I had an encounter with a young waitress that transformed my thinking and further refined our life of ministry.
We were in New York City to do a three-day training event when I met Fiona in a little Irish restaurant. She asked what we were doing in New York and eventually I told her we were trying to train people how to start new churches.
This surprised her and she asked, “Why would you guys start more churches?” I asked her what was behind that question and she began talking about sexual abuse growing up in the Catholic Church, and all sorts of other stuff all of us have heard from people that have run into church or Christians.
My evangelistic heart just kept nagging at me. I wanted to talk to her about something, but I couldn’t talk to her about church or Bible verses. I definitely could not give her the old story of Four Laws about something. I began to talk to her about Jesus hating the stuff that she hates and providing an alternative way of life. She said, “Well, what is that?”
I’d never talked like this—ever—but I began to tell her about the kingdom of heaven. I said, that’s all Jesus talked about—the good news that heaven can come to earth and it doesn’t have to always be like this. The way it is in heaven can now touch down here.
Her whole demeanor changed. She said, “Give me an example. What’s the kingdom of heaven?”
"So I just started to tell her stories that Jesus talked about. She kept getting more and more into it. She kept saying, “Tell me more about the kingdom.”
On the fourth day, before heading home, I stopped by the restaurant to say goodbye. She said, “Hugh, I’ve got to work,” but she grabbed about 15 friends, and she said, “Tell them that stuff you were telling me about the kingdom.”
So I told all these 20-somethings in New York this idea that Jesus is not here so we go to church or be moral or just wait around and go somewhere else after we die. He actually came to renovate every aspect of life and to bring it back to the way it is in heaven. They all said the same thing. They’d never heard this stuff.
That was a coming back to Jesus moment for me, a clarification of my calling. I left the bar that night and broke down. I sat on the curb and was basically in tears recommitting my life to Jesus. Thinking that if the world is still drawn to Jesus’ main message, then maybe what I’ve based my whole ministry on may not have been the main message. Or the main story.
That experience shaped our adventure in Denver, and the missional communities that took shape there.
We began to rhythm our lives around what I would call the DNA of the kingdom. What we found now, being a little more intentional, reading a few books on missionary stuff, we realized that this might have been the way that the early communities changed the whole world and all throughout the centuries.
Our call was for people to live an intentional kingdom life around a sense of communion—connecting with God—and a sense of mission, being a blessing to people. We focused on the idea of inclusive community; we would provide a place of belonging for anybody regardless of their disoriented theology or their sexual orientation or the color of their skin or their religious background or their behavioral miscues.
The thought was to create community around them—not in a church structure, but in a missionary structure, a neighborhood community on mission that we would call an incarnational community. And we would trust that the Scriptures are true, that if we live good news, people will be drawn to it and they will eventually find our God.
We were able to do that without any judgment and we found that our nonjudgmental ways actually drew people who had severe behaviorial issues. But they came out of it without us ever having to put a finger in their chest.
Week to week... day by day.
On a given week, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday night at least every other week, we would gather and we would have a meal and we would take communion. We’d read scripture and we would pray for each other.
And we would ask, Has God brought up any needs to us as a community? We wanted to believe that God would lead us as a community. We noticed that stuff came up every week where we went, Oh, we could help out with that. We just started to spontaneously create space in our lives where we could help people.Then we would throw a party every week, at least once—party being just a social gathering without any weird religious overtones. Most of the time it was just dinners.Sometimes it was to give a little money, most of the time it was to help out with a practical need.
That started with six people, three couples. But we noticed that people wanted to hang out with us, so the house started to fill up around those three rhythms.
This approach grew out of the necessity of our lives.
Our son, Ryan, was still having a ton of seizures and Cheryl was not able to work. So we were broke. We were exhausted. But we knew how to open our front door and create a space for people to be in our lives. Now I tell people, living the incarnational missional life is not adding anything to your calendar, it’s literally seeing everywhere you’re at as a mission field.
Our three mission fields were our street, the Starbucks where fellow church planter Matt Smay and I had coffee every day and where Cheryl eventually got a job, and the third context was the hockey program our daughters were involved with.
Cheryl and I committed to giving away six or seven meals a week. We thought if we’re tired, we’re still going to eat 21 times, so let’s try to wedge some friends into some of those meal times. Whenever Matt and I would try to go and take a break, play a round of golf or workout, we always committed that we would invite people to come be with us.
And we moved the barbecue from the back yard around to where it was accessible, people could see the smoke coming up. We tried to make just little nuance shifts so our lives were with the lost community.
We never had to try to lead anybody to the faith. It was just natural.
To learn more about how to start a community this way, or transition your existing groups or church to more missional forms, check out: The Tangible Kingdom Primer: An 8-Week Guide to Incarnational Community.
Excerpts of this interview with Hugh were originally published by Outreach Magazine at: https://outreachmagazine.com/interviews/13066-hugh-halter-beyond-brimstone-part-1-of-3.html