NEW ORLEANS (BP)–I noticed something at a new startup church in New Orleans, on Magazine Street in the Uptown area on a recent Sunday night. The building which James Welch rented for his new Sojourn arts center/worship site formerly was a store and is situated in a block of stores, cafes and banks with huge glass windows.
Turn the lights on inside, fill it with 40 young adults sitting around on folding chairs with soft drinks in their hands, stand some people down front strumming guitars and stroking a violin, and everyone passing down the narrow street will see what you’re doing.
A number of pedestrians stopped in front of the windows and gazed inside. No sign or lettering on the window indicates anything about what’s inside. The people on the sidewalk were just seeing people having fun and enjoying music. At least three opened the door and came inside without an invitation. A couple of them turned out to be druggie-types who talked too loud and seemed not to know what planet they were on, but the third stayed.
Churches are notorious for putting on great shows, having wonderful music, the members enjoying each other — but hiding their activities inside closed buildings, away from the eyes and ears of the community. The result is that no one has a clue what goes on inside and no one would dare walk up and push open a door just to see.
And yet, ask the church members and they would tell you outsiders are welcome and, in fact, much of what they’re doing inside their buildings is directed toward the benefit of these very outsiders.
Last spring some former residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development in New Orleans were picketing that sad site which has been locked down and fenced in since Hurricane Katrina flooded the area. They wanted the project reopened and were making noises about rushing the locked gates and storming the place to get in. The media gave them coverage and protestors set up tents on medians in front of the area.
The next Sunday morning, pastor Lionel Roberts entered the little St. Bernard Baptist Mission across a side street from the project. He turned on the lights and, with his family, began arranging chairs for the worship service. Lionel no longer lives in the area, but he was raised there and still has a burden for its residents. With the help of volunteers from First Baptist Church in California, Mo., his flooded church building was renovated and painted, and even though his congregation was still scattered across America, he began to hold services. Often he would have 25 people, sometimes more, sometimes fewer.
This morning, Lionel had an idea. Before Katrina had ruined this development and scattered its residents, he would often turn on an outside loudspeaker and broadcast the worship service into the neighborhood. With no one living there now, he had not been doing this since re-entering his church. This morning, he turned on the speakers and began the service.
“When we started that morning, I think there were six of us sitting there,” Lionel says. “Members of my family. We sang a hymn and read a Scripture and I was leading a prayer when I heard the front door open and the rustling of feet. When I said ‘Amen’ and looked up, there must have been 60 people sitting in front of me.”
They had heard what the church was doing and wanted to be a part of it.
The other day a minister of music from another state e-mailed me about bringing his choir to New Orleans next summer and doing some concerts for our people. “We’d like to encourage them,” he wrote.
I had another suggestion.
“Bring working choir members,” I told him. “People who can do yard work or repair houses or build new ones. And, from time to time, let them stop working and gather on the sidewalk and begin singing. They will draw a small crowd — maybe a half dozen and perhaps 50 — and they’ll do more good singing there for 10 minutes than they would doing a full program inside a church.”
He liked the idea. I haven’t actually seen any choir do this yet, but when they do, I predict what will happen: They’ll love it so much, some of them will return home and decide to do the same thing in their own city. Imagine a group of singers walking outside a Wal-Mart somewhere and breaking into harmony. A men’s quartet at the local grocery store parking lot, singing the Lord’s praises. A dozen children at a skating rink spontaneously singing about Jesus.
Nothing formal. Nothing they would need to ask the owner’s permission for. Nothing with a “hook.” No gimmicks, no nothing. Just breaking into song.
Putting the goods on display and letting the Lord take it from there.
Joe McKeever is director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.