Friday, June 15, 2018

More Than a Cup of Coffee

Nearly every small town has one.  Some have more than that. Look in any rural area and you are likely to find a gathering place, a location where men and women get together ostensibly for coffee, but actually for community. It might be a local café, or a convenience store, or even a small business, but in each case you will find more than simple greetings or conversations about the weather.  If you listen closely enough you will hear the perspectives and ruminations and worries and dreams of people who understand that a community is far more than a collection of buildings in a common place.

Like many who call the church home I love coffee. And I know that I’m not alone.  In fact, I have heard some suggest that coffee may actually be our hidden sacrament.  I don’t know about that, but we certainly consume enough of it. And for many of us, morning would not be the same without it. But the real value of coffee is not found in the cup itself, but in the opportunities that it presents. You see, coffee is not our reason for being together, but an excuse to do so. How often do we suggest to others that we “get together for coffee?” If drinking the beverage itself was the most important thing, we could easily do that in the comfort of our own homes. But coffee gives us an excuse to gather with others, often in regular settings, and to share the news of the day. In the midst of those gatherings we are reminded that we are not alone in the difficulties and rigors of life. We talk about many things, sometimes important, often trivial. But the value is in the development of a kind of community that we come to depend on.

The church building is a place for community, but in a rural area it is not the only place. And if we are faithful to our task, we quickly realize that the presence of the church, or at least the faith that we share, can show up in a variety of different settings. Where do people gather in your community? Those places often have unique and interesting names – The Breadbox Café, The Feedbunk, Sparky’s, The Chrome. Sometimes they have a more commercial feel, like HyVee or Caseys or Cenex. More often than not that sense of community happens organically, over time, and not because we decide to create it. One thing is certain – whether you are aware of it or not, many of the people in your congregation are gathering somewhere during the week, and often with others from outside the church.  Discovering where can be an incredible asset in our efforts to serve God in a particular place.

Most often these informal gatherings happen in public places and usually at predictable times. Are you welcome there, have you been invited by someone to join the conversation, or have you simply stumbled upon a group of people by accident? All of those things have happened to me and more. Most pastors feel a bit awkward about simply showing up and inserting themselves into the midst of the conversation. But the smart pastor knows that there are tools available and is not afraid to make good use of them. Is coffee available? Buy some. Are doughnuts on the menu? How about offering to share some with your “friends”? Experienced pastors know that hospitality is the language of rural life and food is the way it is most often expressed. Drinking coffee or eating doughnuts is never an end in itself, but a socially acceptable way of entering the conversation. Many things have been shared over a piece of pie or a cup of coffee that would never come up in a brief casual conversation on the street. Even pastors find themselves welcomed when they appear as just another neighbor looking for their morning coffee and a newspaper.

Remember, it is our job to listen and be present. To hear what our friends and neighbors are saying and what they feel the needs are in our particular community. It is not to try to lead the conversation or to convert the others or to be the resident expert. We represent Christ through our presence, but this is not the place to teach or preach, but to listen and learn.

Why is this important? Three basic reasons come to mind. First, if we are going to be an active part of the community, we need to know what is on the minds of our members and neighbors around us. Successful pastors of vital rural churches know that their work is not confined to the sanctuary, but requires that we take a role in helping to revitalize and even transform the community that we call home. Those ideas do not come from our own minds, but from understanding the concerns being expressed by those around us.

Second, relevant preaching requires that we also exegete the context in which we serve. That means developing an understanding of the community, the people who call it home, and the problems that they face. Karl Barth was famous for saying that good preaching happened with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I would take that a step further and add a third element – with an ear to conversation within a community.

Finally, the rural church is only effective if it exists outside the church building. Every pastor should ask this question – are we providing the tools that our members need in order to be an effective person of faith throughout the week? Helping them to understand that faith is not a Sunday thing, but a guiding principle of our lives prepares our members to approach every situation, every conversation as a disciple of Jesus.  It is not about preaching or evangelizing in the coffee shop, but about bringing a Jesus attitude with them wherever they go. If we are able to do that, then the church will be present in amazing and unexpected places.

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