If you are a parent of winter sports-playing children, you'll know the routine. The early starts, the biting wind, the chilly, squelching mud. What you may not be so familiar with is a group of smiling strangers giving you a free hot drink to warm your hands around.
For the past three winters, Vision Church in Palmerston North has run just such a ministry each Saturday morning. Armed with thermos bags and cups, volunteers spend a n hour delivering hot drinks for the mums and dads at various sports grounds around the city.
Pastor Dale Meacheam says the ministry was a good idea that “evolved into a God idea”, adding that Christians need to pick up on ideas and that too many good ideas are dismissed. He says it came from his heart as senior leader of the church, to get church members out and engaging with the community.
“What we have taught for the nine years I've been here is that it's not about the size of your church, it's about the size of your influence. We're not what we'd call in Christian terms a large church, but the Kingdom of God bases largeness on influence. Jesus only had 12 and he whacked the world.
“By going out on the fields with two, four, six, eight or ten people, we're engaging with literally thousands of people and making a difference. So we've got to tend to think about influence.”
The John 4 account of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well inspired Dale. Just as Jesus used the cup of water as a medium to reach the woman, Vision Church views the coffee ministry as a way of intentionally connecting and engaging in conversation with the community.
The approach is kept low key. The church's name and contact details are printed on the cups, but there are no identifying t-shirts or gospel tracts.
“People in the community are sick of that. They want to know that you are there authentically and you want to know them. Once you start doing that [taking tracts with you], people soon see or hear that. The best trick we can carry is personal witness and personal testimony and life stories, and in that situation wait for them to engage, looking for the opportunity. So, let them initiate it. It is a different way of doing things,” says Dale.
“I couldn't quantify if anyone has come [to church] because of it, but what I can quantify is that we've had people ask when we're coming back. We've had people walking along the street and then someone's ridden past on a bike and said, 'Hey, you're the guy that brought me coffee on the soccer field.' It's amazing. So, people wonder where we are when we're not there.”
They do get the odd person, the one or two in 10, who politely refuses the free drink, perhaps sceptical of the motive behind the offer. However, they've never received a negative comment.
“People ask, 'How much is this? Why are you doing it?' Christians from other churches go, “Wow, this is awesome. We should be doing this.'
“The amazing thing is that people I've dealt with in the business realm, through the church or my own personal life, you see them there. They're real estate agents, bankers, whoever – they've all got kids; it doesn't matter who it is. The prime minister has got kids. They've all got the same commonalities of kids playing soccer or whatever. So, when they see you outside of where you would normally see them, that's powerful because, hey, you're actually caring about them and their family.”
In addition to engaging with the community and rebuilding the sometimes negative image non-Christians have of the church, Dale says the ministry has also been effective in getting his people's focus turned outwards.
“It gets our people out there in amongst the community, rather than behind stained glass windows. It's a natural thing of human nature to go inwards. We are always fighting the inward battle, looking inwards, navel gazing, looking downwards. The major benefit is getting people connecting with the community, honing their skills of relating with people. If they get the chance, they relevantly share the gospel or build a relationship bridge with people.”
Now that's a God idea. Coffee, anyone?