Gary Sanders, founder of the Military Missions Network, refers to the simple but far-from-easy task of being the church to returning military personnel.
"Don't try to be some sort of a therapeutic organization. Just be the church," Sanders said. "The best thing we can do is do what we do best and that's community and everything that comes out of that."
First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., where Sanders serves as minister of military ministries, is centrally located to address the needs of service members from all branches of the military from several bases in and around Norfolk.
The needs of returning veterans range from home repair to financial and family strain to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Though a local congregation is not typically equipped to handle clinical needs, they are equipped to provide a support community.
First Baptist Church in Woodbridge, Va., just started its second year of military ministry, and the military community is responding. Through its "Welcome Home" team, the church celebrates returning military on their first Sunday after their return.
"We post a 'Welcome Home Hero' banner in our lobby and throw a party," said Chris Ford, director of military ministry at FBC Woodbridge.
This includes bringing the family down front to a standing ovation, a time of prayer and a gift package, including a book on reintegration, gift card for a family dinner, a free hotel stay and a coupon for three free hours of babysitting.
"We want to do anything we can to help with reintegration of the military person with their church, their spouse, their family and their community," Ford said.
This is part of what Sanders calls "missional military ministry."
"Just as you would apply the Gospel and Gospel community to any people group, churches can address the needs and context of military culture," Sanders said. "This applies to discipling military before they deploy, addressing their needs and reintegrating them when they return. And it also applies to outreach within the military community."
FBC Norfolk does this through simple acts of hospitality. The church provides space and refreshments for pre-deployment family briefings. They also reach out online through militarybeliever.com, where service members can find resources for encouragement before they ever make a personal contact with the church.
The church also reaches out in a significant way to military who aren't married -- a segment of the population who may not have a family support network back home. This outreach recently included assembling and sending 129 care packages to the single service members aboard the USS Normandy.
"Many of them don't ever hear from anybody, especially if they come from broken homes," Sanders said. "We're very proactive in outreach and in speaking their language, and we want to connect with them very fast.
"Hospitality is so important for military ministry," Sanders added. "They move around and it takes too long to connect with people. If they're in our area, we host monthly dinners for new military in the area. Through social networking we connect with them before they ever get to us. Sometimes they end up not coming to our church, and that's OK. The point is to make a significant contact for the sake of the Gospel."
Doug Carver, executive director of chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board and former Army Chief of Chaplains, said it's through the local church that the greatest change can happen among the U.S. military. NAMB is the endorsing entity for 1,425 U.S. military chaplains serving throughout the world.
"All of our veterans returning home from war require some level of reintegration," Carver said. "That is where the local church can offer a powerful ministry to veterans and their families. When they step into a local Baptist church, veterans should be able to say, 'I'm home with my brothers and sisters in the Lord.' I want the local church to be the champion of change in the lives of our returning troops."
Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
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