Once a month I get together with Rob, the priest of the church my wife attends, and we talk about a wide range of topics. As it happens, one day we were discussing how the church could get their story out into the community. And their story is quite unique in a variety of ways, not the least of which is that they are the only church building that I know of that is open 24/7/365.
That's right...you can walk in any time sit down, pray, read the bible, sing songs, take a nap, stare into space, contemplate your navel or anything else you might be inclined to do. And while there are people around most times during the day, there is no one there at night to say 'no', 'stop that' or 'not in this place.'
Talk about faith!
Isn't that dangerous? After all, couldn't people just trash the place, steal things, destroy the bibles and hymnbooks, wreak havoc and commit mayhem?
It is a possibility, but it just doesn't seem to be as important as providing a place for people to come, be safe, warm and think about God if they are so inclined. The fact is my wife and I did that on several occasions before she started going there -- we even brought the dogs! And it was a place of spiritual refuge and peace for us during a very hard time.
Rob and I also talked about how the church doesn't have a bunch of staff-led ministries -- so typical in most churches and felt to be 'essential' to promoting the church. In fact, the 'staff' is basically just two people. All the ministries and activities are initiated and executed by folks in the gathering who have a passion for something and understand that they will have the opportunity and support to respond to that call in their lives. (Interestingly enough, contrary to clerical or pastoral stereotype, Rob sees himself, first and foremost, as called to be a catalyst for that opportunity and a co-laborer with those so called to serve.)
And while there is no formal 'youth' ministry, young people from the church initiate and engage in a variety of ministries and activities including outreach to the homeless, drought awareness and education programs, music ministries, etc. They come up with the ideas and then they get the support and encouragement from the church for what they are passionate about. The same goes for 'adult' ministries that include everything from small group dinners to a community garden, bible studies, the Million Meals program and other ministries born out of a passion to serve.
And then Rob shared a story with me about their yearly vacation bible camp. This is connected to a bunch of adult activities (Pam and I learned how to grow grapes and make wine there!) and called the All Age Summer Camp.
Anyway, the story...
Seems that a young woman, who does not actually attend the church regularly but brings her child to the Summer Camp, invited a friend to bring her kids as well. Seems the conversation went a little like this (with some journalistic license exercised):
The mom: "Why don't you and your kids come with us to the All Age Summer Camp this year?"
Friend: "When is it?"
The Mom: "It's the first week in June?"
Friend: "That sounds good, where is it?"
The Mom: "Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Fullerton."
Friend: "A church? Well I don't know..."
The Mom: "Oh I know what you mean, but it's not like that here..."
It's not like that here!
In other words, it's not like the typical church environment that has the connotation of being judgemental, scripted, programmed and staff-driven.
Nope...it is not like that here...
It's open -- literally.
It speaks to the need of hearts.
It embraces relationship and community.
It understands the value of conversation and dialog.
It provides opportunity to serve out of passion and love for Christ.
It's not limited or restricted by hierarchy and organizational conformity.
It's not addicted to glitzy websites, high production value, charismatic personalities or an ever-expanding social media presence.
It understands hiccups, false starts, failures and things not running like a well-oiled machine.
It could care less about what you have to offer, but all about who you are.
It's about striving to be a safe place where the worst about you can be known and you will be loved more in the telling, not less.
It's about learning Jesus, knowing Jesus, living Jesus.
"Church"...it's not like that here...
And no, it's not where God has called me to go...but oh that it was 'like this' everywhere!
Now may the God Who gives the power of patient endurance (steadfastness) and Who supplies encouragement, grant you to live in such mutual harmony and such full sympathy with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may [unanimously] with united hearts and one voice, praise and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (the Messiah). Welcome and receive [to your hearts] one another, then, even as Christ has welcomed and received you, for the glory of God. Romans 1:5-7