By CJ Casciotta
June 28, 2012
CJ Casciotta loves helping people and organizations connect to the story they are becoming. He is the creative director of Create Culture and the founder of SOUNDS LIKE A MOVEMENT, a non-profit that empowers people to engage their local communities.
If you haven’t heard the following discussion from someone in your Christian community already, You've probably either been hiding under a rock for the past ten years, or you haven't darkened the door of many a church in that same time period:
“Hey, I have this incredibly unique idea! Let’s open up a coffee shop in town and minister to people in it. The proceeds from the coffee shop can even go to support our church!”
It seems everyone’s idea of authentic community involves some social business venture like this one. I’ve heard a variation of this idea from at least 20 different people in the past year alone. And I’ll admit, I’ve thought long and hard about doing it myself.
It’s not a bad idea. The problem is, starting a business—especially in the restaurant industry—is an incredibly expensive, risky and all-consuming venture. Besides the heavy start-up costs, it can also take years to generate any kind of profit before being able to give proceeds away. Many dream about this idea, but I haven’t met anyone willing to spend the time and money to put it into action.
In an increasingly digital culture, we need to reclaim, reinvent and reprioritize physical spaces where human interaction can thrive.
I believe at its core, our Christian culture knows this. Learning to prioritize the act of loving our neighbors has become central to our Church conversations over the past few years, but many of these discussions spend their time collecting so high above the atmosphere that they never quite liquidize down to Earth. This is usually due to a greater emphasis on the skin than the bones—a choice to communicate and brand the vision only once it's perfected rather than begin the process by calling it what it is: a process.
In other words, we tend to over-think and over-structuralize what was meant to be simple, natural and disheveled, thus increasing the chasm between heart and action.
Allow me, therefore, to present a skeleton for community engagement and natural evangelism that’s been working for us in our own community. We set out to build community around three rhythms we saw Jesus use throughout the Gospels—rhythms that act as natural entry points into authentic relationship, which is the kind of relationship that leads to genuine discipleship. And we didn’t need to start a coffee shop to do it. We used the spaces readily available to us—for example, our small home. In fact, these rhythms are simple enough you can begin implementing them today.
Rhythm 1: Storytelling
Creative storytelling is intrinsic to our human wiring. All of creation is one giant narrative that points to a wildly creative God. All throughout history, people have gathered around, communicated, and passed down stories told through paintings, sculptures, symphonies, poetry—the list goes on and on. Jesus, perhaps the greatest storyteller of all, often taught using stories, and they were stories the common person could relate to, utterly profound in their simplicity and accessibility.
This brings us to two basic truths about all humans: Everyone wants to hear a good story, and everyone wants to share a good story.
Creative storytelling, whether it’s music, art, film, or poetry, has proven to be a natural conduit for us to enter into relationship with people in our community. We began opening up our home and partnering with the pub down the street to create simple, routine events—spaces for people to share their stories and talents through music and other art forms and to practice being honest and vulnerable with their God-given gifts (even if they don't realize He is the source of them yet). What resulted was a natural and effective way to unlock some of the deepest parts of people's souls while giving them an opportunity to step into a community that values what they have to share.
We tend to over-think and over-structuralize what was meant to be simple, natural and disheveled.
Another thing we discovered is that it's a million times more natural to invite someone to a house concert, pub or coffee house show than it is to invite them to your "small group" (which, to the average non-believer, sounds like a support club for little people) and yet, through the invitation of the Holy Spirit, deep transparent spiritual conversations still transpire there. It just takes a little while. Sometimes I think we as Christians skip right to the intense parts without wanting to take the journey. People's stories are messy, complex and personal. We need to pause and give them time to be told, sung and visualized before we can embark on healing them.
Rhythm 2: Food
Every event we put on includes some kind of good food and drink. It may sound simple, but in actuality, food is deeply profound. Read through the New Testament; everyone is either eating or talking about eating! What was one of the last things Jesus did with His friends before He went to the cross? He ate and drank with them.
I wonder if the early Church understood the concept of "communion” more than our modern churches do. The early Church had this recurring, giant, all-inclusive meal they called the agape meal, or common meal, that eventually climaxed in the sharing of bread and wine, symbolizing the story of Jesus' life and resurrection. It didn't matter if you were poor, rich, new in town, sick or healthy, the intention behind it was for everyone to come to the common table as equals in the Father's eyes to laugh with each other, eat with each other, drink with each other and share stories with each other. It was all part of one big celebration of who Jesus was and what Jesus did.
The early Church seemed to relish the concept that good food and drink gathers people naturally.
In today’s Church, however, we’ve thought of everything from what kind of plates to serve our bread and juice on, to what fonts should adorn our Christmas pageant invitations, to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, and yet we haven’t spent enough time developing a discipleship culture that isn't scared to simply knock on the door of a neighbor and invite them over for dinner! We don't need any more programs or multi-level growth strategies. We need to re-teach people how to operate in real life, how to love the people they pass by every day, and how to stop using phrases like "I'm just waiting for God to open a door" and start knocking on some instead. If a church poured 100 percent of its efforts into discipling its people so they’re empowered to disciple other people, the result wouldn't be addition, it would be multiplication!
The early Church seemed to relish the concept that good food and drink gathers people naturally.
Rhythm 3: Mission
People love to gather around a mission or cause they believe in. It's another one of those organic collectors of human beings.
Many of these little neighborhood gatherings we put on include some kind of cause people can tangibly participate in. As a guideline, we try to partner with causes that are local, connected to people in our own backyard. As with most causes, needs are vast and oftentimes overwhelming. We try and focus on realistic ways neighbors can contribute tangibly, recognizing that even the smallest effort, when combined with others, can create a significant impact.
For example, at a recent event, we asked people to bring a new school supply item to give to the Friendly Center. The Friendly Center is a local non-profit in our city that tutors homeless and at-risk kids. I found them by doing a Google search for local non-profits. When I called and asked how we could help them, they told us that school supplies were their most immediate and under-resourced need. At our next event, we interviewed one of their staff members and asked him to share a few stories of impact and a few other ways people could get connected with the cause if they were interested. At the end of the night, we were able to hand him a big suitcase full of new school supplies for kids living in low-income households throughout our city—the sum total of many micro-contributions.
Contexts for Relationship
These rhythms aren't just natural ways to bring people together. They're excellent at doing that, but that, in and of itself, does not make them spiritual. Much more than that, they're values that Jesus held and used during His ministry on Earth. Jesus went around telling stories, feeding the hungry and bringing justice to the oppressed. When we make it a core value to bring healing and restoration to the needs in our community, even if in a small way, we are mirroring the heart of Jesus and, to paraphrase St. Francis, that kind action is what gets people talking, asking questions and wondering where our motives come from.
It’s also worth noting that the heart behind these gatherings is not and should never be a bait-and-switch, which is what many modern church-related invitations sound like and is a tactic most of your neighbors can smell miles away. These rhythms are simply opportunities for people to get to know one another, to share stories with each other, to learn how to love each other. My friend brilliantly calls these kinds of gatherings “contexts for relationship.”
There is no expectation at these gatherings that someone will bring up the name of Jesus, that prayer will break out or that a worship song will be sung. There is, however, an elemental trust that the Holy Spirit, whose clock and calendar is often foreign to ours, will work as He sees fit, as people experience the heartbeat of Jesus laden throughout everything we do.