Church Where The People Are
It seems to me quite often that on a weekend when our churches congregate we are often far away from where the masses of people gather. There may be a few exceptions with respects to large churches that attract congregations in the thousands but for most churches the truth is that the crowd is elsewhere.
There’s nothing wrong with this as we fully expect that the numbers of people on the ‘narrow road’ are smaller in number than the opposite. Churches are not places of popular appeal, because the Gospel isn’t always to popular appeal.
It is, from an evangelistic point of view, worth thinking about for churches (at least for specific times) to be located where the people are. On a recent visit to the USA I encountered a few positive examples of this.
Church On The Beach – Long Beach, New York.
The boardwalk of Long Beach is a magnet for people of New York in summer. Thousands make their way to the small sliver of island off the coast of Long Island to take in the golden sands, refreshing water and long boardwalk. On a Sunday night at sunset the beach and boardwalk is teeming with people. St Mary’s of the Isle church has made the decision to take their services away from their church building and go to where the people are.
A sunset beach service is held in the summer months on the beach. Locals and people from further afield bring along their own chairs to participate in the service. Interested onlookers watch from varying distances either on the beach or from the relative safety of the boardwalk. My assumption is that many participating in the service are committed believers but many onlookers may not be. For some it’s a strengthening of belief and an opportunity for worship, whilst for others it may well be an evangelistic experience.
Mission On The Beach – Waikiki, Hawaii
The golden beaches of Waikiki on Oahu island in Hawaii draw thousands from around the world. Apart from a resident population of 32 000 there are an estimated 30 000 visitors a night on the 3km beach suburb strip. Since 1970 a ministry called Waikiki Beach Chaplaincy has been conducting church services on Waikiki beach as well as other forms of ministry to visitors from around the world.
Their mission is to “take the living Gospel to where people are and proclaiming Christ to the nations since 1970: on the beach, in the hotels and entertainment areas where people gather, to the streets and byways where people may trek, into residential complexes where life is lived out and visiting institutions where life is shut out.”
Church In The Theatre – Manhattan, New York
There are over 50 million visitors to New York each year. The population of Manhattan (including visitors) over a 24 hour period is estimated at 3,940,000. Approximately 330 000 people pass through Times Square daily and the key major attraction there is the Theatre District. A visit to Manahattan is not complete without taking in a visit to at least one show on Broadway. This is exactly where a well-known church has decided to set up. Hillsong New York is in the heart of the theatre district and has been making waves.
The New York Daily News writes “Hillsong NYC is attracting more than 6,000 young, attractive urbanites every Sunday with a simple approach to religion: A hot pastor covered in tattoos gets onstage to a rock introduction to preach an anti-Kennedy gospel: Ask not what you can do for God — ask what God can do for you.”
I’m by no means young or attractive but I am an urbanite, and it’s the only church I’ve ever had to line up for. I attended the mid morning Sunday service and was advised to arrive early enough to get a good seat. Stewards worked the line outside greeting and high-fiving people on the way in. The words ‘Welcome Home’ were prominently displayed in the venue. I was personally greeted about five times before I was shown to a seat, and before long the theatre filled up.
There are plenty of issues that are thrown up by Hillsong as a church, but from a purely missional perspective I was very impressed by my whole experience. If you want to be where the people are at, especially people from around the world, look no further than the human crossroads that is Times Square or the theatre district.
Evangelism In The Square – Times Square, New York
Louis Palua certainly knows the power of being in the crowd. In a summer outreach called Hope In The City he staged an event in Times Square as well as Central Park, attracting thousands of New Yorkers and also visitors from around the world. Local churches supported the event with volunteers fanning out amongst onlookers providing information and invitations to explore further.
I watched as the stage was set up from early morning in Times Square and as curiosity built. Many thousands were exposed to the Gospel through the music and the speaking. Large scale evangelistic events do not enjoy the same level of support within the church anymore or arguably the same levels of impact as before. However, you cannot accuse Louis Palau’s organisation of not being where the people are, to be found in their thousands.
Church In The Tropics
I was blessed enough to pastor a church in the tropics, where every sunset was glorious. People travel from all over the world to witness the glorious dry season sunsets, bbq’s on the beach and the relaxed tropical vibe. One Sunday I had a rostered weekend off and was invited to join a church family on the cliffs overlooking the Timor sea.
On that night I finally worked out where all the locals were in thousands when I was shut up inside our air-conditioned church some kilometres away every Sunday night. The penny dropped. When the locals gathered I headed off in the opposite direction. I investigated options to explore what being a church in the tropics meant but in the end there was no way I was going to be able to do anything other than run our evening service. There was of course that thorny matter of missing out on a second offering, as well as other considerations like shift workers who couldn’t make the morning service. It was easier to hold our services where we met, rather than where the people were. They of course (if we invited them and were successful) could always come to us.
Go To Them Church
Doing church where the crowds are is filled with complexity and potential issues. It’s hard to experience intimacy in worship in a public place and we can’t always control how people interact with us. ‘Come to us’ is much easier than ‘go to them’ when it comes to doing church. A few weeks ago when I discovered the beach church in Long Beach, New York I was reminded of my time in the tropics and my failure to fully explore what church in the tropics could be with a ‘go to them’ approach.
For those who pressed in close it seemed like beach church was a completely normalised experience for them. For those on the edges they got to at least sample what goes on in a worship service – something millions are reluctant to do for a range of reasons.
Every church has its unique context, and within that context there are places where people gather. These places represent opportunities for the church to be visible. It may not be in the form of a church service, but where relevant its something worth thinking about.
Most of our presence as a church in our local context is through incarnational ministry, and so it should be. It would however be great for the people in our context to see the church in action through its believers living out their faith as well as seeing us as a gathered community.
So where are the people to be found in your context and are you there?
Stan Fetting, Crossover Operations Manager