There are two kinds of people in our town: people who like the smell of church and people who don't. That is not to say that they are not open to Jesus, but their perception is that the church comes with pews and weird music. So our church's leadership has been exploring non-traditional types of Christian education by building faith community into other activities that don't smell like church.
Our inaugural effort was to come up with a way to creatively have a study using the Alpha Course (www.alphaUSA.com). The Alpha Course is designed to approach questions of faith in Christ in a non-threatening and non-religious manner. It uses testimony instead of guilt and open discussion instead of propositional theology. It also uses visual learning, by having the teachings readily packaged into a DVD series. We knew this was the right curriculum, but we also knew we needed some unique element to attract people to attend this course who would not consider attending church.
The spark for our idea finally came in the form of a group guitar class, free of charge and open to all who wanted to participate. There would also be a free meal at each lesson. Best of all, this would all take place not at our main church facility with the steeple, but at our main street, storefront location next to the laundromat. And it would not happen on Sunday mornings, but on Monday nights. We shaped and prayed over the concept until we recognized that it was most importantly an opportunity to invest love and care into people's lives by giving them our time and gifts. People could come and learn a musical instrument, have a free meal, meet other community members, and ask those hard questions of faith with no fear of judgment. We articulated that the mission was not to get people into church as a means to an end, but that the class itself was the end. To discuss Jesus with them and share our talents and food was already a success and a vision of God's kingdom.
Presenting the idea to our church body was a thing we expected would be more difficult than it turned out to be. After all, a guitar class Bible study was not on anybody's radar. The church, however, received it with joy and began to spread the idea by word of mouth. We ordered guitar picks to be printed with our church logo and contact information and gave them out to Sunday school classes to hand out during the week. Our first week came and only a few people showed up. It was a discouraging start, but we powered through together and got out our guitars in a circle and learned a few chords. We ate a buffet meal on paper plates and sat down to watch a video. Most of the attendees that first week were church members. It was fun enough, and a novel idea, but we thought maybe we had missed something.
Community movements happen slowly. But the course quickly picked up momentum and was regularly filled to capacity. Monday nights quickly became a huge source of encouragement. Half of the class was made up of church members and the other half was from the larger community, which is a great guideline for a non-traditional class. The church members who were a part of the class became much closer to each other and to me as their pastor in the process as well. The course ended after 10 weeks with a public performance of what the students had learned, and all were invited to Sunday morning worship to participate along with their families. Eighteen guitar students, ranging from 7 to 75 years old, gathered across our sanctuary platform and played their guitars as the congregation sang to God. Several people have been back, knowing that our church is willing to continue investing in them and loving them, but the one thing we have learned more than any other is that Christ can sometimes be communicated best by the church when it happens on Monday night around a box of pizza and several open guitar cases. I hope you are encouraged to look at your community honestly and see places where Jesus can intersect with people's lives, wherever they might be.
By Joseph Barrett, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Italy