Working the edges
Ministry at the edges of Church and culture is a challenge, to say the least. It is often hard to discern which particular edges should attract our limited mission attention (and budgets). With challenges in finding both people and money for long-term mission projects, it is often helpful to find “one off” mission opportunities which can still work to build community, offer opportunities for discipleship, even worship, and to build the skills and capacities of potential mission volunteers. Many of our communities have just such mission opportunities, ready made and waiting, in the shape of festivals, fairs, and cultural events.
All the major cities of Canada, and many rural communities, have significant annual cultural events of some sort. There are theatre festivals, Jazz, Blues, Folk and Rock festivals, fall fairs, rodeos, and agricultural exhibitions almost every week somewhere in the country. Many of these events draw significant crowds and offer tremendous opportunities to serve many people at one go. Yet these events are often neglected as mission and ministry opportunities for churches.
Where to start?
So, let’s say you have a passion for mission, and live in a community with a festival or cultural event coming up. Where do you begin to plan for mission to that festival’s community.
Step One is to find a group who might be interested in serving with you – this is your mission team. They should be willing to give their time, and energy, and they should share your vision of service.
Step Two, is, gathering your team together, pray for God’s wisdom, and guidance as you ask yourselves the following questions:
- Who is involved in the upcoming festival?
(think of patrons, artists/presenters/contestants, commercial supporters (food venders and such), residents of the festival area, and anyone else you think might be impacted by the event).
- How might those involved need to be served?
(go through the list of groups you think are involved one, by one, discerning how they might need/desire to be served. If you don’t know – find someone involved in the festival to ask. They’ll tell you. Usually you won’t be able to serve them all, but you might well be able to serve a few.)
- What are our capacities?
(spend time thinking about what resources you have – personnel, time, money, space, gifts and talents, etc.)
- Knowing who is involved, how they might need to be served, and what we have to share, how can we best be of service to the people involved in this event?
(don’t be afraid to go small, perhaps focusing on one involved group and serving a minor need. It doesn’t have to be big, it just needs to be done with love, and with the intent to serve.)
Step Three is to get the permissions you need. Do you need a bishop’s approval, or parish or denominational approval? Do you need municipal permission/licenses? Do you need permission from festival staff/organizers? Depending on what you have chosen to do, you might need permission from multiple sources. If so, get them. It will make your life much easier later.
Step Four is to make an implementation plan with your team. Make sure you’re all on the same page, you all know what is going to happen, when, and where. Also make sure you’re all on the same page about why you’re doing this. There is always one person who thinks it’s about getting bums in pews. It’s not. It’s about serving out of the love of Christ for the sheer joy and purpose of serving.
Step Five is to get to it. Let people know what you’re doing, that you have permission, and that you want to be a part of the festival fun by serving the festival itself, and get on with it. Enjoy yourself, and pray often, giving thanks for the opportunity, seeking wisdom for all involved, and pursuing how your team might be of greatest service.
What might this look like?
Perhaps a concrete example or two would be helpful. I’m involved in a mixed economy church setting in Edmonton. I’m working to plant a Fresh Expression of Church called the Project, currently based out of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton. Holy Trinity is located within blocks of the Fringe Theatre Festival grounds, and for years has served as a venue for Fringe productions (the Edmonton Fringe Festival is the world’s 2nd largest Fringe, and has a central festival location).
Two years ago, members of Holy Trinity and I began plotting how we might be of service to the Fringe. I made the announcement on a Sunday morning that I would be leading a project to serve the festival, and would welcome as much input and support as possible from the congregation. Together, we discerned who was involved in the festival – we used the language of ‘stake-holders’. We knew there were artists (foreign and domestic), festival staff and volunteers, vendors, commercial service providers, neighbourhood residents, and patrons. In all, this was several hundreds of thousands of people (the 2010 Fringe served well over 400,000 patrons, with another 1400 volunteers, several hundred performers and artists, and several dozen staff, not to mention the 20,000 people who live or work in the festival area). It was clear that we couldn’t serve them all, but it was necessary to now discern the needs of the various stakeholders. Through long discussion, and working through the questions above diligently, we settled on serving first the artists and patrons that would be coming to Holy Trinity as a venue. We also thought we could manage serving festival patrons who might need a place of rest and peace between shows during the day, or who might just need a break from the activities of the festival itself.
In the end, we decided we had resources and opportunity enough to offer the artists volunteer support during shows, there by relieving them of the onerous task of finding their own volunteers for box office and ushering duties. We also operated a concession stand at reasonable costs (most festival venues charge exorbitant rates for concessions as a cash grab). We provided clean and comfortable green-room space for the artists (a green-room is a room for actors to relax in before and after a show) as well as food and drinks for them. And we simply went out of our way to be as welcoming as possible to both artists and patrons.
Over and above show time support, we offered three other services during the days of the festival to create a space of rest for tired patrons. Our biggest hit was the “Green Room Teahouse” where we served (in good Anglican fashion) tea and fresh scones (made to order with our own heavenly recipe served with clotted cream and jam). We also set up “Father Tom’s Lemonade Stand”. This was a wonderful way for me to meet people in the community and to talk to folks who were walking by the church building. The third offering was ‘solace’. ‘solace’ is a contemplative arts installation located in the nave and chancel of the church, and offers people a place of rest and peace, and an opportunity to (re)engage with Christian spirituality. One of the most gratifying results of these activities was seeing how many people made one or more of our offerings a daily part of their life for the ten days of the Fringe. This year, our second year, we saw almost all of last year’s folks come back, and they brought friends. We ended up serving over 400 scones in 10 days. A lot of work, but well worth it.
The combined impact of our activities of serving the Fringe resulted in many, many people commenting on how welcome they felt, and how Holy Trinity embraced the spirit of the Fringe in a unique and meaningful way. From their perspective, we met them where they were, and valued what they valued, and offered a little bit of the peace, generosity and welcome of Christ to them during their festival. Clearly this worked to build community, but it also created many discipleship/evangelism opportunities as people asked why were doing this, and what we as a Christian church were about. And it was greatly appreciated by the more than 4000 patrons who made Holy Trinity part of their Fringe in 2009, and the 6,100 patrons did so in 2010.
Now, not everybody has access to the kind of support necessary to serve a festival as large as the Edmonton Fringe in as robust a fashion as we did (year one saw 50 volunteers put in 500 hours, and year two saw 66 volunteers put in 640 volunteer hours). But there are other ways.
While traveling in the UK, I met a woman who leads missions into New Age Spirituality and psychic fairs and festivals. These are events that are shunned by many Christians and churches, but she felt that they posed wonderful opportunities to meet people who were actively seeking a spiritual life.
Her process was this: she would rent a space at the fair, like any other vendor or service provider, then she would communicate with local churches to find mature, prayer centred Christians interested in mission to join her team. Together, they would decorate their booth/table/tent in the classic purple and gold beloved by this community, and would post a sign reading simply “Healing Prayer”. While most ‘healers’ at such events charge for their ministrations, the ministry team would not, and when someone came seeking prayer, they would explain that they were Christians, and that they were there to serve in love, and that the healing they were offering came not from themselves, but from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some people would walk away, but the vast majority were so taken aback that Christians would come to them and offer spiritual support and prayer, that they stayed and often asked many, many questions. This is a very simple and direct approach to serving the spiritual needs of people in a distinct environment and culture. It could easily be adapted for any kind of event. Imagine a booth at a folk festival offering prayer, or one at a business convention, or even just setting up a table on Main Street at noon with a sign reading “willing to listen and pray for free.”
It is astonishing what opportunities for mission there are in festivals and cultural events. I’ve discussed only two, but I know of several “rodeo churches” that follow the rodeo circuit in the west, and others who open prayer booths at folk festivals and such. The options for mission are limited only by our imagination, and the gifts of the Spirit. Which is to say that there are no limitations at all! If you are looking for opportunities to engage in fresh mission in your community, but don’t have the resources for sustained programs, or ongoing ministry support, I’d encourage you to consider what festivals and cultural events are going on in your area, and how you and a few friends might be able to serve them in the name of Jesus Christ.
Note: for a far from comprehensive list of Canadian festivals, look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_festivals_in_Canada
or contact your municipal offices for a list of local events.