Reaching Out in the City
by J. Elise Brown
Intentional outreach in the big city involves the entire congregation. It means expecting and greeting visitors and listening carefully to what they say, particularly young people and strangers, as Martin Luther himself advised.
There is no greater example of an evangelist in our Lutheran tradition than Martin Luther himself. Luther believed that both the Scriptures and liturgy of the Mass should be translated into the language of the people. He also believed that worship should be geared toward two sets of people: the young and those who are strangers to the faith and are learning it.1
Each of these convictions points to the crucial need that worship, indeed the gospel itself, be made accessible to every person, regardless of their religious background or previous exposure to the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. By prying open the hermetically sealed tradition that removed the laity from personal involvement with Word and Sacrament, Luther embodied the verbal understanding of euaggelion. The gospel is to be “gospelled.” It is active. And to be “gospelled,” the gospel must be made accessible to human beings.
Young People and Strangers
Our congregation, Advent Lutheran Church, is located in the heart of the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. We are right on Broadway at 93rd Street. An express subway stop is located a few steps from our front door.
Every day of the week, “strangers” walk through our doors looking for a word of hope or an image that points to something greater than themselves. Some are art enthusiasts who come to marvel at the beautiful Tiffany windows and altar that grace our sanctuary. Others are merely curious, wondering how old the church is, who comes here (only Germans? some ask), and what do we do behind these red doors. Some are tourists. But many are true seekers who make the decision to walk up our 24-step entrance because they want to experience the Divine. These are the strangers and young people about whom Luther speaks and whom Luther devoted his entire ministry attempting to reach.
|Every day of the week, “strangers” walk through our doors looking for a word of hope or an image that points to something greater than themselves.|
At Advent, we teach evangelism 25 percent through words and 75 percent through actions. I preach regularly on the importance of reaching out to the newcomer. I regularly conclude our Sunday worship services by asking members to look around themselves before the dismissal, locate a new person they have not met before, and share a word of welcome. We often shake up the coffee hour by asking people to leave their regular table with their regular coffee-hour compatriots and sit down next to some new folks. I take every opportunity to connect the Gospel texts to outreach and evangelism. Once in a while we have an evangelism component in our adult education series.
But, truly, the far greater way we teach evangelism is through our actions toward the strangers and young people who regularly come to our church. The strangers keep us honest. Their questions remind us that fewer and fewer folks in our community come from church backgrounds. When we announced that the color of an upcoming festival Sunday was red, a newcomer asked if everyone must wear red to come to church that day. “I don’t have that many red clothes,” she said to me. When another newcomer asks “Why do we say that Jesus is the only Son of God? Aren’t we all sons and daughters of God?” we are given the opportunity to make the gospel accessible to him in the midst of his questions. These are gentle reminders of why we exist — not for ourselves but for the stranger and young person.
As the pastor of the church, I make it a point to always locate the new folks and personally speak to them. I model this behavior, and, very gradually, the leaders of our church have begun to do the same. On the Sundays when I am not preaching, my primary task is to scan the congregation and locate the visitors in the pews. I position myself near the main doors and invite them to fill out visitor cards, if they wish. I introduce newcomers to members of the congregation, always trying to find some commonality that will establish a meaningful connection for them.
We do not embark upon this task too aggressively at Advent. Many folks desire to be anonymous and have moved to New York City for that express purpose. But others desire to be connected to a community that cares and is trying to make a difference in the world. The gospel of Jesus is the connector that brings a wide variety of individuals together who might never otherwise meet in this large city.
We have found that many people do not respond to gimmicks or outreach programs that get too personal too quickly. For example, I have heard of churches in other parts of the country that deliver fresh loaves of bread to the front doors of those who visited their church that Sunday. While this is a great, creative, and personal idea, such approaches do not work in New York City.
We also have found that spontaneous, unscheduled visits are not effective. New Yorkers, like so many urban folks around the country, aren’t home a lot. So we take the approach that after a visitor has come to church, we follow up with an e-mail. E-mail is a very non-threatening way in which to open the door to a newcomer. After the initial email contact, we follow up with a phone call. When the person has come to church a few more times, I try to schedule a one-on-one visit with them, usually in my office at the church.
For us, concrete action is far more effective than mere lip service. Most important, we never lose heart. We have Martin Luther’s bold witness and an incredible gospel of grace to share. What more inspiration do we need?
1.“...But such orders [of worship services] are needed for those who are still becoming Christians or need to be strengthened, since a Christian does not need baptism, the Word, and the sacrament as a Christian — for all things are his — but as a sinner. They are essential especially for the immature and the young who must be trained and educated in the Scripture and God’s Word daily so that they may become familiar with the Bible, grounded, well versed, and skilled in it, ready to defend their faith and in due time to teach others and to increase the kingdom of Christ. For such, one must read, sing, preach, write, and compose....” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, and H. T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965], 62).
J. Elise Brown is pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in the Borough of Manhattan, New York City, New York.