non-profit over here share a lane, but they aren’t communicating with each other.”
The coordinating part of our mission then came through these community service meetings (we do about seven a year) we started in the city. They were kind enough to let us host them in city halls. In these meetings, we tackle issues like abuse, homelessness, and refugees. For the first time, everyone is learning what other organizations are doing. When a government agency and non-profit are in the same lane and using the same resources, sometimes it’s hard to see what they are doing, but here we can learn how we can collaborate.
The church is in this ideal place to convene for the city to bring organizations together. We get 40-50 people that show up to every one of these meetings. The amazing part is we’re in the city hall, and we start off with prayer. People receive the leadership and then we start tackling the big issues that are happening in our community. I’m a preacher. I love the Word of God and love meeting on Sundays, but I am more excited about this meeting in our community because I know what’s happening there is beginning to affect those who are in crisis in our community and need help.
The third part of our mission (connecting volunteers in the local church and community to the non-profits in our Tri-Valley) came through two stories. The first is the public-school system. We run a private school, and in the public schools, there were counselors who were dealing with a wide variety of issues: families who couldn’t afford backpacks, others were having housing issues like not having beds and some who had transportation needs. They said, “Who do we call? There is no non-profit for this.” Then they called us, and we started helping them.
Once we were involved with them, we realized there were a lot of needs. The problem is that there are a lot of different players involved for different services: government, non-profits, faith-based, and some businesses. We found that when people were in crisis or need, it was not easy navigating that system. The most brilliant things we started to do was create an intake form with a database and say, “Can we walk you through the system?”. People in the church then started walking people through the system to resolve these issues.
The other story came through a county commissioner who called us about some illegal immigrants living on the county fairgrounds in stables. This county official called us in and said, “I’ve got children living in stables. The government system is so messed up right now, we’re not sure if we’re keeping or deporting them, but in the meantime, some need transportation, clothes, tutoring, and healthcare. If I get involved it gets really messy. Can you just take care of these families until we figure out the system?”
We go down to the fairground, and 15 different families are living there, so we get 15 different churches to adopt them until the government decided what to do with them. These things brought us into casework. It is the most complicated thing we do, but we are the front entity in our community and the police, fire department, school system, military bases. The churches start with our non-profit first, and then we walk together with people through the system to help them meet their needs.
Roger, you have said before that you have a “go congregation” and “come congregation.” Can you explain this idea that, as a lead pastor, you are pastoring your church and your community?
I’m doing this from a pastor’s chair and when I tell the story, people often say, “Roger, that’s your thing.” I challenge people because it’s not my thing, it’s all of our thing and it’s a biblical thing! The reason I come up with that term, “come and go” is because I have observed that if you look at two data points in every church—budgets and calendars—you can figure out whether they give their resources to the come congregation or the go congregation. You pick any church, my guess is that all that money and time is to serve people already there in the church.
I struggle with this as a leader. How many resources should go to people who are already at church and how much should go to those who will never go to the property? The come congregation is made up of the people that come to your church and small groups. Then we have the go congregation. In our community it’s the military base, country prison, federal prison, public schools, senior housing, homeless and nonprofits.
I believe when Jesus said, “Go,” He meant it. When I talk to church leaders, I think we are stuck in a religious trap. The whole system is serving people who are already there. I just want to remind church leaders, pastors, boards, anyone leading a church: cast the city. It will change how you do church.
We are so consumed with keeping up with things on our property, we can’t even see the city. That’s the big dilemma we are at right now with churches. Budgeting both calendar and resources, makes us ask the questions: how many resources are we keeping to serve the people that are here? And how many resources are we using to serve people that are not here?
What would you say to that pastor listening who has the tug at their heart but the fear that comes in them telling them they can’t do it?
From a pastor perspective, I think it’s easier to teach people than to live our own sermons. Go throughout the Bible. Every “go” element has the fears that we face. One reason why I believe in the theology of the Holy Spirit is because it’s tied to the go. We have all these road-blocks and we’re afraid to go to a place we can’t control. Can I just tell you this? You don’t get a lot of resources back.
We have two prisons near us and there probably about 3 mile radius from the church. To me, there are some things you need to pray about doing and then there are the things you don’t need to pray about, you just obey. I have to go to those two prisons. I don’t have a choice. I didn’t create this geography, but I think this geography creates a mandate on our church.
Everyday I am sending people to those two prisons and they are the worst tithers I have, but they don’t have any means to give back to us for all that energy. I look at Matthew 25 for a road map of what Jesus says we should be doing. It feels right in my spirit and to our leadership that we should be visiting these prisons.
You always have a choice, but if God plants churches to reach cities and if we cast the city as part of our why we exist, then the right question is: “What are we supposed to do in our community?” We have 50 acres on a hill in the Bay Area, but my spirit soars when I get to see the Kingdom built off the property with His people.
We have to practice walking into things that don’t feel safe and choose to trust God is going with us in this passion. This has been a process for you, but I think one thing that is so beautiful is the ongoing collaboration. Share what this collaboration feels and looks like.
There is a competition spirit and churches are afraid of their resources being stolen. One benefit of casting the city is that the vision is so big we can’t compete with one another. We have to collaborate or else we’re never going to succeed. It’s never a competition, but if God wants to build His Kingdom in our city, it’s all hands-on deck. The cool thing about this coalition is that I didn’t ask anyone to join, they all came to me. I don’t know if that’s bad sales or good sales, but that’s sovereign. Every one of these churches has sovereignly said they want to join this.
Why did other churches want to join the work you were doing?
The right belief has to be there. They caught the belief that God plants churches to reach cities. This idea is drawing churches together to collaborate. They believe they have to do something off their property. They also have to see fruit or productivity. This is evidenced through stories of God’s people going out in the community and the impact has started waking up churches saying, “Why am I not in this lane?”
Here is another miracle of miracles, the board of our non-profit made a challenge to the churches to give one percent of their budgets to people in need in their city whether it be any non-profit or organization in the city or CityServe coalition. I run a church and school. Budgets are so tight in churches. We never have enough money.
It became obvious that when we do things together under a neutral thing, it looks better for the Kingdom. Last year, 27 churches raised $180,000 out of their budgets to help people in need. I’m in awe that churches are prioritizing this in addition to the other funds they need to raise. Whether or not one percent is the right number, the very fact that we put money in a common pot to a cause that we all created is a magnificent expression of unity. In our church experience, we are longing for unity, but rarely see it.
You were awarded a grant from your city, which speaks to the trust that they have in CityServe of the Tri-Valley. They gave a sizable gift because they need the help, tell us more.
It’s important to say our non-profit is not here to compete with any other non-profit, government, faith-based or business. We’re here to see all those succeed. There is always a lane in a community that isn’t being met and for our city, it was homelessness.
This gets me really excited…We decided to do an inventory of every homeless person in our area and created a database. It included their name, story, situation, and where they are living. We wanted to create like a 10-point plan on how we get them from this crisis moment to health, vocation, and sustainability.
As we were creating this database, the counties and cities were aware that this is a growing problem. They came to us and said, “You have more information on this than anyone else, you are closer to this issue than anyone else, so rather than us competing, can we just help you succeed in this?”
We had the schools, police, and fire department calling us and asking us for help with homelessness. Because we had done intake forms for every non-profit, government agency, and business service serving the homeless, we are able to walk people through the system. Most communities have a lot of helpful services, but the system is difficult to navigate. When people are in crisis, they need help thinking and having someone walk beside them as they navigate the support system has proven incredibly effective. The whole effort is being led by the churches. There are three tiers of support: (1) a 1-3 day person to help, (2) 3 weeks of support, or (3) 6 months support. It depends on the story.
In the last 2 months we have received $650,000 from the county and about $200,000 from the cities to help us succeed in an initiative that we were already doing because we’re solving a problem in our community that nobody could.
Another beautiful part about this coalition is if there is an issue that no one is handling, we are able to call churches and say we have vetted a family and they are behind on this bill or in need of a bed. We need $5,000, can you give $500? Churches can dig into their benevolence fund and because of our reputation, we are able to raise that money and give to that crisis/family. A family sees the church respond and this challenge is over.
One family was going to have their power shut down because they could not afford electricity and because of our good relationship with the government, we asked the electrical company to not close it down until we could find a solution. Because they saw us on the scene, they put grace to the whole thing.
How has the view of the Church changed in your community and other cities because of the way churches are working together?
What comes to mind is Jesus is being lifted high as magnificent in our Tri-Valley area. Primarily because the people of compassion here are the people of faith. It becomes hard to critique Christianity when they are serving and helping their community. I think it’s caused such a positive spirit.
Eric Swanson said it best, “We don’t serve to make people Christian. We serve because we are Christians.” I’m amazed in every setting I go, whether it’s government, non-profit or business, they know we are representing the Church presence and they like having us there. They just do.
It’s been a wonderful collaboration. Separation of church and state is not a biblical view.
The idea that our differences are so wide that we can’t figure out how to partner is such a bad idea because the reality is, if we can figure out how to partner, more people can be touched. We can be in the same lane and not compromise our identities. Some communities might say that’s too much of an ask, but somehow in this area, we can be fully Christ followers and serve beside non-profit and government agencies.
You have earned the right to be heard by showing up and building trust and then continuing to show up. Tell us more.
I look at meetings like a round table and you have a person present from every part of the community, but I think often there is an empty seat. It is the faith-based chair. We have to show up to the table.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, people are not very keen to Christianity, but people enjoy it when we walk into the room and there is respect for what we do it and how we do it. We have counties and government asking us to lead and they will follow us—that’s amazing.
It’s important to mention that it wasn’t always successful. Some doors were closed because they didn’t want any faith people a part of their organization. But we learned that if you sit in that chair long enough, eventually a door will open. And then they wonder, “Are they here to cause trouble, tell what they are doing wrong, here to proselytize?” I find that if you just keep that humble place of serving, eventually you win them over.
I have had public officials say we will never have access to this and that and now we have access to all of it. It goes back to the fact that we are called to care, so even if you tell us we can’t, we are called to do it. It doesn’t matter if there are any barriers present. Many times, I have just had to pray, “Lord, you’re going to have to open the door. I’ve got people ready to go in, but unless the doors open, we can’t go in and do what you’ve called us to do.” What’s amazing is that there is a lot of favor where we go.
Tell us about being a filmmaker. You created a short document series called CityGene. Why did you create this and what was the passion and vision behind it?
CityGene is a collaboration with Transforming the Bay with Christ, a gospel movement in the Bay Area. People wanted to know: “How do you ‘cast the city’?” because, ultimately, they believed that this was my thing, but this is not just a Roger thing, this is a Church thing.
This was a concern to me. I wondered, “Are we reading the Bible correctly?” We are reading the Bible in a way where cities are props in the background and not something to pay attention to. We have to realize cities aren’t props; they are characters and not just that, but they are main characters. In the Bible, God’s not just changing individuals, He’s trying to transform communities. If you want behavior change, especially for evangelical Christians, you have to show them the why in the text.
I started doing more writing and research on what the Bible says about the relationship between the people, God, and the city. Through this, we made CityGene. It’s a primer to introduce church leaders, and also Christ followers, that it really isn’t the Church unless you cast the city. We choose four stories from the Bay Area for the videos and I was able to narrate some truth behind each.
I feel it’s my calling that everyone is infected with the CityGene. I know that casting the Church as the city is relatively new to us. I have been in school majority of my life. I have four degrees and not one professor ever told me casting the city is part of the mission of the Church. It took my experience of getting off church property to realize we are missing out on our mission if we don’t cast the city.
I know it’s provocative because I have seen how many mission statements center around evangelism or personal thriving—and these are a part of the Christian story. However, if we pull back and look at the entire biblical epic, can we not agree that we serve this God who has constantly got His eye on somebody that is not in the community? He’s constantly bringing people out of a community experience into something that is scary so that we can somehow bring the Kingdom to them.
Essentially CityGene is global missions being done locally. Churches get it globally, but most churches don’t have the same passion locally and that makes zero sense to me.
What’s next on the horizon for you or for this movement?
We are part of a movement we didn’t create. As we travel the nation, there are churches and people living out the CityGene already. The more I see this movement, the more I know this is the future of the Church. This is a movement that has sovereignly been birthed. It’s all over the nation and there is this desire to live out our faith beyond a church service. Church leaders must build a bridge from their community to their city. If we don’t do that, we are failing on part of our mission. There is an ongoing movement of people who want to get involved in the city and serve; they just need an outlet to do it.
In addition, this is a topic that steps on people’s toes, but I’ve learned to be provocative in my thinking. I have noticed most movements are serving days and I think they are part of the story. Every year, we do one too! The biggest challenge with them is, what’s next? We need to learn to serve not just one day, but every day. The witness for Christ amps up so much higher when we aren’t giving a day for compassion, but are just compassionate people. There’s a network in every community that you can do that with, but as church folks, we haven’t figured it out yet.