I’ve been thinking a lot lately about connecting to people in our broader community for the sake of God’s mission.
In my reflections, one thing has hit home again and again: the importance of entering into and living within “non-church” spaces.
A common instinct for ministers and churches when seeking to connect to the community is to host some sort of community event and invite community people to it—a marriage seminar; a financial management class; a kids’ camp. Most of the time such events are hosted at church facilities. Sometimes they’re hosted at neutral locations in the community.
The location is less important than who is hosting the event—the church. The event becomes inherently “church space” because the church is hosting it.
What’s the problem with that? There’s no inherent problem with the church hosting events that connect to the community. But there is a potential problem given that more and more non-Christian people distrust, or are at least ambivalent toward, the institution of church such that they’d be more likely to participate in a marriage seminar or financial management class elsewhere.
All this resurfaces the importance of cultivating personal relationships with non-Christian people and building trust with them (so they can see we’re not wacko). And how do you go about doing that?
Enter into relationships with people in “non-church” spaces.
Non-church spaces are places where the church doesn’t set the agenda, plan the party or control the atmosphere. There’s no bible study. No prayer before the meal. No announcement about upcoming worship gatherings.
A significant reason Christianity has struggled in North America is because it has neglected to engage these kinds of non-church spaces. Churches have neglected non-church spaces for the same reason non-Christian people have avoided coming to church spaces: fear.
It’s a scary thing to venture off into territory where we have little control over things, where we’re different and might be the minority. So who should be required to take the initiative, churches or non-Christian people? It’s almost a rhetorical question.
If the church is to connect to its community it must first be part of that community. It must venture out into non-church spaces.
Here are a few non-church spaces in which the Storyline Community has either spent time intends to spend time (many of these are determined by our context and might be different somewhere else; some of these are based on our own passions):
- Civic organization events
- Community service organizations
- Sports leagues (joining other people’s teams)
- Concerts and plays
- Fitness clubs
- Apartment communities where we live
- Restaurants, bars and coffee shops
Our major victories these days are simply 1) having the courage to enter such non-church spaces and 2) the relationships that emerge from them. The hope is that the shape the church takes will consist of and be informed by community relationships such that Storyline becomes a church that grows out of its surrounding culture.
We’re seeing this hope become reality in small ways already…more about that later.
You’ve hit on a key point. To surrender “control” by going beyond a familiar sphere of influence is a leap of faith. But it also opens up opportunities not otherwise available. The individuals with whom you seek relationship are undoubtedly more comfortable, trust builds, and willingness to be vulnerable gradually comes. Your choice of venues are right in tune to the neighborhood you serve.
Completely agree. What if, for example, you are trying to create relationship with hard core, rough-nosed Northern Alaskan fishermen. Is any “event hosting” by a church going to introduce them to a relationship with Jesus? Doubtful. Where could you go? Well, probably the local pubs that are on the docs, that’s where.
Its important to note that Jesus didn’t preach his message, then sit tight in his comfortable hometown waiting for people to show up. He walked, and walked, and walked. He went to the sick, not the righteous. He spoke to the outcasts and ridiculed the teachers.
Look at his disciples. A few fishermen (do any of us really think their language wasn’t of the “salty” kind?), a zealot (who very well could have had a murder rap sheet), a tax collector (the most despised of many), etc. Who were these people? Well, they were who Jesus chose to follow him – and he went to them and called them. He didn’t stand on the shoreline and tell them to “watch their mouths!” then walk off; that’s for sure.
More power to you all in this mission. It’s important to show people that following Christ is not about “not doing things that are bad” but more in the future of their own relationship they ask themselves “now that I know Christ, why would I?”
Please excuse my misspellings above – I was typing fast! (this is Ryan’s bro-in-law by the way)
I think the church will grow naturally and steadily b/c it has its foundation in the community.
It is kind of scary, but people are just people and Jesus is Jesus.
I think that’s interesting…to intention some kind of nonchurch space takeover. Infiltrating a nonchurch space with the purpose of ‘taking over’ that space seems deceitful to me. But simply living your life, doing community things with the knowledge of the presence of God…somehow that is different.
As a regular patron of a fitness club, Jazzercise! yay!!, (sorry had to get that out), I do see the distinction. We don’t set the agenda as a church agenda, but all of our attitudes and ways of interacting in personal relationships are Christlike: humility, respect, honor, kindness, self-control, peace, and fun. But what good is being done if no one there ever knows that the reasons behind these attitudes and behaviors don’t center around working out but around my love for God?
That’s my question I guess. What is the good I am doing now compared to the good I could be doing?
I’ve been inspired lately to think about how my actions affect the people around me, one ripple at a time, like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the effect. As the lake water undulates outward from that stone, what gets pushed aside, what gets moved off center, what gets nudged into place?
So….in purposefully seeking out nonchurch space and simply being there, as a Christian, what ripples are you making? Are you making ripples at all?
Laura, I think you ask important questions here.
I’m with you on the deceit–or even presumption–of non-church space hostile takeovers. I’m a fan of that latter alternative you’re pointing out…living a God-honoring life in the midst of relationships with people in such spaces.
But I don’t think it has to stop there. I don’t think living our lives in non-church spaces means we zip our lips about who we are. I think it means we engage people at a very deep level about who we are, coupled with the character and graciousness you mentioned should characterize our interactions. The best ‘spiritual’ conversations I have these days are in non-church spaces.
I’m finding that people are much more open to receiving invitations into other more explicit “church spaces” when they have been respected and can trust the person who is inviting them.
In reading your blog I had two words that kept coming up in my head, one of which you came to yourself later in the post. The words were power play (lets assume that’s one word) and agenda. I think these two words cover a large part of the church’s comfort zone when thinking about outreach evangelism or church planting. We set up an event that is typically in a more comfortable and convenient location for us than for the people we are reaching out to. They have to come to our turf out of their comfort zone if they want to find out more about what we are offering (I thought we were supposed to be the ones “going” and “telling”). These environments paired with our “outreach” services for the community create what I see as an unhealthy dynamic for relationship, which is a power play. Immediately, this sets up our relationship with the people we are trying to reach as a teacher-student dynamic, which is a huge power play. This setup implies that I have more to offer than you and stifles the equality and creativity in the relationship. It creates the assumption that I know and you don’t.
What I feel this generation is looking for are real, genuine relationships, without an angle or agenda that primarily differs from building a relationship with someone you want to be and let be a friend to you. Marriage seminars, financial advice etc. are a great service, but not a great relationship starter. We need to get out of our comfort zone and journey to the other’s home turf, which might be a bar, an athletic field, or perhaps a civic event in which we are not the teacher, but perhaps a fellow student meeting another fellow student. Once we can put ourselves on an equal playing field as the other and admit to ourselves that we have just as much to learn as they do, then we are where God can use us (my opinion). Relationships that begin a certain way, often stay or strive to maintain harmony withing their initial dynamic. If that is the case, we will find ourselves on a journey with the other in which we ask questions together, seek together, find together, forgive together, and essentially discover what God intends for community together. We must not forget God is the leader and facilitator. Ex 14:14 says God will fight for us, we need only to be still. That was the part right before the Red Sea parted. What is our Red Sea God wants to part for us? Keep it up, you are right where God wants you, just be still and listen.
Good points. I like this language and mindset a lot. To Laura’s question, I think your point (Charles) that we “don’t stop there” as we live life in these places is a good one. It is difficult, I admit, be we need to try to avoid seeing this is as an either/or – we enter with an agenda and pamphlet (not at all insinuating that’s what Laura wants) or else we just live moral lives and never share anything deeper.
As we seek to truly develop connections and relationships with people, the most natural thing in the world is to talk about the things we care deeply about. For some it will be their children or career, for others it will be good cigars or wine. For us it may be those things, but it is also a life transformed by this Jesus and the joy of being in a community seeking that transformation.
This is very different from a “hostile takeover” or “bait-and-switch” where churchy people are seeking to lure unsuspecting victims out of these places and into the confines of a church. In this approach we take our place as humans living in a human society and live life with passion and joy at Starbucks, 24Hour Fitness, Target, and even our workplace (if we have one…)
Good thoughts Charles.
So, I just finished reading this amazing book, “The Same Kind of Different as me,” maybe you’ve heard of it! It’s kind of going around right now. 🙂 Anyhow, now I’ve stumbled across this blog subject, so I’m just gonna share some of my random thoughts. After reading this book, it makes me re-analyze the way I view evangelism, or actually, how I think of it now – missional living. Over and over, the Lord continues to blow my mind. I mean, blow it wide open in the sense that he expands my understanding of life, and how He works through people. All kinds, and in all ways. And, the more He reveals how His agenda is very rarely the same as ours. I no longer think that missional living is clean, meet someone at the local pub/gym/pool/etc. and start telling them all the things that I know that I think they should know. It’s dirty, messy, hard, scary, doing life with someone else, and sometimes we’re doing it when we don’t even know we are. (praise God! ) But mostly, I think, it’s about listening. Listening to the people who we think don’t have anything to teach us, listening to God, and listening to the Spirit in us that’s guiding us from moment to moment. Here’s a quote from the book to sum it up. “I’m just a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody that can save anybody.”
One great thing is that whether people go to church or not, people in our culture are already out working, and going to the gym, and being a regular at a coffee shop–in other words, their lives are filled with non-church spaces. So its less a matter of “infiltration” and more about reworking the way we perceive who we are in those spaces. Just not always for the full-time church worker or church ministry participant–those of us who have three small groups, two devos, and a lesson to prep each week. So yeah, as church planters looking around and wondering “where is our church?”, we’ve got to go get involved like normal people and get out of our churchy space. But once we meet those people who “get in the game” of God’s Kingdom, the tough part is to keep them engaged where God’s put them and not fill up their schedule with church. This gets back to the control issue. If we encourage the church to live “out there” instead of “in here” then we give up a lot of control. That’s a good thing. Then, I hope, our times together (as church) would out of necessity become mission centered, full of story and worship because we are empowering people to live out there rather than do good ministry “in here”.
Thanks for raising the question. I’m with Paul Mc though, is this just an issue for full-time preachers, ministers, church planters, etc? Don’t most church members already have non-church jobs, non-church friends from high school (or wherever)? The difficulty for most church goers is having the courage to start spiritual conversations in non-church settings, not that they’re not already in those settings.
But, as a minister mostly chained to my desk your point is very valid.
Ozziepete: Thanks for your comments.
Please know: I’m with Paul Mc, too! It’s absolutely an issue for everyone–full-time ministers and non-full-time ministers alike. We are all ministers and missionaries, after all.
However…while most church people have non-church jobs, I would submit that most do not spend much time other than that intentionally living in non-church spaces. They might be on a softball team, but it’s with a bunch of their Christian friends. They might hang out at a coffee shop, but it’s with a bunch of their Christian friends.
Before churchgoers need to work up the courage to have spiritual conversations, they need to broaden their view of what non-church spaces are. It’s not so much doing different things as much as it is seeing the same old things with a new set of lenses. So, for instance, instead of joining my church softball team, me and a Christian friend sign up for a softball team in the city league.
Then we can help them with the courage part.