Sunday, July 15, 2007

Thoughts on Being Present

Reconciler, the congregation I co-pastor with an Episcopal priest and an American Baptist pastor, this weekend had a booth at a neighborhood street festival near our neighborhood in Chicago. We chose to keep things simple: bring the icon of Christ we always have at the altar and the processional cross we use, printed a small brochure and stickers to hand out from our booth. My thought was that with a large icon of Christ that some people would probably stop at our booth and if so we'd give them the brochure and/or a sticker. As my wife and I entered the festival to staff the booth it occurred to me how strange such an approach is. There were other churches with booths, one was giving out bottles of water, another had people walking the festival handing out "coupons" for free trail mix and was giving out Trail mix. The catholics were selling Rosaries, and a third Church (I heard I did not see this with my own eyes) had a clown and was taking peoples pictures. For a moment the thought entered my head that there is no way our icon and low key approach could compete with these various obvious tactics of the other churches. But I corrected myself, we are not here to compete, but to be present to the community at this festival. Sure we hope that some people might come from being present but mainly in my mind we were there to be present, to be visible to meet those who would be interested in doing so.

However, sometimes congregations and individuals in congregations take an idea and run with it in ways one would not do it as the pastor. So in fact some of the congregation and one of my co-pastors was a bit more active in approaching people to hand out fliers. Which I think ended up being a good balance to my approach, which was to basically sit at the table in the booth and as people passed if they met my eyes to simply offer a greeting and let them pass unless they hesitated or clearly stopped or gave other indication in being interested in engaging me and what the icon or church's booth was about.

Many people would see the icon or church sign and then advert their gaze or move to pass on the other side. And many of these though appeared to be interested in the icon and would after they had passed the booth take a furtive glance back at the icon. But people did also stop, and talk with us and voluntarily take the stickers and brochure explaning our congregations.

As the day passed yesterday it seemed that some people were intrigued by or pretty much straight forward approach of basically being present without another draw or hook to get people to come to our booth. By the end of the day we actually began to have people come up to the booth and ask "So what is this all about!"

In a sense my experience confirmed for me that Christians and churches should be more about simply being present in the midst of the communities, sure sometimes doing things or helping if they can with needs in the community, but really there is little place for gimmicks hooks and the whole industry of image production for the purposes of attracting people.

I met some wonderful and weired people and people with rough edges, and some "normal". They all seemed to be appreciative that I talked with them and listened to them and simply gave them a brochure and only answered their questions about the church. I think I would argue that it was worth it for our church to have spent the time effort and money to be at the festival even if we don't get a single new attending in the near future. It was worth it to see the look on the faces of people who stepped in to our booth appreciative and thankful that I had just spent some time talking with them, without any other string or expectation. I think we were able to show the love of God to people who could only hear it in a simple conversation between strangers.