“GRACE IN A COFFEE SHOP”
August 17, 2007
“We’re getting ready to pray here in a few minutes,” I announced to the woman refilling our coffee cups at our booth in a local restaurant. “Do you have anything you’d like us to pray for?”
“Oh yes, please!” she responded giving us her full attention. “You can pray for my son.”
During our weekly men’s accountability group meeting we have often asked those who wait on our table if they have any prayer requests. Usually they respond with some pressing need which is concerning them at the time, an upcoming test, a sick grandmother, a better job. Over time we have acquired a reputation for a group of Christian men who honestly care about others, especially those who work in that restaurant in a less-than-ideal situation with less-than-adequate pay. But this woman, the night manager and new to the job, took our offer of prayer as an opportunity to verbally vent an oppressive list of monumental burdens which were emotionally crushing her to death. Chief among them was her son.
“His wife has thrown him and their three-year-old daughter out of their home,” she explained. “They have moved up from the Central Valley to stay with me but I don’t have room for them. He has no job, no car, and very little clothing. I’m working two jobs, twenty hours a day, to try and provide for them. But I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”
“I’m not sure what we can do to help, but we can start by praying,” I offered. “We serve a big God who knows your needs and delights in coming to the aid of those who cry out to Him. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine. Let’s see what He can do.”
Over the next few weeks we did what we could to help this desperate family. We paid her son to do some odd jobs around our house which I had been neglecting due to a tender back and just plain procrastination. We were able to help him get into an apartment and coached him in signing up for whatever assistance the government would provide. Most importantly we provided him with a Bible and helped him rediscover a faith which he had left behind years ago. Every Tuesday evening at the coffee shop when our men’s group would meet, the woman would insist on waiting on our table giving us an update on all that was going on in her life. Eventually she began to sit in the booth with us as we prayed over her. Our men’s accountability group (plus one) began to take on a different character as we learned to put our own agenda on hold and acquiesce to what the Lord had in mind for us that evening. Although I have been a “simple church” advocate for several years I was blown away by a comment this waitress made to us recently.
“Someone asked me to go to church with them last Sunday, but I always have to work on that day,” she testified. “Besides, I have my church every Tuesday evening right here. Didn’t you say it only takes two to have church? I look forward to this time; it’s the highlight of my week. I just know that God is present with you guys. Yes, this is my church!”
“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:20.
I have often quoted these words. I have even preached sermons on this Scripture. But I must admit, until she shared her testimony that night, I had still thought of Tuesday evenings as just our men’s gathering. Leave it up to the Lord to use a waitress to remind me of what I have been lecturing on for years! She is right, of course. Our gathering at the coffee shop is just as much a church as is our Sunday evening home gathering, which is just as legitimate a church as any other gathering at any other time in any other building in any other location on this planet where people are meeting in Jesus’ name. The lack of stained glass, professional clergy, worship music, program bulletins, padded pews and sermons does not make our gathering at the restaurant any less of a church. It’s not that any of these other items normally associated with church are wrong or unchristian; they’re just not essential. We have replaced these items with stained carpet, professional servers, canned “golden oldie” music, menus, padded benches, and praying for each other’s needs. We have learned that the only essentials for having church are Jesus and at least one other person.
Last week our waitress friend had a surprise for us. After we talked for awhile and prayed in our booth she told us that the cook wanted to speak with us. In a few minutes the cook, accompanied by another kitchen worker, ambled over and sat down in our booth. Apparently they had noticed how we were helping the manager and wanted to see if we would also respond to their needs. The cook spoke in broken English, his assistant knew only Spanish, but the Lord had brought them to us and I was grateful. I prayed silently that the Spirit would be able to communicate how much we cared for them.
We learned they both lived in apartments with their extended family members, one group in a city next to ours, the other in a town about 25 miles away. Neither family had any furniture. They were in need of beds, tables, chairs, mattresses, and a crib. I had no clue as to how to help them.
“I don’t know what we can do to help,” I answered in response to their request, “but I know who can. We serve a big God who knows your needs and delights in coming to the aid of those who cry out to Him. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine and He has obviously brought us together. Why don’t we talk to Him about this?”
The cook quickly removed his hat, then reached over and removed his helper’s hat. Somewhere in his past he had learned respect for the Almighty. After lifting their need before the Lord we exchanged phone numbers and they returned to the kitchen. The rest of us sitting around the table were left in awe of how God had transformed a coffee shop into a sanctuary and used a nondescript restaurant as a tool for administering His grace. We all had the feeling this story was just beginning. We had just placed God on the hot seat in providing for these needs. Somehow, we knew God wouldn’t let us down. There were two families out there who were about to taste the goodness and kindness of the Lord, and both of these families had their own circle of acquaintances with their own unique needs. Only God knows how far the influence of our coffee shop church will reach.
While reflecting upon our coffee shop church I have come up with the following three principles applicable to anyone interested in assisting in helping to reap the Lord’s harvest, whether here in Northern California or anywhere else in our western culture:
1. If you want to reap a harvest, you need to be in the harvest field. For centuries we have attempted to grow the kingdom by doing our best to attract others to our particular church gathering. In so doing we have been expecting the wheat to find its own way into the barn. I doubt if we will ever see the revival for which we have so fervently been praying until we learn to break free from our stained-glass sanctuaries and invade our sin-stained world, armed with the love of Jesus and willing to expend ourselves in sacrificial service to others. By the way, we can be just as trapped inside the walls of our home gatherings as others are in larger, institutional churches. Jesus reminds us there is nothing wrong with the harvest. The problem of a declining church in the west lies with the harvesters. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” – Luke 10:2.
2. Where you find the greatest needs, you will find the most fertile soil. Our Lord’s ministry was primarily with the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the hurting. He announced this fact near the beginning of His earthly ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19. Somehow we have largely forgotten this part of the ministry. “…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40. It would seem that Jesus identifies with “the least of these.” So should we. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32. Reaching out to society’s “least” is not only planting seeds in the most fertile soil; it’s also following in the footsteps of Christ.
3. The Lord of the harvest will direct His workers, but they must be available, obedient, and attentive to His voice. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27. Had we been focused totally on doing our own thing in that restaurant (asking our accountability questions, reading our Scripture for the week, and praying for our own concerns) we would never have seen an anxious waitress overburdened by the world and desperately in need of help. Nor would we have been connected to two additional families who have their own share of needs. We are learning that the Lord must always set the agenda for His church, whether we are meeting in the sanctuary of a large institutional church, in the living room of a local home, or in the coffee shop down the street. It’s His church, His ministry, His order of service; and we are His servants, His harvest workers. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” – Col. 4:5. Forgive us, Lord, for the many times our agenda has usurped yours!
So, my fellow harvest workers, let’s keep our eyes and ears open. We won’t always know in advance when and where the Lord of the harvest might be about to use us as instruments of His grace. We could be pressed into service at a large church gathering or at a small, simple fellowship in a home. But it could just as easily be at the coffee shop down the street.
Bill, a child of God alert and ready to serve