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Outside the box: where else should church happen?

Patrick Voo was previously an associate pastor at Trinity, Oro, Ont. Norm Grant held a similar position at Lakeshore St. Andrew's, near Windsor, Ont. Together they have several decades of experience sharing the Good News inside and outside church walls. In conversational style they discuss their experiences and ideas.

NORM: Patrick, you recently founded something called The Republic. What is it, and what does it mean to you and to the greater community, and why do you do it?

PATRICK: Our operational mantra has been that "The Republic is a home for the creative refugee. An outpost for the world-changer. A breeding ground for would-be heroes." Practically speaking, it serves as a platform to help local artists (musicians, painters, poets, photographers, and more) explore and showcase their talents while partnering with organizations that we believe are helping make the world human again (locally or globally). It should feel like a place where people can risk expressing the creative spirit inside of them--which is a reflection of the image of God; it should feel like a safe place for friends and acquaintances to think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy; and it should feel like a place where people are mobilized to turn the attention of their lives toward others who need it.

How about you, though; where is your ministry headed?

NORM: It [is] very apparent that Jesus challenged the status quo wherever he went. He challenged the establishment ... not only within the church but also in the communities outside of the church and, he taught his followers to do the exact same thing.

Secondly, his ways of reaching and teaching people were definitely outside of the norm, if you will ... they were outside of the box and he had this way of creating a bridge for people to encounter his love for them.

The overwhelming majority of Jesus' encounters occurred outside of the Temple. They didn't happen within the physical structure of the Temple. Jesus and his disciples went to where the lost and hurting were living and hanging out and they created ministry opportunities in ways people had never seen before. This epiphany challenged my definition of what ministry means and how we do it.

I think every believer will agree that an encounter with Jesus Christ changes lives.

PATRICK: People have asked me "so how many people have you seen converted?" or, "do you end up directing a lot of people to churches?" I believe that The Republic serves to move people along a continuum in their spiritual journeys.

I've managed to build some real, decent relationships with our contributors--simply because there's value in investing in the lives of others. I recall talking with one woman who felt compelled to step into our culture pub even though she was on her way to dinner. She'd heard the music playing through the open windows and was moved to join us--and stayed, expressing that if no one else were around she felt that she'd have been crying because of how beautiful the music and space were to her. Another time I sat with someone who happened to be waiting for a friend to arrive, unaware that we were hosting a culture pub that evening. We exchanged pleasantries, and then almost immediately started into a conversation about her brother who had attempted suicide. I didn't set up any kind of counselling sign--but it reinforced for me that our strategy of setting the table for meaningful conversations was working, by God's grace. I'd call that ministry.

NORM: God gave me a gift of being able to serve a wonderful congregation at Lakeshore St. Andrew's. During my time there, we embarked on the "40 Days of Community." It calls for the church to put together opening and closing parties to kick-off and end with a celebration of what God has done during the 40 days. In our prayer and preparation for this campaign, we felt the Holy Spirit saying to us that we should go outside the status quo and take the funds allocated for these two celebrations and give the money away to each of the small groups who were participating in the 40 days of community. The only instructions given were to seek God's direction at how He wanted these financial seeds to be planted in the community, and the results were amazing!

In one situation, a couple of small groups Joined together to turn a one-acre parcel of land into a garden with the understanding that all of the produce would go toward the local food banks. These groups gathered together on a weekly basis for several months to tend the garden and have some fellowship and prayer time together as well. Now the seeds planted here didn't stop bearing fruit, they multiplied. Last year, Lakeshore decided they were going to use a good portion of their vacant land around their building and turn it into a garden ... a garden of hope. The congregation planted a huge garden which became a point of conversation throughout the greater community and city. All proceeds from this garden went to the local food banks, and people in the community were starting to see a move of God. Now, a couple of businesses in the city have challenged each other with the same concept; there's competition between two locations to see who can grow more produce.

In another situation, a couple of small groups decided to help a couple who had come upon tough times. They decided to do some renovations to their house, as it was in bad need of repair.

Most recently, God opened up a door to work with a couple of churches from other denominations. A local youth shelter is in desperate need of new facilities, so we're working towards creating a bridge where the greater community will be invited to participate in doing something that has direct impact within their community. Our hope and prayer is that through this experience some of the unbelievable who will have participated in this activity will have an encounter with Jesus Christ and his church and they in turn will want more of him.

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So, we know going outside the church has great benefits, but in your own experience, what do you think is the biggest issue that holds people back from trying something that's out of the box?

PATRICK: Control issues.

Oversimplified? Maybe. True? I definitely believe so.

Fear of or resistance to change is something that I think can be boiled down to the desire to keep a handle on things. When situations go into flux, we're leaving the known for the unknown. The funny thing is that we were never really in control in the first place.

One of my favourite passages in the scriptures is Hebrews 11--a roll call of some of the heroes (and one or two unlikelies) of early human history. It would be easy to paint them with the broad brushstroke of certainty; that they puffed out their chests and strode confidently into uncharted territory. But I'm inclined to think that it's closer to the truth that they lived their lives with their hands stretched out in front, feeling around for the things they might bump into. That's what gives them this place in posterity--"This trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see." (Hebrews 11:1)

NORM: I agree that control is definitely something we all wrestle with, especially when God is calling us to step outside of our comfort zone. I talk about this in my book--You Want Me to ... WHAT? Risking Life Change to Answer God's Call--where we need to become aware of the routine of comfort and how it can dull our senses to the promptings of the Holy Spirit so much so that we end up missing out in participating in an encounter where lives are touched and changed by the love of Jesus Christ.

There was a question that was asked at a recent workshop that surprised me: whether one could do these types of ministries and still stay Presbyterian. I wonder how Jesus and his disciples would answer that?

God has a dream and a story waiting for each of us to uncover.

Our individual stories weave into a much larger story of risk, faith and adventure than we could ever imagine. What would it look like if each one of us could take a blank piece of paper and draw the dream that God has planted inside of us? Would the piece of paper be big enough? Would our individual dreams be God-sized? Would we dream big enough so that there's room for God to participate in it with us or would we keep it small and neat and tidy with lots of unused area on the paper?

PATRICK: Can you be outside-of-the-box and still be Presbyterian? Well, that depends on how you want to use the category of Presbyterian, doesn't it? If we're talking about steadfastly holding onto traditions that distinguish us as a brand of Christian subculture--whether it be our selection of music, or clergy attire, or specific calendar observances--then we've probably answered our own question. I don't want to diminish the value of those traditions which have served us well in terms of advancing the gospel in their own times. But that's exactly why they were adopted in the first place--to serve the cause of advancing the Kingdom.

In my opinion, outside-of the-box is not about doing different for the sake of doing different. It's understanding that God is not confined to anyone's box, and that ministry of value and faithfulness can be and is being carried out in ways that challenge the status quo. The key to the ongoing fruitfulness of the Presbyterian Church--and of the living impact of Christianity as a spiritual movement at all--is to be initiators of paradigm shifts. We seek to do ministry differently because Jesus is still alive, still on mission, and still working in and through the world to change it.

And he still calls us to step out to follow him.

Follow Patrick Voo at voodoolou.blogspot.com and wearetherepublic.org. He can be reached atpatrick@wearetherepublic.org. Follow Norm Grant at normgrantministries.com. He can be reached at ifechangeOnorrngrantrninistries.com.
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Author:Voo, Patrick
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
Words:1731
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