A few months ago, the members of the Greater Portland Bilingual Hispanic church in Westbrook, Maine, were discussing their desire to engage in more outreach and were identifying the barriers to doing so. They made a list of challenges that would be familiar to just about any church. Included in the list was the fact that members were intimidated by the door-to-door method of community canvassing, and therefore needed more experience in engaging with community members. Also on the list was the fact that most members worked at least one job, were extremely busy during the week, and had available time pretty much only on the weekend. And of course, there was the usual problem of wondering what they could do to attract community members into the church.
But then the discussion took an interesting turn. One member, Doris Rodriguez, challenged the thinking. “Why try and get people into the church building?” she asked. “Why not take church to the people?” “She was the spark plug for this whole effort,” said Harry Sabnani, the church’s pastor. “Not only did she suggest holding church in the park just down the street and truly celebrating Sabbath with the community members, she was also the one who worked with the police department to get the necessary permits. Every effort needs a spark plug and, with this one, it was Doris.”
As the members grew more excited about the concept, they generated ideas about what to do and how to do it. In the end, the congregation erected a small stage in the park and a number of booths. In one booth church members conducted a prayer ministry with members of the community who wandered over from elsewhere in the park. In another booth, attendees could sign up for Bible studies. In yet another booth an array of health materials was available, along with a sign-up sheet for healthy Hispanic-food cooking classes. In a fourth booth, children from the park could get their faces painted and received balloons with “Jesus Loves Me” printed on them. “That was the booth that made the whole thing work,” said Sabnani. “We were a little unsure about the face-painting booth, but, in the end, it was the face-painting that parents brought their kids over for, and while that was going on, the parents usually looked at the other booths and struck up conversations with church members. The mix of booths worked to bring people to us.”
The church members did more than staff booths; they held church. Special music featured Jennifer Norford and musicians from the Lowell church in Massachusetts. The singing and music were so spectacular that they drew people from all over the park. A concert given by the Lowell group later in the day had the same effect—all over again.
Preaching a sermon to the outdoor crowd was a little intimidating for Pastor Sabnani. “This took me out of my comfort zone. My message had to be shorter, shallower, and more filled with stories than usual. But the community members who attended seemed to like it. All in all, they were pretty excited with what we were doing and we were able to make friends and generate interest in Bible studies and joining our Pathfinder club. We even have a person regularly attending church who came in from our day in the park. We discovered that taking church to where the people are really works, and we’re definitely going to be doing it again!”