A strip mall…
A dive bar…
A city park…
An open field…
Christmas Day with 600 homeless…
I’ve seen church done in all of them.
Here’s the thing: Somewhere along the way, we lost our way. We confused bricks and mortar for flesh and blood. We invested more in stained glass than in broken souls. Traded poor people for poured concrete.
It doesn’t have to stay that way.
There is a movement happening. People are caring less about getting people in the pews and more about getting people out of them, and into the world. This movement is reminding people that often (though not always), the “Church” needs to get out of the “church.”
Small groups of people can make a difference. As Adam, one of the members of AfterHours, has said about us, “We make a lot of noise for such a small riot.”
AfterHours was founded on a business plan whose first sentence was two words: No building. It isn’t that buildings are “bad” — lots of good has been done in churches. It’s just that it is so easy to begin thinking of only the people inside its walls and forget about those outside.
Plus, THEY ARE EXPENSIVE AS HELL!
AfterHours is going on five years and we have never spent a penny on rent or mortgage. We’re proud of that. We have a salary of one and put some ads in the local alternative newspaper and bar toilet stalls. The rest? The rest goes back out to the poor in the form of boots and coats and gloves and hats and peanut butter and jelly. Lots of peanut butter and jelly.
Church is actually the community, the people. It is the work they do when they try to look, act and think like Christ in the world. To be like JC we don’t need kneelers and a chancel. We don’t need a steeple and center aisle. We need to DO. And when we do that, we can do church anywhere.
The word “church” comes from the Greek word ekkesia, which simply means “an assembly” or “called-out ones.” Most people who know me know I’m not big on the quoting of “chapter/verse.” I think it can be useful, but more often than not it just sounds pretentious and sanctimonious. Having said that, in Romans 16:5 it says, “… greet the church that is in their house.” Paul says “the church” in their house. He is not talking about a church building. He is talking about a body of followers. People have said AfterHours is “a new way to do church” and it’s “got an edge.” This “new, edgy church” is neither “new” nor “edgy.” Paul’s churches were doing it over 2,000 years ago!
And still, a lot of people don't refer to AfterHours as a church. Almost without question, people who go to other churches always, ALWAYS refer to AfterHours as a “ministry,” not a church. But the people who GO to AfterHours always refer to it as their church. To be fair, the work we do does lead itself to be called missionary work. (How sad. When we go out into the world and serve the poor, that has more in common with missionaries than the church. God’s heart is breaking.) I have even recently been called an urban missionary by one of my close colleagues. I’ll take it.
AfterHours is in five locations: two pubs, a Southern-style roadhouse, a half-century-old dive bar and a city park. The “form” of the gathering looks different in each — sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. What is always consistent is: 1) an action of serving the world (the way we think Jesus would), 2) words of compassion and encouragement, and 3) food, drink and laughter. I think JC is down with all of that. I think a lot of people who have never set foot in a church would be good with that, too.
We aren’t alone. Another example of proving that church can be done anywhere is The Land in Denver. The Rev. Stephanie Price is currently in the initial stages of The Land, a community where food, faith and farming come together as they explore their connection to all living things. They look deeper into what does that connection look like when it is intentionally practiced. In time, their idea of church will include an edible labyrinth and a cathedral greenhouse. Currently, they don’t even use a building to worship — they literally worship on “the land.” Again, the church IS the people.
We have to be willing to explore new ways, regardless of the cost to the institution. ELCA Bishop Mike Rhinehart has said, "The turnaround of the mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival.”
But can we?
Often we say we want to reach “them,” those that don’t go to church. “But,” we say, “we can’t lose …” and it begins. The music “we” enjoy, the liturgy “we” like, the prayers “we” know, the building “we” feel comfortable in. While this sounds like a slam, it isn’t. Change is hard. It’s like that Broadway show, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” We want new folks but often aren't willing to do the things what will make them comfortable and wanna come back. When they come back, the single most important element begins to fall into place: community.
Community is another name for church for us. They are one in the same; there is no difference for the folks at AfterHours.
When the common factor — the glue — is actual people … well, they are mobile! That is what allows us to change locations and move our band of rogue disciples to any location: taverns, parks, strip malls, pubs and dive bars.
We can set up in about 12 minutes: First, plug in the iPod; second, pull out the beer pitcher for donations and, last but not least, put the cross on the table. Done. Let’s have church!
Our “members” (we call them “regulars”) and our gatherings (we call them “Happy Hours”) are upbeat events. We don’t think that’s irreverent. If we are serving up good news, then we might as well be happy about it!
As I mentioned in my book Last Call, my friend Dave said it well: “Jerry, I don’t have anything against God; I just don’t like your delivery system.”
Folks we have to hear him and not just nod and PRETEND to hear him.
I think there is one thing that has to happen and if it doesn’t, it’s a deal breaker. As a bonus, it is something that Jesus ASKED US to do: Feed the poor, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty. I am convinced that if the faith communities of the future don't have a very, VERY visual service element, one that serves the world outside their walls, they WILL fail.
Most people, ESPECIALLY people who have been burned by the church, have a finely tuned BS antenna. They will sniff out the BS a mile away. If your words don't translate into noticeable acts of kindness and love out in the world, they will bounce. No. Question. We can preach and sing as pretty as we can, in the most gorgeous building ever built. It won’t matter. Unless people see how our beliefs FUNCTION, they will leave.
People have heard every good speech, every good choir, every good contemporary worship band. They KNOW the stories from the Bible; they want to start living them OUT.
It’s simple, just not easy.
And honestly, what do we know? We have done ONE church plant. But I truly feel like we’ve had some success. We have gone from gathering in one location to five locations in five years. We have gone from feeding the poor one day a week to seven days a week. We have strategic alliances with more than half a dozen churches and four corporate sponsors. We have handed out over 100,000 lunches to hungry, homeless people, along with over 500 winter coats and 600+ sleeping bags to our friends without homes. We have given communion to thousands and thousands of people who had no other way to receive that sacrament. We call that a win.
And at the core of that success is a group of rogue disciples trying to live like Jesus. The way we see it, regardless of whether we “win or lose,” the people of AfterHours have been living like Christ. That seems like a win to me.
Rev. Jerry Herships is a author, storyteller, love monger, spiritual entrepreneur, and founder of AfterHours, an experimental faith & action community based in Denver, Colorado. Jerry helps feeds 400-500 poor & homeless every week and does church in bars all over the city that they call Happy Hours. He loves bourbon and God. Read his new book, "Last Call: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus".