Eight weeks in, and eight different churches visited.
In my travels last week to the West Coast, I got to see two churches that I have read about for some time now and have long wanted to see for myself, the Cornerstone Church in Prescott, Arizona, and the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. As with every church I have visited during my sabbatical, I went to these churches to learn something about how evangelism is not just another program in their life, but part of their very DNA. And both of these churches, like all of the other churches on my sabbatical dance card contributed something to my growing understanding of how this all works. I’ve got two more on the schedule, one here in North Dallas this Sunday, and then one down in Houston on the last Sunday of June, and then I’m back home with you.
I have much to think through and talk with you about as we take up the challenge of becoming more consciously and conscientiously evangelistic as a church, and I can hardly wait to get started. And while I’ve learned so much from my church different visits, the most important thing that I may have learned on my sabbatical may very well have come not from a church visit but from an hour I spent at a Starbucks down in the West Village between the two worship services that I was visiting at an area church.
As I sat there with my Venti drip – two equals and whole milk – writing some notes to myself for the next chapter in my book about prayer, I began to become aware of just how busy the place was. It was bustling. In the hour I sat there, roughly 9:15 to 10:15 am on a Sunday morning, traditional “church time,” that Starbuck’s must have served 50 different people, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, many of them with dogs. And then, after my hour at Starbucks, on my drive back to the church for their second service, as I drove through the West Village, I was startled by just how alive it was. The streets were literally jammed with people and the restaurants serving brunch were spilling over. And it occurred to me that when we think about the evangelistic mission of the church, more than strategies and techniques, we’ve got to have all those people that I saw out there on the streets in our minds and on our hearts.
Too often the evangelism conversation has more to do with the church thinking about itself and caring for its own needs than it does thinking about them, and caring for their hurts and hopes. Michael Green wrote –
Sometimes when a church has tried everything else – in vain – it comes reluctantly round to the idea that it is to stay in business it had better resign itself to an evangelistic campaign. Usually, however, this achieves precious little, because of the image that our churches have and because of their lack of relevance. They tend to be clubs for religious folklore. So what the churches often do get involved in is not evangelism, but propaganda, that is, they reproduce carbon copies of themselves, and impart their own ghetto mentality to the people the “reach.” In their evangelistic outreach, they often resemble a lunatic farmer who carries the harvest into his burning barn.
A story that Rick Richardson tells at the very beginning of his book Evangelism Outside the Box (IVP- 2000) has impacted me as profoundly as anything I have seen or read over these past eight weeks (11-12).
When I was six years old, I got an unforgettable picture of God’s heart. My dad was in the military, stationed in North Carolina. Across from our family’s home lived a family also in the military. We had three boys. They had three girls. Each Friday in warm weather our moms drove the six kids an hour to the beach, where we spent the day building sand castles and wading in the waves. Then we would pile back into a big, ugly green station wagon and return home.
On one of our trips back home, with us in the middle of the fifteenth verse of the song about Noah’s “Arky, Arky,” and the animals that came in by “twosies, twosies,” Allison, the youngest girl, asked where Chris was. Chris was my youngest brother, three years old. He was a trickster, so we thought he must be hiding somewhere in the car. We looked under the beach blanket. We looked in the tire well. We searched the back of the car. No Chris. He must still be at the beach.
“Mom, Chris isn’t here,” I reported.
“Wha-a-a-a-t?” my mother responded. At that moment I began the ride of my life!. My mother hit the brake with magnum force. She spun that big, ugly green station wagon in a 180-degree turn, tire screeching. Then she put the petal to the metal. What had been a thirty-minute trip from the beach took us fifteen minutes going back. I think we hit a hundred miles per hour, and we stayed that low because it was an old car and just couldn’t go any faster.
At the beach we piled out and ran back through the archway and onto the sand. We ran from guard station to guard station. At the last one, my mother saw Chris and Chris saw my mother. They called out to each other. They ran toward each other. And then it was like a scene from a movie. My mom caught Chris in her arms and twirled him, hugging him, laughing and crying all at the same time.
Chris was lost. My mother braved the curves of North Carolina roads and (it felt like) risked all our lives to find him. But that passionate mother-love for her lost child is only a glimmer of the passion of God for those who are lost and don’t know Jesus. He wants to turn the big, ugly green station wagon (maybe an appropriate analogy for our church or ministry!) around and race to wherever these lost and hurting people can be found. But he’s letting us drive. We are at the steering wheel of the green station wagon. If we are happy with who is already in the car and who is not, we can continue on home singing our fun travel songs.
If, when you read this story, you think – “That’s right, that’s what Northway really needs to be and do! We can’t just ‘be happy with who is already in the car,’ we’ve got to start thinking more about who’s not in the car, about “the lost and hurting” – then we’ve got the right mindset for evangelism. Now, I’m not going to just automatically assume here that we have this mindset as a church. I think that this is something that we’ve got to carefully and prayerfully think and talk about together, and we will start to just as soon as I get back. But, if we do have it, or want to get it, then the really crucial thing is what happens next. It’s what we ask next that really matters. Do we wonder – “So, what can we do around here to make Northway more attractive to them so that they will come!” Or, do we wonder – “How can we turn this car around so that we can race to where they are?” The whole point of the story, the whole point of the Gospel (read Luke 15), is that we who know Jesus Christ have got to go to where those who don’t know Him are. It’s not about how to get them to come to us on Sunday mornings; it’s about how we can get to them, and then be present with them in authentic ways.
David Fitch, another author I have been reading on my sabbatical, wrote this in a recent blog. It’s a clue as to how evangelism becomes part of our DNA as a church.
Recently, I heard it again. A pastor, lost his pastor job, then took a ‘regular’ job, started hanging out with non-Christianized people. Things started to happen as he became present with people outside the church. Opportunities to minister into real issues, needs. Openings for the gospel!! And then came the realization: “I did more ministry this past month that I did in the entire 15 years of my ministry. Of course this pastor is talking about transformative ministry that extends the gospel beyond the boundaries of well-established Christians. I know for a fact he had a powerful and steady impact with Christians as he ministered with them. But what is going on here? I call it the practice of being present in our contexts. It is a dynamic all churches must cultivate among their people if they are to extend the gospel into context, if they are to participate in what God is doing to bring the world to Himself. I call it the practice of being present. It is what this pastor was freed up to do. It is what we all should be leading our congregations into doing. http://www.reclaimingthemission.com
“Being present” That’s the assignment. DBS+