Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.
I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending. He and his wife work in law enforcement. He grew up religious but she did not. Neither one of them had attended a church in years. But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed. So he decided to give us a try. I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.
Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town. I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.” I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck. Their faith was brand new. They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident. As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge. I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.
Shortly after I got an email out of the blue. It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building. They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers. They grew up religious but had since walked away. Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism. Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene. She had read everything on Nazarene.org! I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.
Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town. She was young and had been an addict for the last decade. She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life. She needed a church. She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.
So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers. Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!
But I don’t feel like an evangelist. Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry. There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in. Instead I did something far more profound. I answered my phone and replied to emails.
So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians. Instead I have tried to listen. That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times. They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener. They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives. In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”
I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices. I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith. There are bible studies we could plug them into. There is money we could give. There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.
And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad. There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares. After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith. In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had. Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.
But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs. They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project. In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence. They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.
When I do that I think I am evangelizing. I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!” By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners. I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.
And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”
God is with us in our hospital beds.
God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.
God is with us when we start new business ventures.
God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.
God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.
God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.
God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.