Some time ago I was invited to visit Spain Christian Associates, a church-planting ministry that has planted over 67 churches since 1988, many of them in Europe. The Spain trip was pitched as a “vision trip,” a chance to see first-hand what God is doing in the place where some insist “the church is dead…”
Our first day was packed. Off the plane, dropped the bags at the hotel, coffee and snacks, a walk across the vibrant city center to the Malazaña neighborhood and a house church service. Lunch and fellowship, walk back to the Puerta del Sol, more coffee, and the Oasis Madrid Fellowship Fall kick-off service. Great worship, lively conversation, more coffee, prayer and a lesson on discipleship: Jesus style. By 9:00pm we were heading off through the Plaza Mayor for tapas in The Dungeon (yes, it really is called that because it really was that at one point…instruments of torture adorning the walls for full effect). Of course at 9:00pm the place was deserted. No self-respecting Spaniard would be dining out so early. When we left there after 10:00, the line was forming outside. By this time there was not enough coffee on the planet to keep me from staring blankly at our new friends. Perhaps it was my dour expression that caused Jordan to ask if I was of German heritage. “No,” my friend Alicia replied for me, “she’s just tired. That’s how she looks after being up for 33 hours. German.”
If the last 36 hours are any indication, the church is most certainly NOT dead in Madrid. To be sure, this is a very “gospel-resistant environment,” as it has been described, but God is up to something here: He is working and lives are changing. We have visited three very different fellowships, all offering up the truth and letting it speak for itself.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Zarah. Yesterday, we met Zarah, a thirty-something Spaniard who was attending the Decoupage Arts Community house church for the first time. Here’s how she got there: The universe told Zarah to befriend Maria, a young Christian filmmaker, to discuss spiritual things. (Their paths had crossed in an acting class.) Maria invited Zarah to join the mid-week Bible study she attends with the gals in her house church because they discuss spiritual things. Zarah agreed. After several weeks of attending the study, Zarah began to feel like she would have to embrace Christianity to continue with the group and announced that she needed to break off for a little while to consider this carefully. The group let her go but continued to pray for her. Zarah consulted the universe again with this big decision. The universe told her (how? She didn’t exactly say how…) to embrace Jesus as her spiritual guide and that His teachings would lead her to truth. So Zarah returned to the group. Yesterday was her first visit to Decoupage house church.
After a great time of bi-lingual worship (Our God is Greater sung simultaneously in Spanish and English is weird but pretty darn cool), Lucia had us open our Bibles to Luke 7:36-50. In this passage, Jesus tells a story of two debtors, one owed 500 and one owed 50, and both were forgiven all. The group discussed how in this passage Jesus was leading His audience into a lesson on perspective. It wasn’t how much was owed that was the point; it was that both owed. Interestingly, it was Zarah who took to heart the premium Jesus was putting on the need not only to receive His forgiveness but to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us. With tears welling up in her dark eyes she said, I need to forgive my sister. I need help to do this. How can I do this important thing…?
Zarah's new friends are only all too happy to help her learn to forgive her sister by embracing Jesus not only as her spiritual guide but hopefully soon as her Savior. And that is why the church is not dead in Madrid.
We spent the day in the neighborhood where Jesus Street deadends into Holy Spirit Street. There on the corner sits the Happy Day Bakery. Could that be more perfect? Cupcake heaven! Of course they would be delicious. Would Jesus allow for anything less than perfectly-piped buttercream happiness on His corner? I’m sure there is some greater spiritual principle at work here, but I am tired so I will leave that for you to ponder.
The food in this artsy enclave did not disappoint. Suffice it to say that Happy Day is not the only bakery in the barrio. We had churros y chocolate y café for breakfast, a lunch on the plaza of “crispy” eggplant soup and a tandoori chicken dish that was a far cry better than anything I ate in India. Later we hit another bakery for a cinnamon donut goodie and more coffee…empanadas, profiteroles, tiramisu, fresh squeezed orange juice. There is just no end to the happiness found near the intersection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Hmmmm….
We didn’t just eat all day (though we easily could have!). We took a walking tour through the neighborhood, learning its history and appreciating the eclectic nature of its residents and their stories. The Spaniards who live in this barrio will tell you that the “Occupy Movement” began right there in their square. They say the Americanos take all the good ideas in the world, make them into products, and sell them (not sure “Occupy” qualifies as a good idea).
After that fabulous lunch on the plaza, we walked to a large park in the center of which lies an Egyptian temple. It looks a little out of place, but it was a gift from the Egyptian government in 1968, and given what we all know about gift etiquette, there it sits on display. (It would be pretty hard to re-gift so the normal statute of limitations on how long you have to keep something probably doesn’t apply.) The park overlooks a vast expanse of green formerly the royal hunting grounds, with a suitably grand palace and the imposing cathedral flanking the left. The view and green space was quite refreshing and we crashed in the shade for a few minutes of serenity.
Our guide and local pastor-in-residence, Kelly, introduced us to an ancient monastic practice he has learned here in Spain called lectio divina, Latin for divine reading. This slow and contemplative way of reading the scriptures is explained as a way to gradually let go of our own agendas by quieting ourselves, listening, and prayerfully opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s voice. There are many ways to facilitate this, but for our purposes, we prayed and Kelly read Psalm 96 to us. He encouraged us to close our eyes and contemplate each phrase as he read the passage. After slowly reading through the psalm several times, one or two lines would begin to resonate deeply within us. He began:
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.
Sure enough, the exercise proved fruitful for each of us. For me, though Kelly read through the psalm multiple times, my thoughts never went much beyond the very first verse: Sing to the Lord a new song. It rolled over and over in my mind as Kelly continued to read through the psalm. Sing to the Lord a NEW song. Sing to the Lord a NEW song. But soon the echo I was hearing sounded more like Sing to Me a NEW song. Sing to ME a new song. Sing to ME, Kristin. ME.
It was a gentle whisper, but His words couldn’t have been more clear. For a girl who is ever and always seeking approval, may the song of my life ever and only be sung to an audience of One.
The Sandwich Route
The Sandwich Route Central Madrid is home to some four million people and the outlying areas to another two million. As we sat on the plaza (the name of which escapes me) dipping our churros in the richest, darkest, yummiest hot chocolate I have ever tasted, we leisurely watched a few hundred of these people rush past us; everyone is going somewhere. We were told that Spaniards have been dubbed the most sleep-deprived people in Europe, and this news did not surprise us. To me, the problem seems easy enough to rectify if they would just go home and go to bed at a decent hour. Dinner is often eaten out, and even on a weeknight, is rarely served before 10:00pm. Even families can be found out walking from here to there as late as midnight. Seriously, people, just go to bed! As we enjoyed our treat, Dudley asked a sobering question: how many of these (literally) exhausted people, barely keeping pace on the treadmill of life, have even met a believer in Jesus? In a city this size, especially with such a dark religious history, the odds are sadly low. And if they have met a believer, have they met Jesus? This was intentionally a tricky question to introduce the idea of being intentionally incarnational. What this means is that as Jesus lives in us, we are His incarnation on earth in the here and now. In this moment, wherever we are and whoever we are with, we are in some way introducing Jesus to the unbeliever….or are we? The churros and chocolate decimated, and considerable food for thought for the road, we made our way back to Oasis Madrid, the church plant located just off the Puerta del Sol. We met up with Jordan and Al who planned to take us along with them on the weekly Sandwich Route, an Oasis ministry to the homeless in the city center. The Sandwich Route, believe it or not, was started by a guy who describes himself as an atheist. Jordan (a twenty-something American who has lived and worked in Madrid as a teacher for four years) partnered with this atheist for many months and had numerous open and friendly conversations about faith. Unfortunately, the guy moved away but not before leaving the Sandwich Route in Jordan’s capable hands.
The fact that an atheist would make sandwiches every week and distribute them to the homeless around the city center proves that we all have within us, to varying degrees, a desire to help others. Dudley calls this a “divine impulse” that comes to us straight from the heart of God because we are created in His image. Understanding and capturing this divine impulse is huge strategically as we consider advancing the gospel. An easy way to do this is through ongoing projects like the Sandwich Route. Service is an important “onramp” to the faith community as Dudley calls it that can offer non-believers a chance to engage this divine impulse that, for some, longs for an outlet. Once non-believers mix with believers in various service projects, a sense of belonging can blossom over time. “Belonging” is also important strategically because in our age of tolerance, belonging comes before believing. Wait…did I hear that right? Belonging comes before believing. What??? I was momentarily rocked by this statement. As I assessed the perspective, I honestly found something in my spiritual DNA that wanted it the other way around, that believing means you can belong. Believe like me first, and then I will accept you. Dudley’s notion was challenging something lodged somewhere deep within me. I needed another churro and time to contemplate this further. I would have to wait for both.
As we made the lunches, Jordan and Al brought us up to speed on the local homeless community. Those from Oasis who participate on the weekly Sandwich Route (even some compassionate unbelievers) have gotten to know these folks and their stories pretty well. Relationships have developed. Most of them are men of a certain age, some Spaniards, some Eastern Europeans, a few gypsies, a handful of Africans. The lunch packs consisted of a jamón y queso bocadilla (ham and cheese sandwich), two mandarin oranges, a sweet muffin or a chocolate treat, and a water bottle. We made the sandwiches and bagged up the goods, careful to make one bocadilla no queso and mark the bag “Henry” in black Sharpie. Apparently Henry doesn’t like cheese and the Sandwich Route accommodates as they can. Jordan assured us, to make one bocadilla no queso is a small thing and it speaks volumes to Henry. We left the church and headed out into the streets surrounding the Puerta del Sol, the center and heartbeat of the city. We split into two groups of four and went in opposite directions, unsure of who we would meet and what stories we would hear. We found Henry asleep on his cardboard mattress in a short tunnel connecting the Plaza Mayor and a main artery into the Puerta del Sol. Al told us that Henry is an older guy who speaks nearly perfect English. He worked in England as a cook for 12 years, but now lives on the streets of Madrid, down on his luck after a series of unfortunate events. Al didn’t want to wake him. We left his lunch bag nestled between his shoulder and the tunnel wall for safekeeping. Al assured us that when he woke, he would smile to find his meal waiting there for him…a small token surely, but a huge statement of care from God’s heart to Henry’s stomach. After giving away two dozen sandwiches and engaging the invisible residents of the streets for over an hour, we went to find our own dinner.
As we meandered away from Sol, I considered the service project and its goals. Obviously to feed the hungry was the priority. To value them as people and build relationships with them that would eventually lead to conversations of faith was a hoped for outcome. But of equal importance is for Oasis to provide that service onramp for unbelievers, a place for those who are not yet following Jesus to befriend other do-gooders, to serve, and to belong. Dudley assured us that this is how the church is operating in a gospel-resistant place such as Europe. All week the believers we met gave us glimpses of this incarnational ministry being played out in its various stages. Make no mistake: it is a marathon and must take the long view of investment in relationships. But in a world where all belief systems must be accepted as valid, it is an effective strategy because the truth, given enough time and opportunity, eventually speaks for itself. Or, I should say, The Truth eventually speaks for Himself. Some unbelievers continue to faith in these circles while others don’t and wander away. Dudley insists that as we love people wherever they are and accept them despite whatever weird thing they believe, The Truth begins to speak and The Way becomes more and more clear to them. Over and over we heard the not-yet-believers among our new friends tell us that they didn’t like Christians, but they liked “these people” with the Mountain View church, or Oasis, or the Decoupage folks. Truly it seems that here the Body of Christ incarnationally reaches out and accepts people, drawing them into their circle by way of humanitarian service projects, community art projects, communal meals and friendship coffees. After belonging for a while, believing comes…or it doesn’t. I am beginning to wonder if maybe it’s just plain brilliant: we love and accept others like Jesus did, however flawed and confused they may be, and just let the Holy Spirit do His job.
Many questions remain for me, questions about divine impulse, belonging and believing, and incarnational living. As I return to the question posed over churros and chocolate—How many people in this city have never even met a believer?—I am inclined to ask the better question: