All I asked was a simple question, but it stopped him right in his tracks:
“Well Mark, it really just comes down to asking yourself where are you spending your time?”
I didn’t realize it then but Mark went away from our conversation that day thinking about that question. And thinking and thinking and thinking…
Mark and I share office space together. He’s the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Peoria and I’m the headmaster of Aletheia, a classical Christian school. Due to proximity and our similar vocations, we always end up in conversations about theology, politics, and of course the joys and difficulties of working in ministry.
That day Mark had asked me a typical ministry check-up question: “So, how’s it going with you guys at Epiphany?” the little mission church plant in Peoria I lead music at with Father Greg Lynn through the Diocese of Quincy.
“Well, you know,” I said, “it’s a church plant. Things move slowly. We didn’t start with any funding. We’ve slowly built relationships, trying to be present in people’s lives. We feel called to the artistic community of Peoria as well as to people who don’t really have a place within church culture—God’s refugees, we call them.
I could tell Mark was intrigued. There was thinking behind his eyes. “Hmm…well…” he began, “we have a few Bradley students [our local university] who attend on Sunday but we’ve really been trying to figure out a way to reach out to others on campus. We’re wondering if there’s some way we can build a ministry there.
And that’s where I asked my question: “Well Mark, it really just comes down to asking yourself where are you spending your time?”
It wasn’t something I even thought about. It just popped out in the moment, a manifestation of a principle ingrained in me from over 2 years of working as a church planter, in building a community of Christ followers from the ground up. You see, I was someone who highly valued the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, and yet here I was having to be incredibly patient with people who had no idea what a “liturgy” even was, many of whom didn’t know where they even stood in their relationship with God. And so Greg and I, in our own way, spent lots of time building relational bridges, learning how to articulate and live out the Gospel before this group God was gathering in our midst.
At the time I had no idea I had impacted Pastor Mark to such a degree. It was months later, in a similar conversation, when he mentioned some of the things Living Waters had been doing lately: “Yeah, we’ve been spending a lot of time at a trailer park just up the road, knocking on doors seeing if anybody has any needs. Actually, it was you who really spurred this on for us. You really got me thinking.”
He was talking about me, but I didn’t know why. “What?” I said.
“Yeah, when you asked me “Where are you spending your time? Since then we’ve really tried to re-think how we do ministry.”
I hadn’t even remembered saying it to him, but he went on to tell me the ways he and his people are intentionally spending their time as a congregation:
- They have organized events tailored to the communities surrounding the church, specifically inviting families from the trailer park to their summer VBS, a drive-in movie night, and with plans in the future to have an after school program for children.
- They found their “Lydia” (Acts 16) who lives in the trailer park community herself, a woman who, along with her family, is devoted to ministering the Gospel in word and deed to her neighbors.
- Mark attends two weekly lunches, one with the Bradley students he mentioned in our conversation at a restaurant close to the campus as well as with a group of young professionals.
- Finally, he also intentionally tries to have lunches with people at Junction City, an upscale shopping mall just down the road from the church, attempting to make one of the cafes there his hangout spot, a place to enjoy fellowship and get to know those who work and frequent there.
But there are no easy fixes for getting people into his (or any) church. Mark realizes he is very much at the beginning of a long process of learning how to be present with the people in his community, to go and be where they already are. He realizes he is going to have to be faithful where he is at and watch God grow the Kingdom from there.
But he first had to be willing to ask himself one simple question…