A couple days ago was one of those days where you get to have a fantastic conversation with yourself, with someone else. What I mean is, I got to have a great chat with a fellow pastor, like a couple of old friends, except we only just met. What I really mean is, I’m not crazy, unless this guy is too, in which case we’re both nuts.
The conversation in question was about the church, as you might expect, but more than that it was about the “missional church” and what that means, and how, frankly, crazy easy it is to be one.
The person in question was Jerry Herships and he’s got a great ministry going in Denver called “After Hours.” Check it out, it really is great. I wanted to chat with him just to get clear on some of the logistical details of what he’s doing. That didn’t take very long so we digressed quickly into sharing thoughts about church, scripture, and the basic idea of getting off our butts and helping people.
This all reminded me of something I meant to talk about a while ago and forgot. So here goes.
A couple months back I was asked to do an interview for our local paper. They were writing an article about how churches were reaching out to new people in creative ways. It was a response to the Pew Study released about that same time. When I was asked I was told they were looking for “smaller” churches doing creative things, and because of a friend of a friend type connection they asked me. I agreed, of course, because I love talking about my church and the amazing people in it.
So I chatted with the reporter for an hour, mostly about our Free Store ministry, then they sent someone back the next day to take a picture. So I posed in the Free Store among the shirt racks. Looking back I wish I had paid a little better attention to my cloths that day. Live and learn.
Something else I forgot to do is ask when it would run, which turned out to be a Sunday a couple of weeks later. Now, I had assumed, given what I was told, that they were interviewing several small churches. That was not the case. When the article ran, on the cover of the Lifestyle section, there were three pictures. First, the pastor at the biggest church in town flanked on either said by some nicely restored old time gas pumps on what I assume to be their main stage. Next, the pastor of the other biggest church in town leaning on a large play train like you would see in mall play areas for kids. Finally, below the fold, was me, leaning on a rack of used cloths.
It was a site.
In the article, which also featured the largest Roman Catholic Church in town, the other interviewees talked about the things they were doing. Stuff like starting singles groups, creating fun playlands for children, and, I kid you not, building a swimming pool. Then there was me, talking about giving away stuff to people who need it.
It was quite a juxtaposition.
Many in my congregation, still being of newspaper reading age, came in that morning joyed to see their pastor in the paper. I hadn’t warned them, so it was a pleasant surprise to many. Now, what really impressed me was some of the comments. Several mention that our church was really the only one of the four listed that had an outside focus to its program. Meaning, that we were the only one of the four that saw our mission to the community as our best tool to reach people.
I was so proud of them.
When the reporter came to do the interview I could tell she was suffering under the same misconception that others do. She assumed that people came, shopped the Free Store, then started to attend worship. This has, as of yet, never happened. Not that they aren’t welcome! We encourage them to come. But, I learned long ago that it’s a hard leap to make for many reasons.
However, I also firmly believe that the Free Store has helped us grow.
Which brings me back to Jerry. As we talked I shared some of my speculations about why doing community missions leads to a healthier congregation. He shared my beliefs, which I take as confirmation that while I’m really just making all this stuff up, I’m making up the same thing as others.
So, for benefit of all of you, I’d like to share why local hands on mission is so important.
First, it gives your congregation something to talk about. So many of our churches today (big and small) are like a playlist set to repeat. We just keep cycling through the same old things year after year.
One book I read recounted a story where a grandchild asked his grandmother “What happened at church today?” to which she responded, “The flowers were so lovely.” Well, the flowers may have been lovely, but if that’s the most important thing she has to say is the grandson ever going to be interested in church?
People need things to talk about, stories to tell. Preferably stories about God at work. Well, what better way to cultivate those stories than to do God’s work? Hands on mission brings fresh stories time after time of lives changed and hearts touched, and these stories just beg to be retold. And best yet, they aren’t “church stories.”
While you might have an amazing alter call one Sunday, with dozens accepting Christ, it doesn’t translate to the world at large who is indifferent to the whole thing. Missional stories, stories about people getting better jobs, single parents getting quality clothing for back to school, and folks coming time after time for the hugs as much as the hot soup, these types of stories translate to everyone.
Of course, you do have to be willing to tell the story.
Another thing that came out of my conversation with Jerry is how much light covering is going on out there. We both had multiple instances of Pastors and lay people alike who tell us in whispered tones about the great things they are doing. My question is, why are you being so quite about it? We need to learn how to celebrate what we do in way that others can hear.
For the last couple of months, since the Pew Study came out, there has been article after article about how a growing population in the US is indifferent to the church. Well, of course they are. Even when we do great things we keep it to ourselves.
I’m not saying take out billboards telling people how great you are. But, Jesus was pretty clear about the whole “city on a hill” thing. God should be, and is, at work in our churches. We need to share that. Our church Facebook page is full of pictures and updates about all the work we do in the community. I’d wager most congregations do as much or more than we do, they just don’t talk about it as much.
Another benefit of hands on mission is it can change your priorities. When you are just going through the playlist on repeat then nothing is more important than the songs you are playing and in which order. Over time people get used to it, and when you do try to push the “shuffle” button watch out!
Being a direct part of what God is doing in the neighborhood gives you something else to concern yourself with. When confronted with God’s transforming grace directly it’s amazing how soon priorities shift. Suddenly the church has a purpose beyond itself, and the measuring stick has changed.
Our Free Store started in a couple of spare Sunday school rooms. We were careful not to disturb any more than strictly necessary. Now, after a year, we take up almost the whole floor, and, amazingly, no one ever complained. Why? Because it was all explained in terms of how many more people we could help. Suddenly the count of how many families served each week became one of the most important measures we have as a faith community.
So the value in missions like ours isn’t direct and it is hard to quantify. However, for us it has also been a game changer. While I can’t say X number people now attend church because of the Free Store, I can say with certainty that it has been a huge part of the new energy and focus we have as a congregation. I can also say that when people are asked about their church they have more to talk about than the flowers.
Starting missions like this really isn’t hard. Afterhours makes sandwiches as part of worship and then distributes them the next day at a park where homeless congregate. Most adults already know how to make a PB&J (I’d hope), and once that’s done its just about having the courage to step out in public and ask “would you like a sandwich?”
I’m fond of telling folks that we started our Free store for $75. We asked for donations of cloths and household items and picked up leftovers from garage sales for a few months, then spread them out on some clothing racks that were put out as trash by a local thrift store, then invited people to take what they wanted. Easy.
You can spend a career as a pastor, or a lifetime as a layperson, fretting about what one friend called “nickels, numbers, and noise.” Or, you can put your faith into action and demonstrate to your community why you are important. Those who are disinterested in church, those who couldn’t care less about your building or your worship, won’t be won over by flowers and alter calls. If you are very lucky, you may someday be asked by one of this growing number of people, “Why is church important?” If you are that lucky you need to ask yourself, will your answer be full of church speak, or something else?
Even as a pastor I don’t get this question often. But when I do my answer goes something like this. “Church is important because God’s grace changes lives.” And when they ask “how?” I’ve got a dozen stories lined up and ready to go about clothing, new jobs, relieved single dads, and hot soup at the ready for all takers.
There is only one story for Jesus’ ministries that is found in all four gospels, and it starts like this:
The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’
Perhaps Jesus is speaking to us?