For the past five years, we have been encouraging our congregation to be on the lookout for “park bench” moments. As a metaphor, a park bench is anything that brings people together in relationship that may lead to spiritual conversations. It could be an actual park bench, but it could also be standing in line at the store, helping your neighbor rake leaves, sitting at the bar at the local pub, talking in the company break room or riding the school bus.
It doesn’t matter what the park bench actually is, because it’s just an avenue for friendship or conversation that happens to take place at any given location.
When I first arrived at Bethel Lutheran Church in 2010, we were involved with outreach in our community primarily through financial support of service projects and agencies. Our church wanted to reach out more intentionally but found evangelism daunting and didn’t know how to move forward with that.
We began a process of clarifying our vision for outreach and cultivating a missional imagination in order to see our everyday lives as part of God’s mission. Through that process, we landed on the park bench metaphor and began encouraging people to notice the “park benches” that God gives them each week.
As we have become more aware of these opportunities, we have found ourselves more consistently looking for missional moments in our ordinary lives: talking to a fellow coach of a son’s baseball team, stopping to comfort someone at the grocery store whose purse was just stolen or chatting with the homeless people who come to use our church’s showers in the morning.
In one particular instance, a woman in our congregation who was very reserved got excited about her missional opportunities when she found her park bench. She was visiting another church member in the hospital and was struck by the positive impact that a visit from a comfort dog had on her friend.
That experience gave this woman the vision that she could become a comfort dog handler through our partner, Lutheran Church Charities. Because of this new role, she gets invited to visit hospitals and schools and can often interact with people going through difficult times. The dog helps others to feel cared for, and that opens up conversations for her. The dog that she is now paired with has become her “park bench.”
This concept has transformed our church. It has cultivated a missional imagination in our congregation, so that they see their daily lives being regularly used by God for the sake of getting to know others, caring for them and, when he wills it, having spiritual conversations. One of the key areas where I’ve noticed a change is in people’s conversations before and after our worship service. Previously, they talked about the weather or sports; now I can more often hear people tell stories about having moments of noticing neighbors, asking to pray for people and starting spiritual conversations. They’ll often say, “That was a park bench moment!”
Whether through this metaphor or a different one, may we all continue to cultivate a missional imagination to see the ordinary moments of life as opportunities to partner with God on mission.
Ben Squires is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in Gurnee, Illinois.