“Are there other churches like yours?” a friend asked. “I mean multi-cultural, multi-race? I have not encountered any or heard of churches with such a wide mix?”
I had never thought about it. Certainly, I know of churches with two or three ethnic groups. But I don’t know any church with quite the spread that we have. Nor do I know of churches where people of so many different religions and cultures relate so easily together. We don’t have the full range of ethnicities by any means. I greatly regret the small number of Maori and Pacifica people but we do have people from most of the rest of the world.
How have we become like this? Two things come to mind. One is our lounge. The second is fish.
In the course of my work, I have visited large churches (congregations of 500 hundred and more) and one megachurch ( 3000 plus attending). Most, if not all of these have a coffee shop. But I have not seen anything like our large lounge area.
A few features combine to make the space unique. It is spacious, light and comfortable. The human environment is usually friendly and welcoming – as per our motto – ‘Reaching out and Welcoming in’. Tea and coffee are always available. Nowadays these refreshments are free.
We used to have a carved wooden representation of two outstretched, cupped hand with a sign ‘Donations’ fixed to it. I recently have taken this away. I think the only function the begging hands played was teaching people how to steal. Over a couple of years, I noted that any amount involving gold coins – $1 or $2 – seldom lasted the day. As a test of this ‘teaching to steal theory’, a friend put in a $5 note. It was gone within the hour. The last time I saw the begging hand in use it had in it three one-cent coins. These remained a few days.
However, the lounge has many life-giving benefits. In its relaxed atmosphere, toddlers play, colour and read in the children’s corner, mothers feed their babies and other adults talk, read or occupy themselves with their devices. Wi-Fi is free. To my mind, the best feature of the space is that we do not make any demands on anyone. The staff is around to help them but we do not ask for anything in return. Although many people do not understand me, I believe this is the Jesus’ way. This is an expression of the love of God.
This is quite different to the way megachurches understand contact with the spirit of God. In cavernous, windowless building, with multiple screens and theatre stage lighting and effects, they invite their audience to make a connection with the divine. In a recent visit, I couldn’t find any foyer space to sit and talk, other than their commercially managed coffee shop.
Some years ago, an old friend from another city asked to stay with us while she attended a growth and leadership conference. Each day she travelled into the huge venue where the conference was being held. There were close to 3000 delegates. Throughout the week our friend bubbled with enthusiasm as to as the inspiring leadership and the wonderful worship times. As she was preparing to leave I asked her had she made any friends at the conference. She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Yes. There was one person. On three days, I ate my lunch with the same woman”. “Will you keep in touch?” I asked. “No – we never exchanged our names” she replied.
I can’t imagine worshipping God without being touch in some way with the people around me. Jesus said, “Love one another”. Being connected to those around me and growing in relationships is a core component of my understanding of what it means to be in touch with Jesus. In my experience, the great benefit of conferences has been the networking and relationships formed with fellow delegates.
In the matter of ‘Reaching Out and Welcoming in’ the fish help greatly. Soon after our complex opened we were given a beautiful fish tank which had within it one large fish. The idea of installing a fish tank in our lounge never occurred to any of us. Soon after its arrival, it became apparent that we would have to engage professional help to care for this fish and the tank and that would cost money. To start us off one of our members donated enough money to care for the fish for six months. Now, it costs $140 per month to keep our tank stocked with interesting fish and the water clean. Would you like to help – sponsor the fish for 3 or 6 months? Talk to Betty Bullot 575 8571. Thank you.
The truth is that fish talk. They can speak Cantonese, Russian, French, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. And if someone arrives next week from Outer Mongolia, they will talk their language too. Fish talk to babies and toddlers, and grandparents. Newcomers from any culture or any religion who are not sure where to look can examine the fish and it visibly relaxes them.
Right now, our Sunday church services are in a bit of a slump. Sadly, we have lost through death some of our heroes in the faith. But, where are the younger ones? I wonder if our understanding of Christianity and church life suits the world in which we live? Maybe, today’s 30’s and 40’s and younger people, want to be anonymous in an excited “Britain’s Got Talent”, atmosphere, listening to preachers who never have any doubts. Maybe our meeting and greeting and working to create community is not what the younger generations want? It may not be what they want but I do believe it is what many of them, their teens and their children need.
Whatever, when feeling down I turn on the timing-light beside the fish tank and the brightly lit fish talk to me. They will talk to anyone who cares to listen. They are always beautiful and always positive. And they seem to calmly say, ‘Never give up!’ As I read the Bible and pray I hear Jesus saying the same thing.