“You’re not going to preach on the sidewalk, are you?”
I was huffing and sweating to move four cinder blocks from the back of our empty-shell-of-a-dream-come-true out to the curb when my new next-door neighbor to the north hit me point blank. What was, to me, a makeshift seat and table for an outdoor lunch, looked to her like a soapbox. When you decide to plant a storefront church, you are simultaneously deciding to be very cozy with your neighbors. This one was a staple of the downtown community… in a real estate sense. She and her husband run an antique store; one of only a handful of businesses to have survived the dark and vacant days of downtown Springfield. Now they are barely given a second glance by the neighborhood’s primary demographic. She is likely in her 60s, and although this may be an unfair generalization, a faithful church-goer. I can hardly imagine that she isn’t. She followed up her confrontation by informing me that sidewalk preachers are bad for business. I would share her concern… anybody deciding to climb four cinder blocks and preach in front of our place might get a quick (although undoubtedly less blunt) confrontation. But the disturbing fact is, all our neighbor knew is that we were starting a church next door. Other than that, we were still perfect strangers. Her first question to get to know us better? You’ve just read it.
“My girlfriend will be there every day.”
Only once have I personally set foot in what’s likely the most popular venue in downtown Springfield… and it was closed at the time. Our neighbor to the south shares little in common with our neighbor to the north. He runs a dualing-piano comedy bar, well-known for filling the sidewalk with lines of partiers waiting to stumble out hours later to catch a cab (hopefully.) What happens in-between, from most reports, is a profanity-fest of two comedic musicians sitting at keyboards thinly disguised as grand pianos. Despite its reputation, I had been planning to check it out sometime. But here I was, early in the afternoon, chatting casually with the club owner. The place was quiet and classy. The hard liquor was resting patiently on the shelves as a flooring contractor worked quietly behind me. I had stopped by briefly to introduce myself, and said we were starting an alternative church next door that would be open pretty much every day for all types of people to just come and build friendships. He asked me to sit down. After hearing a little more, he assured me that his girlfriend’s interest was inevitable. When I told him about the website, he invited me up to his office to show it to him. As I said, our neighbor to the south shares little in common with our neighbor to the north.
“How do we know you won’t turn the whole thing Charismatic?”
Over the course of the last year, we have made significant attempts to affiliate ourselves with a major Christian denomination. We wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing unless we felt confident that our freedom to work as the Spirit directed would not be inhibited, and were certain of a mutual understanding that church-as-usual had no place in reaching out to downtown Springfield. But it is due to roadblocks represented by the above quote that the aforementioned course has been year-long. Our confidence is beginning to erode in our prospects of affiliating because, no matter how open-minded a denomination, there are certain to be remnants of territoriality contaminating the waters. Granted, the question in question was not uttered by a single person. It is rather a composite of concerns and complaints uttered by those who couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of simple kingdom work, of cultural relevance or relational mission. They wanted to know how on earth our new converts would be funneled into the membership of the “mother” church. They wanted to know if we would hold the party line. And they wanted to know, next time I talked to them, if I could give them some numbers. Allow me to introduce you to our philosophical neighbors to the north.
“I just don’t want you to turn conservative.”
A comforting phrase at the end of a stinging rebuke, I took the word “conservative” at its most literal meaning. The friend who uttered this admonition was not concerned about politics or fashion. He was worried that I might recoil from the extravagant call of Christ to leave everything behind and follow Him. He didn’t want me to conserve my life. He views almost every church he know as just that… a wildlife conservation (although the “wild” part is absent and the “life” part is questionable.) Churches to him had become nothing more than a place to protect the light from the gathering darkness. A refuge. It is hard not to notice the physical distance between the walls of our churches and the walls of their nearest neighbors, not to mention the thousands of municipal ordinances brought about by church lawsuits to keep the “worst” sinners far away. My friend’s words were a comfort to me because I knew that, after spending several weeks with our fellowship, if he wanted to lump us in with the conservationists, he wouldn’t have said another word to me. But apparently, despite our warts, he sees something different.
I can only hope so.