“You are never more like God than when you invest in other people.” Reggie Joiner
The Vicar of the small church in a Texas suburb adjusts the colorful stole that’s draped over his blue jeans, boots, and button-down shirt. It’s a decidedly different look than the traditional vestments he wore when he pastored an Episcopalian church on the eastern seaboard. There, history was rich and long, and the pews and stained glass reminded all who attended that the building they were in was designed for ministry. These days, a local coffee shop has become the Vicar’s office, and Sunday morning services are stored away in a small white trailer. Communion is served each week amidst elementary school cafeteria signs encouraging kids to clean up after themselves, and food pantry contributions are collected in the “nut-free zone” to the right of the front doors. There is no special lighting, no comfortable seat cushions for the lunch tables turned into benches—but there is a nice coffee bar for everyone who attends, set up by volunteers who are quick to offer a napkin and a smile, served up with a piece of homemade pumpkin bread.
Every week, the Vicar stands in front of the congregation and says: “You are all welcome here. Participate fully. I promise, you can’t mess this up.” He asks children to read scriptures and invites the elderly to help with communion. He makes it a point to talk to everyone before and after the service, and dispenses hugs like bandaids for those who are hurting or weary. More often than not, his sermons focus on community. It’s something near to his heart, because he’s felt the loneliness that comes from being the stranger in town or the outsider in a room. “The word blessing means to strengthen another’s arm,” he shares. “A blessing is not transactional—it’s truly medicinal. When we encourage another, when we come alongside another, when we share an act of kindness, we are literally strengthening those around us. It is a practice of the presence of Christ in someone else’s life.”
On this Sunday, the Vicar has invited everyone to stay after the service to see the plans for a proposed sanctuary. There is land in a neighboring town available for purchase, and local leaders think it would be nice to have a place of worship in the area. They’ve been impressed by what they’ve seen so far at the little portable Episcopalian church, and they are ready to negotiate. Eager whispers fill the cafeteria as folks point to the perfectly designed buildings, parking lots, and space for walking trails and picnic areas. There is space there for mid-week events. There is a special place just for youth. There is a greenbelt that can be shared with the entire neighborhood.
A hand raises, and a smiling gentleman stands. “So, bottom-line it for us, pastor,” he says. “When will we be able to open the doors of our church home?”
The Vicar moves slowly to the center of the room, smiling. “That is a good question, my friend,” he responds. “It would be a wonderful thing, to have a building that we can use every day. But please hear these words: We open the doors of our church home right now—because WE are the church home. We are charged by God with being home for people today. We are charged with stewardship of all that He gives us, and we have much work to do right now to reveal His great love to others.”
In churches around the country right now, annual budget planning and preparation for holiday services become a strange brew that can make us focus more on what we are lacking than what we hold in our hands and hearts. We can find ourselves getting caught in the vice grip of comparison with other churches, find ourselves dreaming about how much better and easier and more appealing our services will be once we secure this piece of sound equipment or that piece of land or just one more staffer. And while there is nothing wrong with planning well for new or different seasons and stewarding our resources creatively, the words of the Vicar in the school cafeteria are a reminder that the most powerful ministry takes place when we keep our hearts and hands focused on our greater purpose, not as a church but as THE Church.
We exist to welcome others.
We exist to strengthen others.
We exist to reveal God’s great love to others.
“We’re leading people to Jesus, not to ourselves or to our awesome church. Keeping the focus on Christ ensures that genuine life change happens and lasts. People need to be reached. The love of Jesus was designed to spill far beyond the walls of the church, not be contained within them.” – Carey Nieuwhof