Getting out of the boat and following Jesus is never easy.
In fact, getting out of the boat, going on waterfront shore and setting up a tent for mission in the most unlikely places for church is even more difficult.
Add to that a gated community of high-rise apartment and condo dwellers who are cynical and cautious of anyone who lifts up the word in public.
We are called out into the wider world to gather God’s people for renewal, reconciliation and refreshment.
Waterfront Community Church, an emergent church within the ELCA in Jersey City, N.J., is doing just that — setting up tents in places where people gather for socializing — in the marketplace, parks, town squares, laundries, coffee shops and even subway stations.
Here they share the gospel in unique ways.
Worship gatherings can also occur over a dinner table in a local restaurant or on the outdoor patio of a local sandwich shop.
They happen right in the middle of people living their lives.
According to Don Egan, a mission developer for Waterfront Community Church, “One Christmas celebration was titled ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus,’ and it was held in a busy local restaurant.
“Children sang ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus’ over a makeshift manger, which provoked smiles throughout the restaurant. Adults exchanged gifts of comfort and joy. We gathered over an agape meal where gatherers ate and shared stories of Christmas.
“We sang ‘Joy to the World.’ We offered dessert — birthday cake — and goodwill to each other and all the patrons.
“Bringing our idea of worship and prayer into the marketplace allows the public to see that God is not contained in a building on Sunday morning only. It invites the public to see a strong witness for Jesus. Our gatherings are a convergence of hospitality, welcome, worship, community and evangelism in the midst of folks living their lives.”
What’s life like without a church building to work from?
Waterfront’s gatherers will be the first to emphatically tell you, as they point to their heart, that “Church is in here,” says Peggy Brockmann, co-mission developer. “You don’t necessarily need a building to find Jesus. You gotta have heart for Jesus! Jesus can change your life. Jesus doesn’t reside in a building. We take to the streets to bring the message of Christ to the world.”
They have created a ritual called a Prayer Action, in which church gatherers go out to the streets and invite people to pray with them.
During Advent, gatherers approached people on the street and offered them a gift “wrapped in a pretty blue box with a blue grosgrain ribbon” (very similar to Tiffany’s blue box), while explaining that the message inside it may change their lives.
In the box was a Good News lapel pin.
The gatherers then shared information about Waterfront Community Church and invited them to worship.
What they learned from their Prayer Actions is that people are hungry for prayer, love and companionship.
The center of their ministry is focused on prayer. Prayer changes lives.
We encountered a homeless woman carrying her life’s belongings in a shopping cart. We gave her a present, and when she opened it she started to weep uncontrollably. We stayed and held her and prayed with her. She told us that our offering to her saved her life. She was contemplating suicide. As a community, we started to understand truly what it means to get out of your boat and follow Jesus for the sake of the world.
Waterfront keeps a foot in Lutheran tradition but also a foot in the modern world.
During Ash Wednesday we journey to the local subways and distribute ashes. We have found this to be a wonderful way for people to reconnect with their faith heritage, be a witness to the beginning of Lent and … meet Jesus again for a few short minutes through prayer as they run into their complex daily lives.
The streets, docks and boardwalk become their gathering and worship space. “We have created the worship walk as an alternative to the traditional service held in churches,” says Don.
“We are God’s people on the move. A people moving through this wonderful and complex journey called life. Why not create a moving experience built around word and sacrament where the people are? We literally move a service from place to place throughout the Waterfront community. We become part of God’s awesome creation and witnesses, not ashamed to share the gospel message.
“We incorporate music, dance, song, prayer, testimony communion and physical fitness into our service. Lay your burdens down and drop some calories in the process. Worshiping God becomes a healthy, spiritual and vibrant experience.”
Waterfront Community Church is committed to hunger relief efforts. Since they do not have a building from which to distribute food, they partner with local Lutheran churches that have food pantries and drop off collected food.
“This works well for us,” says Peggy. “We give plastic bags to anyone we come in contact with and ask them to share their resources with their neighbors.
“We collect their bags, organize the food and drop it off. We have delivered hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food to churches.”
The streets at night in Jersey City have become their pathway to doing God’s work in the community. Don says:
We have begun an initiative to collect and distribute food and clothing to the homeless in our community during the evening through a mobile unit. Our gatherers will become like night butterflies. Dropping food and love into the lives of men and women for a moment in time when they are in need. God meets people where they are. We assist. We are graced to be able to humble ourselves and be of service as we rehearse for the reign of God.