It happens every Sunday. The sermon is over. The benediction has been received. The doxology has been sung. The doors at the back of the auditorium are opened. People begin to flow into the lobby. Lively conversation and the aroma of good cake and even better coffee fill the air.
Children zigzag around adult legs to make it to the snacks and back to their festive kid’s table. They catch up with one another, discussing another week gone by. Their parents and the other adults have no time to sit. They duck in and out, jumping from one conversation to the next, engaging one another with smiles, handshakes, and hugs. It’s joyful, delightful, and wonderful, and it happens every Sunday.
There’s only one problem. No one else sees it! It’s inside, behind the heavy doors of a rented public school building in Fresh Meadows, Queens, New York. It’s the best party of the week, but very few people realize that they are also invited. It is a community—a loving community—in the middle of a city full of people looking for love and community. The joy is contagious, and it would be contagious to outsiders—if only it weren’t inside opaque walls.
Jesus realized the gathering power of the covenant community as he looked out on his disciples and said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14–16).
The idea isn’t to show off or boast or put on a show. It’s absurd to think of “light” bragging or boasting. Light immediately and accurately communicates what it is. When light penetrates darkness, there is no wondering what it is. It’s immediately known, identified, and understood as “the light”! Christ cues us evangelistically by saying, in essence, “Live before the watching world in a way that enables outsiders to see what Christians really are. They will be drawn to your heavenly Father when they see what he has done and is doing in and for you. Instead of programs upon programs, simply demonstrate who you are as the joyful, vibrant, and diverse covenant community that I have made you.”
This does not mean that we should abandon the buildings we use for Sunday services, so that neighbors can see the congregation during the coffee break. But we must, at this point, ask some questions. How do we keep from, perhaps unintentionally, putting our light under a basket? How do we ensure that we who are already inside are not the only ones who see the light that Jesus says should be shining before others? According to Jesus, the light belongs on a stand. That means it’s intentionally put somewhere in order to optimize its illuminating ability. How do we optimize the light that shines in Christ’s people, so that those outside may “see” and “give glory to your Father who is in heaven”?
On the overseeing session of Reformation Presbyterian Church, we have been asking these questions, and they have led to ongoing, regularly scheduled, noninvasive, exciting, and effective evangelistic opportunities. We are now used to thinking in terms of turning Reformation Church inside out. We resist the urge to just jump in and do more things. Instead, we think about what we are already doing and consider how we can turn that inside out. That is, we insist on making Reformation’s ministries both perfecting and gathering, instead of perfecting at the expense of gathering or gathering at the expense of perfecting (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3).
We intentionally work at making what we do accessible and inviting to outsiders as well as to insiders. We regularly ask questions like: What sort of Sunday activities are appropriate and accessible to believer and unbeliever alike? What are the current needs of current church members and the current needs of future church members? How can we use the opportunities, people, and gifts with which God has blessed Reformation, to reach out and gather others? In short, how do we turn Reformation inside out to ensure that our light is in fact shining before others?
These questions make for lively session meetings! At one such meeting, back in the spring of 2012, we began to discuss what to do with the upcoming summer Sunday evenings. In the past, we had held prayer meetings and Bible studies in various homes. That worked, until too many people started coming. What a wonderful problem to have! But it was, nonetheless, a problem. We wanted a place that would be accessible to all. We needed a place in New York City with plenty of parking. It would be summertime, in the cooler afternoons and evenings. The idea of being outside was attractive. We specifically thought of the fellowship time that comes after morning worship, and we began to ask: How can we take that outside? How can we put that fellowship, that community, that love, that joyful, delightful, wonderful party, before the watching world, so that we can invite outsiders into it?
While almost everything in New York is expensive, day permits to reserve a specific picnic area in one of New York’s public parks cost only twenty-five dollars. That’s the best rent rate in the whole city! Twenty-five dollars each week got us ample parking, grills, and tables, along with a picnic area big enough to fit hundreds. And the best part was that we would be outside in a public area full of outsiders in Queens’ beautiful Cunningham Park. No walls, no doors, no buildings—just the church before the watching world, ready and prepped to invite anyone interested in joining the party.
But what sort of picnic party would this be? This was for a Sunday night, and it was to be at a time that used to be filled with Bible studies and prayer meetings. What we would do in the park had to be accessible to outsiders, not awkward. We decided that, in addition to fellowship and feasting, preaching and a Q&A would be the most appropriate use of the time. The event would take place from 4 to 7 p.m., and we would do it on multiple Sundays in August and September. We would begin with cooking and eating, all while inviting people from the park. When people began to finish or move on to seconds, the preaching would begin. The sermon would be 10–15 minutes long. After that, everyone would be encouraged to ask any question they wanted to ask. The entire time of preaching, questions, and answers would be thirty to forty minutes—about the time of a sermon or Bible study.
Turning church inside out means constantly thinking about how to make the whole event go smoothly—and yet still be a church-wide effort. In this case, there would be grill men and grill women, volunteers to play with the children, photographers and videographers, a setup crew, a cleanup crew, and volunteers who would bring soda, chips, dips, and dessert. Everyone would receive invitation cards, and everyone would be encouraged to invite as many others as possible. In addition, everyone was asked to begin thinking of the questions they would ask during the Q&A time. From start to finish, this was making use of the gifts that God had placed inside Reformation: the people, the funds, the abilities and creativity of the people—all marshaled and mobilized to take Sunday outside, to reach the outside.
Wherever Reformation people could chip in and help, they were asked to do so. And did they ever rise to the occasion! As a session, we refused to name the event. We intentionally came up with a provisional title, which we knew was a little weak: “Preaching in the Park.” When we first announced the idea to the congregation, we explained that “Preaching in the Park” was just a temporary title. In order to get people on board from the very beginning, we asked them to come up with a better name. One member suggested “BBQ&A,” and that’s what it’s been ever since. That, in itself, is what turning church inside out is all about. Pastors and elders don’t have to do everything! Let the people come up with titles and creative ideas!
And the congregation’s contributions continued to come. Another suggestion was to think in terms of posting Reformation events on meetup.com. This suggestion has worked out wonderfully and has repeatedly led new visitors to Reformation. Two ongoing Reformation Meetups are intended to turn our kids ministry and various community outreaches inside out (see meetup.com/Reformation-Outreach-Queens-NYC and meetup.com/Reformation-Outreach-Queens-NYC). We have also had success turning Sunday studies and Sunday sermon series inside out. We simply set up a Meetup for the series and post each sermon and/or study as an individual Meetup. It’s simply reorganizing what we already do in a way that enables outsiders to gather along with us.
The Meetup site for BBQ&A (meetup.com/BBQ-A-2013-at-Cunningham-Park) serves as a place where Reformation photographers and videographers can post their wonderful photos and videos. At many points, the work done by members of the congregation is really breathtaking! Check out this terrific video contribution from the very first BBQ&A: http://vimeo.com/48209501. All these things are part of the church reaching out and gathering. Links like this make it very easy for people at Reformation to invite their friends through e-mail or Facebook. All they need to do is share the video or some pictures from last year—or extend an invitation through the website Meetup.com itself. And who is going to take offense at an invitation to come and enjoy the beautiful summer, the gorgeous park, and great food, fun, and fellowship?
The Lord has been very good to us. BBQ&A has been tremendously fun, edifying, and profitable for Reformation in both 2012 and 2013. We continue to grow in our ability to invite, gather, and live before those who are still outside, while, at the same time, building up the covenant community that God has already established.
This year, we hope to invite more people in July than we’ve been able to do in previous years. BBQ&A 2014 is scheduled for August 3, 10, and 17, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Picnic Area Purple in Cunningham Park. If you’re in the area, please come and visit us! If you can’t make it, please remember these dates in prayer as we seek to make disciples of the nations by laboring in Cunningham Park in Queens.
The author is an evangelist serving as the organizing pastor of Reformation Presbyterian Church in New York City, N.Y. New Horizons, July 2014.