Today I sit at a bagel shop grading papers – papers by seminary students regarding ministry and leadership. All semester we have been wrestling with what it means to be “a church for the world.” We’ve looked at research, studied texts from various faith traditions, worshipped together in various forms, discussed our own experiences and presented our own ideas, engaged various theories, and reflected on ourselves as Christian public leaders. At the beginning of the semester we wrote simple definitions of church; at the end of the semester we have as many questions as answers. What does it means to be church in the 21st century?
As I read papers, there’s a buzz around me.
– There’s “the regulars” stopping in for their cup of coffee and breakfast bagel. They joke with the employees and head off to work or settle in to read the paper.
– There’s “the functional” crowd who stop by to grab a bite as they run errands or go about their daily routine. They don’t chat much or leave much of an impact as they come through.
– There are people, like me, “hanging out” working or studying. They grab a coffee or soda and quietly sit in a corner, immersed in their own world.
– Then there’s “the socials.” They’ve come to meet up. Some are friends, you can tell, and they quickly pick-up where their last conversation ended. Some are family, like the grandma having a morning treat with her grandkids, simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are college students, beginning their summer break by reconnecting after months or weeks apart. They stroll in closer to lunch and are sporting their favorite college sweatshirt.
– And today, due to the rain, some are “the outdoor workers.” Two or three groups made their way through, grabbing a snack as they wait out the weather. They chat as they hope for the weather to change, wondering how this will impact their work. One of these groups sat behind me and reminded me why we have to wrestle with being church today.
Here’s the scene. Three damp painters, all “younger” men, grab a bagel and a booth. A few minutes later, a young woman (not a painter) comes and joins them. I soon realize she’s married to one of the painters, the one who is probably the foreman or boss. Since there’s no rush, as it’s still raining, they just chat – sharing a bit about their life stories. One of the men shares how he’s moved around a lot, has family all around, and isn’t much into long-term relationships. Then he shares about his family. His father, who died when he was 10, was from a family of partiers. His mother’s family were church goers. They ask more questions and he acknowledges he didn’t go to church much, and in fact was not even baptized. Then, seeming out of nowhere, the couple talk about their day trip canoeing on Saturday. It’s with people from their church, and without missing a beat, they invite him along. And he says yes.
OK, so go figure – faith and life conversations happening right here in the bagel shop! Then three more crew members join them, as well as another young girl. And interesting enough, they continue this conversation. And, as the rain stops, one by one the painters leave. The two women remain, with the married woman seemingly “counseling” the other. Prayers, reading scripture and discerning how to live a life of faith the core of their conversation; it’s not in a cheesy way, but as an authentic expression of care and concern.
What does it mean to be church today? Perhaps it means hanging out in bagel shops. Getting to know the people who pass through and supporting those who stop and engage. Perhaps it’s reimaging our call from the outside in. Ministry is happening in the world. Intergenerational conversations, young adult community, friendly-faces offering encouragement for the day, space for connecting with old friends, and a place in the community to work. And maybe, just maybe, we too could be – should be – moving our conversation about faith and life into such public environments.