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"Meet Your Mission Field"
by Tom Goodman
March 8, 2007

Each Thursday I post my article from "LeaderLines," an e-newsletter designed for church leaders.  If you want to subscribe to "LeaderLines," sign up here.

You should read "A Starbucks Conversation" in the latest issue of Outreach magazine.  You can find it online here.

In the article, Austin pastor John Burke sits down with six adults from your mission field.  As a pastor, he has a chance to share his Christian perspective with people every week, but in this Starbucks conversation, he simply asks questions and listens.  Burke is the author of a book that many of us have read at Hillcrest: No Perfect People Allowed: Creating A Come As You Are Culture in the Church .

Although the article was written for a national audience, all six of the adults in his conversation are from the neighborhoods that surround our church.  There's Jennifer (29), Lalit (33), Sree (35), Geno (28), James (40), and Lars (34).

As you "listen in" on John's conversation with the six, it should cause you to ask some questions.  What can you do personally, and what can our church do as a faith community, to capture Austin's attention long enough for them to seriously consider Christ?

I doubt the Hillcrest community is positioned to make much of an impact with Jennifer, who is Wiccan, and with Lalit and his wife, Sree, who were raised Hindu.  But I think God has prepared us to reach people like Geno, James, and Lars.

Lars grew up in Denmark, where he and his wife were nominally Lutheran.  They don't attend church here in Austin.  He said, "I try to be good all the time and respect people and things.  It's easy for me to say, 'I'm doing OK, I'm a good guy, a Christian guy.'  But I can see that there's more when I meet people who attend church and who think about Christianity and study the Bible.  So, there's probably an empty part of me that needs to be filled up with something more."

Geno grew up attending Catholic churches occasionally.  He said, "I didn't know too much about church.  It wasn't part of my lifestyle back then.  But all that changed in the past year.  I always believed there was something out there, a higher power, and I tried to read the Bible, but I couldn't relate my life to what it says.  It wasn't for me.  But in October of last year, I got back together with my baby's mama, and I guess I really started opening up when I got in some trouble.  I caught a felony case, and when I was locked up [chokes up], I knew I needed something in my life, some direction.  It's been a roller coaster, but now I'm open-minded and open to change, and I have all these good people in my life.  I see this light in people."

James was raised by a Pentecostal mom and a Baptist dad, "but they believed faith is something you have to find for yourself."  In San Antonio he became Catholic.  But, he said, "As I started to mature in my faith and tried to understand my own questions, I found the answers lacking from my spiritual leaders in the Catholic Church.  The questions I asked either couldn't be answered, or their answers were so sophomoric that I couldn't accept them.  So I went looking, visiting the Church of Christ and many others, and I'm still on that journey.  I go to service fairly regularly, but I go to different places because I don't have a church home."

Burke asked them about Jesus.  Sree and Lalit said, "Jesus is not a very different concept to us.  In many households in India, you'll find Jesus is part of the collection of gods."  Jennifer, is Wiccan but she said, "A lot of my friends are surprised when I tell them I pray to Jesus.  I'm an educator, and I pray to him regularly as a teacher, saying, How can you help me work with my students the way you worked with people?"

Then she added an interesting note:  "I wish I could read more about who he was," she said, "but not through the eyes of people who wrote stories about Him hundreds of years after he existed.  He sounds fantastic."  In fact, this lack of confidence in the Bible was expressed by others in the interview, too.  It seems that popular novels like The Da Vinci Code and the skepticism of popular scholars like Bart Ehrman have caused many people to doubt the Bible as a reliable record of Jesus' life and teaching.  How can we reverse that misunderstanding of the Bible?

In reply to John's question about their understanding of heaven and hell, I was struck by how all of the neighbors in the conversation agreed with the person who said:  "Right now it doesn't matter.  What I have is right now.  And so I need to do the best that I can with that.  One of my favorite musicians sings a song that says, 'Would you walk a righteous path without the promise of heaven, paradise streets paved in gold?'  I listen to that song all the time and ask myself, Would you walk that righteous path?  Why are you doing the things you do?"

Notice how the comment focuses on the here and now—and notice how a line from a popular song resonated with your neighbor.

It was encouraging to find that all six had generally positive impressions of Christians and churches.  Lalit said, "I often take for granted the service work that churches do, especially in Third World countries.  The amount of support they provide to the underprivileged is mind-boggling.  The concept of service in Hinduism doesn't exist really.  Everything is because of karma."

There was one negative comment about Christianity around the table.  None of them were comfortable with Christians insisting that our way is the only way to God.  "That doesn't make sense to me," Lalit said, "I have my own concept about the same thing."  Lars did offer a mitigating consideration:  "Once you get to know them [Christians] and pay attention to them, they're not really trying to force you to do anything; they're very happy and want to share it with you."  Lars is right, of course.  We can't quit communicating the exclusive claims of Christ, but we need to be attractive instead of offensive in how we communicate.

John's last question to the group may be the most relevant for us as a church:  "Fill in the blank: I would be more interested in exploring Christian faith or in checking out a church if ___________."  Here were their replies:

Sree:  If the church didn't say, "This is the only way."  And if they accepted you and listened to you as much as they told you about what Christianity is.  If there were that openness, I would just love to explore it.

Lars:  If it starts to smell like a product, I'm out of there.  Advertising, marketing, radio promotions—I understand you have to get the word out somehow, but if it starts to look like Starbucks, I'm gone [laughter].

Geno:  I want to check out a church when I see people being changed.  For instance, my friend Gina has been sober six years now, and she's an amazing woman.  When church people are God-conscious, they speak to a lot of sick people who are going through trouble in their lives.

James:  For me to be willing to explore a church, there has to be openness, and I have to feel that openness when I walk in.  I find that a lot of churches want a particular subset of people to come to their church.  Churches just need to have the right attitude and offer an inviting welcome to anyone.  Then, a homeless person or a CEO can come and feel like they are going to get some fulfillment.

Read "A Starbucks Conversation" at Outreachmagazine.com.  There is an extended conversation here, where you learn about their experience with spiritual reality in the past, and what were some of their "key questions" about Christianity that they wanted answered.

By the way, while the point of the interview was to let our neighbors do the talking, John shares his perspective, too.  Catch it in the following question:

I'm wondering what all of you think about grace.  What I've understood of karma is that it's kind of like the doctrine of sin.  Whatever you do, there are consequences that come back on you.  So in a similar way, Christians would say there's a way through the universe, and God ordered it that way, but we can go against God's will, and when we do that, there are consequences.  Jesus said, "What you reap, you will sow."  But there's also this overarching concept of God's grace.  If God were not merciful but only just, we would all receive justice, consequences for all that we do.  But there's this thing called grace, which He claims to have demonstrated in Christ, and there is forgiveness, a cleansing of our wrongs because He took them on Himself.  The point is being willing before God not only to receive his forgiveness, but also his leadership, because we need His power in order to change.  From your perspective, where does grace fit into the whole equation?

Excellent way to word the question!

In three weeks, I'm launching a small-group study of The Anchor Course.  It's a chance to build friendships around a weekly dinner, and a chance to build faith around a weekly discussion.  Last Fall, I took the entire church through this study, but it was originally designed for small-group conversation.  As my leadership-partners at Hillcrest, pray for this special outreach opportunity.

And if you're having your own "Starbucks Conversations" with seeking friends, look for ways to invite them to The Anchor Course!  More details in next week's Winning Ways!


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