When Peter Chapman arrived as minister at Church in the Marketplace in bustling Bondi Junction he decided to spend time sitting outside his church. It’s busy there opposite the bus/rail interchange in the Oxford street mall.
“When I arrived last year, I thought a good way for our church to live up to our name would to be literally get out in the Mall and put myself physically out there among the local punters rather than working from my office upstairs. I was partly inspired years ago by Bill Hybel’s excellent book ‘Just walk across the room’ to put yourself in physical proximity to those you want to reach, but mostly I’m just a bit of an extrovert, get bored in my cloistered office, and love meeting the colourful characters of Bondi Junction. My prayer is simply that I might be available to be used by God during those times.”
It worked. He sits with a “Free Prayer” sign, and people come up to chat.
There’s a range of people who take up my invitation to sit down for a chat & prayer. Some folk are clearly battling that particular day, and need to give a situation over to God (often it’s taken a while for some people to pluck up the courage to come & say G’day after having seen me out there a few times), some folk from other churches want to encourage me, and some people are clearly just very lonely and need a listening ear.
The Other Cheek asks: Can you tell who is likely to chat with you?
I try my best to make eye contact, smile, and give off an air of approachability. You get pretty good at discerning a person’s ‘vibe’ – either strange looks, a cursory glance followed by eyes front (ie. I don’t want a bar of you), or a smile. Sometimes I’m happy just to be sharing a smile with passers-by. But ultimately you can’t pick who is going to plonk themselves down in the chair beside you or tentatively approach with a tentative question – it takes all sorts – a real “don’t judge a book by its cover” situation.
What’s been the hardest chat you have had?
The most memorable conversation I’ve had was with a young bloke who wanted to pay me for prayer! (my sign simply offers “Free Prayer” – I find it’s a good ice breaker ‘cos I can immediately affirm that all prayer is free, but that I’d love to pray with them for nix if they wish). I tried to explain the concept to this guy, but he wasn’t having it. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that I was offering something for free! In the end, he stormed off muttering something about it being a scam!
What’s one that lifted your heart?
The most rewarding conversations I’ve had generally involve parents wanting prayer for their children – often adult children. Sometimes there are health or mental health concerns, and often the prayer request is for the reconciliation of a strained or broken relationship.
Is it a good use of your time? How often do you sit outside your church?
That’s a question I’ve wrestled with given that it’s not very targeted. The strategic thinker/leader/manager in me sometimes rebels against the concept of sitting out on the mall with no particular agenda other than to chat to passers-by, but at the end of the day its not a waste of time because its time I would otherwise be in my office writing my weekly sermon or catching up on emails, so its a two-birds-one-stone kinda deal. Obviously, when I’m really under the pump and need to get stuff done, I need to retreat to the sanctuary of my office. I try to get out on the mall a couple of times a week.
Have you ever been asked something that made you really think about your Christian faith?
The big question that often arises, but for which there is really no satisfying answer for many, is “Why is God allowing this to happen?”. The most honest answer I can give to that question (the question of ‘theodicy’) is”I don’t know”. However, I endeavour to affirm that God’s ways/thoughts are higher than our ways/thoughts and that he sees a grand plan, and will one day put things right. I also point out that the alternative (that God doesn’t exist, and that therefore life is random and meaningless, and that suffering and evil will not one day be put right), does not bear thinking about.
What is the best piece of witnessing you have been able to do outside in the mall?
During winter, some members of the cogeneration saw me out there shivering away and decided to donate some winter woollies to hand out to people for free. A number of locals took up the offer – this for me was a very tangible witness from the church to the love of God.
Have you got regular chatters?
Yep – a few locals regularly stop by for a chat – some are from other churches and some don’t have a church connection but are keen to chat about matters spiritual.
Church in the Marketplace is a Uniting Church congregation. The Other Cheek cheekily asked if Peter Chapman would describe himself as an evangelical who wants to stay in the UCA?
Yes – I’m a member of the ‘Propel’ network in the UCA – an evangelical network of Uniting Church leaders and congregations committed to maintaining confidence in the gospel to change lives, conversion growth, church planting/revitalisation, and disciple the next generation of leaders.
Update: Michael J Smith whose similar ministry in Martin Place, in the Sydney CBD, The Other Cheek featured recently reports the “young professional” he was witnessing to, has become a Christian.