Last Tuesday night was our second time gathering in a restaurant for a new "church." It is turning out to be a wonderful "marketplace" experience.
Jim and Marilyn, owners of the restaurant, wanted to begin meeting on Tuesday nights. The restaurant is closed that evening, they have a day off on Wednesday, so it was the perfect night for focusing on "spiritual food." They opened the small restaurant just over a year ago, and it is already well known in our Central Coast California town of Nipomo. From the beginning they viewed the restaurant as both a business and a calling. "When I'm serving and taking care of people, I'm showing them the love of Christ," Marilyn commented to me. They are very excited about now using the restaurant for a gathering station for friends, for the needy, for anyone in the community to come and receive.
So... last Tuesday night... about eight or nine of us were just getting seated in a circle when a woman walked in the door. She thought the restaurant was open. And why not? It's a restaurant, there are several cars parked in front, and the lights are on. So, she walked in looking for something to eat.
"Sorry," Marilyn went over to her, "the restaurant's closed, but you are welcome to join us for church." My first thought was, she would look over at this little group of people and wonder what in the world this is and what kind of people have church in a restaurant! But she surprised us. She looked over at us and suddenly burst into tears.
"I just lost my brother," she blurted out as she stood there sobbing.
We all went right into action... inviting her to come and sit with us for a moment. "What's your name?" "Shaney," she replied. "Tell us all about your brother." And for ten minutes, as she grieved, she told us about her 48-year-old brother who had just passed away unexpectedly.
We spent another ten minutes or so praying with her and for her. Several people prayed for her with wonderful empathy and insight. You could see God's comfort and presence envelop Shaney with a measure of peace in the midst of her trauma. She was obviously encountering God.
Marilyn, meanwhile, prepared her an incredible array of food (Shaney hadn't eaten all day). When we were finished praying, Shaney had to go but she was handed a large bag of ready-to-eat delicacies.
A few minutes later, as she stepped out the door, we didn't know whether we would see Shaney again or not, but we knew that she (and we) had had a divine encounter with the Kingdom of God. It was a wonderful and awesome feeling.
It's making me wonder if all of our simple church gatherings can't take place somewhere out in the marketplace. Coincidentally, I've been reading Reggie McNeal's book, The Present Future, in which he says:
Jesus' evangelism strategy directly challenged the Pharisees' approach. Instead of "Come and get it!" it was "Go get 'em!" Instead of withdrawing from people for fear of contamination, he ate with them...
Taking the gospel to the streets means we need a church where people are already hanging out. We need a church in every mall, every Wal-Mart supercenter, every Barnes and Noble.