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First Presbyterian Church: Sharing Faith in a Cathedral of Consumption

First Presbyterian Church: Sharing Faith in a Cathedral of Consumption

The Burlington Center Mall Ministry (BCMM), founded by First Presbyterian Church, sees itself as a mission outpost station in a "jungle of materialism." Its goal is not to take the place of the local church, but to encourage people who would never set foot in a church to develop a relationship with God. The ministry creates an inviting atmosphere with comfort-tested living room furniture, free literature and lollipops that proclaim "Jesus loves you," a box for prayer requests, an electronic sign announcing current programming, and a friendly host who models God's hospitality.

BCMM offers a variety of programs for all ages and interests. These include seminars on useful and appealing topics, from job-seeking skills to overcoming loneliness, from developing children's creativity to knowing healthcare options. The ministry also sponsors special events, like concerts, drama, puppet shows, and a gymnastics exhibition. A seasonal highlight is a living nativity complete with costumed actors, set, music, narration, special effects - and the chance to tell their reason for being at the mall. Support groups for overcoming self-destructive behavior, conquering grief and stress, and managing weight problems attract regular guests. A basic beginners Bible study provides an introduction to Christianity.

When the ministry first opened, volunteers were eager to lead evangelistic activities. They soon learned that anything blatantly Christian rarely attracts the ministry's target audience, the unchurched. Some mall visitors are even put off by the neon sign proclaiming "ministry" and keep their distance. BCMM developed a strategy of offering programs that reach out to people at their points of need, weaving in the gospel message in varying degrees according to people's openness. The ministry continually searches for creative, non-threatening ways to let people know God loves them and to encourage people to examine their spiritual needs.

One avenue is the window display, which creates visual representations of various Scriptures and Bible stories. For example, one display featured streamers with 1 Cor. 13 written on them along with pictures of different aspects of love. Other opportunities arise through the thought-provoking questions written on an easel out front, such as "If God could tell our country one thing, what would he say?" Many stop to read the question and comments written underneath; some people add their own thoughts, using the colored markers provided; others approach BCMM volunteers and begin a dialogue.

Perhaps the most important elements of the ministry are the informal interactions. People stop by to chat with volunteers for various reasons - some out of curiousity or interest in a particular program, some out of loneliness, some out of an unrecognized spiritual hunger. One man came looking for help with a nose bleed, and then opened up about his struggles as a widower. When homeless people approach to ask for aid, they receive donated certificates from food court vendors. As the ministry became established, people increasingly revealed their concerns and deep hurts. Volunteers make themselves available to listen, to show God's love and to pray for those who stop by. A designated 'Prayer Zone' provides privacy for people who request prayer or who want a quiet space for meditation.

Regular visitors, says the director, often tend to be "loners" or people on the social margins. One woman who was nearly blind was drawn repeatedly to talk with volunteers, who kept encouraging her to develop a relationship with God. Finally, the woman decided to take their advice and attend church. There she accepted Christ. She returned to BCMM and told the director, "I want to help." With newfound self-confidence, she greeted visitors with a smile and cheerfully kept the place neat. When the director tried to thank her, she replied, "No, thank you for helping me!" Soon afterwards, she told BCMM volunteers she was moving to Tennessee, where she planned to serve God as a "missionary," as they had done for her.

[Adapted from Churches That Make a Difference, chapter 5].