(This is the fourth article in a series on reaching city kids)
In early August our church throws a big party in its parking lot. There’s a stage with a good sound system, music, speakers, dancing. There’s free food and water. Civic organizations set up tables. There’s a bouncy house for kids, and a tent with a sign that says, “Free Pop if you Talk with us about Jesus for Three Minutes.”
I think the block party has done a lot to connect our church to people in the neighborhood who may not otherwise have come into the formidable stone edifice. We needed to get outside the building to show people that we cared about them.
Traditional church festivals are fund raisers, selling food and games to raise money for the church. But we wanted this party to exclude no one, including the 21 percent of our residents who live below the poverty level, so everything is free.
We also decided that we didn’t want it to be only about having fun; we wanted people to experience God’s love. Hence the “Jesus Tent,” with its offer of free pop for a brief conversation. We wanted to create a space where people would feel free to have conversations about faith. So we made our signs, filled coolers with drinks, set up chairs, prayed, and waited to see what would happen.
The results were delightful. People of all ages came and eagerly talked of their faith, their doubts, their grievances with the church, their needs for prayer, their testimonies of the goodness of God. Intense, personal conversations about spiritual things, which so rarely flow for most of us in the routine of our lives, flourished in a setting that simply gave permission. Sometimes, when people were willing, the conversations ended in prayer.
Lots of children came, so we have expanded our conversations to include activities such as reading a Bible story, or making a bracelet with beads that represent key truths of the gospel.
I recall meeting Shauna, and her son Shallum, new in town, the first year we put our signs out (We didn’t have a tent then, just a table.) They have been coming to church ever since. Shauna often helps out at our front desk, and Shallum brings more friends to youth group than any other kid. I can’t imagine our church without them.
Other encounters I will never forget:
The skeptical girl in her young teens who wanted to know how she could know that God is really there.
The boy, around 10, who told one of our high school volunteers that his mother had just died the week before. It was precious to see the older boy praying for strength and comfort for the younger boy.
The young woman in her 20s who wanted to stand strong in her faith and realized that this meant she was going to have to distance from some destructive friends. She accepted our prayers with hugs of gratitude.
The four siblings who responded to our invitation to come to church and have been showing up ever since, even though their parents don’t come.
I’m so glad we started the block party, to show our neighborhood that God’s people care about them whether they come to church or not. And I’m glad we have the ‘Jesus Tent’, unsophisticated though it may be, because it gives an open invitation for people to draw closer to God.