She had a laptop computer with her and a big annotated Bible.
Not long after she settled in, she heard a man wearing a Muslim prayer cap yell this to her from the opposite corner of the courtyard: “Hey, is that a Bible?” A bit taken aback, she nonetheless yelled back, “Yes,” and then she watched as nervous people at other tables began to get up and leave, unsure what was about to transpire.
The Rev. Jan Edmiston, now on staff of the Presbytery of Chicago, continues this story about herself that she told to my congregation recently: “And this guy goes, ‘So are you a Christian?’” Yes, she replied. “So are you like a priest or something?” Yes, she replied, identifying herself as the pastor of an area Presbyterian church.
The man asked if he could talk with her. Sure, she said. It’s then she learned that “he was a Muslim guy who was divorced from a Jewish woman.” The man told Jan that he wanted to raise his children in a religiously devout family, but he wasn’t sure how to do that now that his married life had unraveled.
He said, “I’m just really lonely and I wonder if you would pray that I would find a Muslim wife.” That’s how Jan found herself “in this courtyard at Starbucks praying with a Muslim guy that he’d find a Muslim wife. And I was thinking, you know, if I were working at the seminary library on my sermon this never would have happened.”
Nor, of course, would it have happened had she stayed in her church office. But she was willing to make herself vulnerable by going out into the wounded world and listening to people who would share their needs with her. And even though she says she never looked for such conversations, they happened every single time she worked outside her office.
So what’s the point for the rest of us? It’s the same point that Jesus tried to make when he left the synagogues to preach, which is that the people who most need to hear about the in-breaking reign of God are outside the walls of the church.
And because Christendom is dying — and in many places already dead — we cannot expect simply to open the doors of our churches and see people with no experience of church come in to find out what we’re about.
We must seek them out. And that means being where we can find them.
But it’s hard to change our habits to accomplish this. We’ve spent a lot of money to develop our edifice complexes and now we’re reluctant to leave them. It would be so much handier if people would seek us out inside our steepled buildings.
If you want to know how that approach is working out for our churches, check our membership gains for the last dozen-plus years.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at [email protected]