Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ministering outside the church building

What would happen if we intentionally gathered outside the church building for various church-related functions, from staff meetings to Bible studies?

Well, we might wind up meeting people and affecting their lives (or they ours) in ways that would not happen if we simply stayed inside our edifice.

When the Rev. Jan Emiston (pictured here) of the Chicago Presbytery spoke to a gathering at Second Church on Saturday, Nov. 5, she told a story about what happened to her once when she was a parish minister and decided to spend part of each Monday working outside her office that was located in the church building.

"The mission field today," she said, "is actually in the local coffee shop, the local office, the local bus stop. One of the things I have done as a pastor. . .is take Monday as a monastery day. Every Monday I would take a monastery day and do the things you'd do in a monastery but I'd do them in a coffee shop or the food court of a shopping mall or in an art gallery because The Smithsonian is all wireless." (Her church was in the Washington, D.C., area.)

Usually, she said, she was working on her next sermon and thus would have with her a big annotated Bible plus her laptop computer.

Even though she was seeking to work alone, "100 percent of the time, someone came up to me for a conversation."

One day she was in the corner of a Starbucks courtyard outside, working alone in this way. A man wearing a Muslim prayer cap was seated in the opposite corner, "and he yells across, 'Hey, is that a Bible?'" She yelled back, "Yes." And she began noting how the courtyard began to empty of people overhearing this odd conversation.

"And this guy goes, 'So are you a Christian?'" Yes, she replied. "So are you like a priest or something?" Yes, she replied, identifying herself as the pastor of an area Presbyterian church.

The man asked if he could talk with her. Sure, she said. It turns out "he was a Muslim guy who was divorced from a Jewish woman." He told Jan that he wanted to raise his children in a religiously devout family, but he was at loose ends knowing how.

He said, "'I'm just really lonely and I wonder if you would pray that I would find a Muslim wife.' And so there I was in this courtyard at Starbucks praying with a Muslim guy that he'd find a Muslim wife. And I was thinking, you know, if I were working at the seminary library on my sermon this never would have happened."

The point, of course, she said, is that we must find ways to move outside the church building and to encounter people and their needs where they are to see if we can respond to them as members of the body of Christ.

As Paul Rock likes to tell us, the church is not just "a place where" but also "a people who."

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