By: Katie Sobiech
In just one month, six churches closed down on the West side of Cleveland.
Statistics show that more than 3,000 churches close their doors every single year in America (www.reachamerica.org).The reasons for this vary, including everything from Pastor burn out to not having enough members to keep the church going.
Dana Carpenter, the founder of The Isaiah Project (TIP), has found that not having enough members leads to the demise of many of the churches in Cleveland. In order to reverse this, she’s begun a ministry focusing on bringing a new wave into the church – children and youth.
Carpenter strongly believes that one of the reasons why most congregations shut down is because they are made up of elderly members. When they are gone there aren’t enough people to keep the church going. Because of this she finds it crucial to raise up the youth to keep the church alive for generations to come.
Don’t let her appearance fool you; this petite woman is passionate about what she does. She doesn’t allow fear to keep her from reaching out to the lost in inner city Cleveland.
Talking over a loud espresso machine whipping up warm drinks for those trying to find refuge from the autumn air, I sat down with Carpenter to talk about her experiences in the inner city. With a heart for the youth and poor, she has sacrificed countless hours and continued serving through the years, planting kid’s and youth churches all throughout the Cleveland area.
TIP was established in order to bring forth God’s healing and restoration for individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods and cities in order to create communities of hope. Their goal – to create a new family of believers among the youth by focusing on relationships. They do this through Kids Church, Youth Church, and visitation and prayer teams.
Four Ministry Components
Each of the four components of this ministry (Kids Church, Youth Church, visitation and prayer) plays an important role.
Kid’s church, a weekly church service for kid’s ages 4-12 teaches them to worship, pray, know the scriptures, serve and develop relationships.
Youth church takes it a step further. This gathering for teenagers ages 13-18 allows them to decide how the church is run. They help create and develop the church based on their interests and ideas. A youth council is brought together where the youth vote for their leaders, set the guidelines and choose the style of worship that they prefer. The idea is to create churches where the youth can express themselves and get involved.
Visitation is also an important area of the ministry. Each week ministry volunteers visit the children in their homes in order to get to know the kids and their families. Over time, after trust is built, they share God’s word with the families and offer prayer.
Prayer is vital to this ministry. A prayer group is developed by each kid’s church team in order to create a sense of family. The teams, made up of adults and teens, meet every week to plan and pray over the kids, the neighborhood, ministry, church, and everything else they think of.
“It’s a very cool, intergenerational thing, and a relationship builder,” Carpenter said.
Vision for the City
Carpenter’s call to reach out to the youth in the inner city began in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that TIP was officially established.
The vision for TIP came to Carpenter one day while preaching at the first potential new site for kid’s church. As she spoke on Isaiah 58 she says that she was suddenly given a vision of a wall around the people.
“The Lord began to speak into my spirit that ‘you are the wall builders; you are the foundation makers’,” she explained.
It reminded her of the story of Nehemiah and when Babylon and the Assyrians destroyed Jerusalem and their walls came down. The temple was destroyed and God sent Ezra and other prophets and people to rebuild it. Nehemiah was appointed to organize all of the people to work together as one. Each family in the city took a section of wall behind their home and worked together to rebuild it.
“The Lord was saying that as each church comes together and focuses on their neighborhood, children and families, it’s like the people who rebuilt the wall around the city,” she said.
Raising Up Leaders
In order to rebuild these walls they must raise up leaders.
“It says in Judges 2:10 that a new generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord and went into complete rebellion, and that told me something,” Carpenter said.
Because Joshua never raised a successor, they went into the time of Judges – a very dark time in Israel’s history.
“The reason Joshua didn’t raise a successor was because they got comfortable in the land, comfortable with what they had and they stopped raising up their kids. What the Lord spoke to my heart is that this generation of children is absolutely vital. If we are going to have church anymore in this country we’ve got to reach out to our children because we have churches closing every day.”
From what she has seen, young kids could care less about church.
“All that they see is a lot of hypocrisy and they’re not interested in Christianity.”
Because of this, TIP finds it vital to include older kids that show signs of leadership in the leadership team made of adults – giving them a voice and a sense of belonging.
Ministering to the Poor
One of Carpenter’s most memorable moments in ministry came after hearing Dr. Robert Linthicum speak. Linthicum is the President of Partners in Urban Transformation, a ministry in Los Angeles that helps equip churches, mission agencies and community organizations to work more effectively in the city. At this meeting Linthicum described how God used Nehemiah to rebuild the city. As he spoke, Carpenter began to weep. His very words confirmed what was in her spirit.
“He spoke on exactly what the Lord had been training me up to do,” she said.
From there he became her mentor and she studied his curriculum which she has used in developing TIP.
“We’re kind of community organizers for the poor,” she said, referring to Linthicum and herself, “to help them get out of poverty and take care of their own needs. It’s all about empowerment.”
They believe strongly in “not doing for others what they can do for themselves”.
“When the church wants to do to the poor people or do for them, they become an oppressor. You have to have the philosophy of working with,” Carpenter said.
She’s found that when suburban ministries come to the inner city for a one time ministry event, or when a group starts a ministry but after realizing how difficult it is they give up and walk away from it – that does more damage than good.
“They leave so many spiritual orphans behind,” she said.
Carpenter has found that kids learn by doing, and so instead of giving a very logic-based Sunday school lesson, their churches are more application oriented.
The kids learn by hearing what their leaders have gone through, therefore the leaders share stories and what God has taught them in their own lives. This makes the word of God come alive and teaches them how to apply it to everyday life.
“This,” Carpenter explained, “isn’t filling the kids with just head knowledge, but with heart knowledge.
Vision is Spreading
This ministry has not only impacted Cleveland but has extended to Akron, Cincinnati and even outside the U.S. The overseas missions began after Carpenter met Elizabeth Brown, a woman who grew up in Liberia but fled when the war broke out.
Although Brown left Liberia, Carpenter says “The Lord sent her back to help the children.”
Carpenter trained Brown to work with the kids so that when she traveled back to Liberia she could teach the people there. The kid’s churches began growing rapidly and they realized that they needed financial support, so Carpenter began praying for the funds to come in. That is when she found out about MEDIC International (Mercy Economic Development Incorporated), who establish trust banks in third world countries. They partnered with MEDIC, allowing them to reach even more kids.
Now, over 2,500 previously un-churched kids attend their church in Liberia every single day, and they have 20 churches in Monrovia.
“The testimonies are powerful,” Carpenter smiled, her eyes widening with excitement.
She believes that the ministry will expand faster in third world countries because America is not “hurting enough yet.”
“We still like our lifestyle too much to change to Gods,” she said. “People there are hurting and they want whatever God will do to change their country.”
They also don’t have all of the distractions that we have in America and are more focused.
In the future, TIP plans to add inner healing prayer to their ministry.
“We want kids to change. We want to see transformation, but the reality is that they are bound up,” Carpenter said.
Those living in poverty face a multitude of issues that those outside may never know about. Boundaries being crossed becomes somewhat of a “normal” routine because there aren’t any boundaries. For example, physical boundaries are often crossed, leading to sexual molestation. With single moms often having a revolving door of men coming through, children are often the victims.
“I would say that 70% minimum of my girls have been molested,” Carpenter said, “and probably 40% of the boys.”
Once a victim herself, Carpenter knows firsthand the damage that it can do not only to one’s heart but to one’s walk with God, also.
“Satan is trying to destroy that child from ever believing in God, because at the heart of molestation is trust,” she said.
Leaders in the church can talk all day long about how much Jesus loves the kids and that they are children of God, she explained, but inside of that 12 or 15 year old is the four year old that was molested.
All they know is “I have this problem with anger but don’t know why,” she said.
Inner healing prayer is where Carpenter would like to lead the ministry so they can help the kids confront the anger and unforgiveness that is raging within them.
“I’m very excited about my kids for the future because a lot of them are getting their lives together,” Dana smiled.
She says they want to know the Lord and they want to graduate. Some have gone to college, some are working, and others are getting their GED.
“I think down the road the church is going to look different. They’re going to create something different, in a good way.”
Her kids love church. They love God.
“But,” she says, “God still has to work through all of the baggage and bondage, all of the brokenness in their lives, which will take time.”
She refuses to count numbers and allow that to determine whether or not the ministry is a success.
“Success is not in how many numbers you have or how many kids raised their hands for Christ; it’s about faithfulness,” she said, “I believe success in Gods eyes is our faithfulness. If we pour ourselves into these kids, God is going to use them to transform our cities.”