I’m a church planter, and therefore virtually of necessity forced to think outside the box. There are a lot of ways to plant a church, a lot of ways to be in ministry, and a lot of ways to bring the gospel to non-believers. There are limits, however. Once you’ve jettisoned God, you’re actually dealing with a social service organization, or a non-governmental organization, or a political organization. Or, in this case presented by the Presbyterian News Service, a business:

The town of Bend, in central Oregon, is in what is often referred to as the least-churched county in the least-churched state. Even still, it is no stranger to church plants.

“Bend is like a graveyard for churches,” said one of its more recent pastors, the Rev. Zachary Hancock.

Hancock was called to be the organizing pastor for a proposed Presbyterian new church development in Bend.

“When I got to town all the young pastors looked at me as if ‘That’s just what we need here: another church planter,’” he said.

But Hancock wasn’t actually that interested in getting people to go to church.

“My big goal is not to get people to go to church, but to engage people in doing the living into the reality of God, which is the way of the gospels, the way of Christ,” Hancock said. “That doesn’t necessarily have to look like going to church and sitting in a pew and listening to a sermon.”

As soon as I encountered the expression, “living into the reality of God,” I knew I was in trouble.

What it is about is ‘doing service’ in and for the world.

As with many churches, the steering committee of this NCD was interested in finding a way to reach out to young adults ages 18-35.

So what did they do, especially since Hancock wasn’t interested in actually, you know, planting a church? They didn’t start a church, they started a restaurant:

“I felt that we could really engage young people who don’t want anything to do with church if we could give them something to participate in and believe in that their heart knows as truth,” Hancock said.

This is different than simply trying to gather the young people and bring them into the church.

“What I was saying is that we need to pursue not an age group, but what we have been called to — what Christ has called us to. When we do that, people will follow, whatever their age is,” he said.

That call, in the case of Bend, has taken the form of the Common Table Public House. Its mission: “Feed all people, cherish the earth and pursue awareness.” Hospitality, welcome and action are at the heart of this ministry experiment that serves people daily, in the form of food and drink, and monthly with a shared meal and faith gathering.

“We are trying to be a place, to use the cliché, that earns the right to be heard — more than that, that earns the right to have the privilege of people joining you and trusting you that you are a safe place where they can be authentic, tell their story and participate.”

There are no crosses up at Common Table; as a public house, it has a full bar.

Common Table is trying to live up to its name — a common table that draws no distinction between people, regardless of who they are. One of the menu items, called the ‘World Bowl’ is offered by donations on a sliding scale. They’ve also created wooden tokens, with $10 carved onto them, which are distributed to those in need, who can then trade them in for a meal.

That’s all fine and good–certainly soup kitchens, for instance, can be the kind of place where it is possible to bring the gospel to people–but there’s something, shall we say, squishy about this whole idea.

“A lot of our labor is through volunteers — and that is not just to save a buck,” said Hancock, who believes people practice a spiritual discipline when they volunteer. As a reminder, the dishwashing sink is surrounded by a painted mural of Brother Lawrence, the monk who is know for his ‘practice of the presence of God’ in all situations — including washing dishes.

Which is fine, if people have any idea why Brother Lawrence did what he did.

“One of the other reasons that we opened a restaurant was because I felt like one of the ways we can make an impact on our planet is how we source our food — how far we bring it, how it is raised and how it is delivered,” Hancock said.

OK, so Hancock is a crunchy granola type who is saving the planet by using local tomatoes. Whatever. When I go the web site linked above, I find…a restaurant. A restaurant with a peculiarly Northwest feel, a do-gooder mentality, and no Christian content whatsoever. Instead, I read stuff like this:

Common Table exists to feed all people, cherish the Earth and pursue awareness. We are an experimental volunteer-driven non-profit cafe. We endeavor to serve extraordinary food regardless of ability to pay.

This was on the events page, which gave no evidence that any of the establishment’s events had anything to do with the gospel. (However, Common Table will be participating in the Northwest Crossing Farmers’ Market, and hosting “family friendly free music.”)

Common Table is a non-profit Social Entrepreneurship project for the betterment of our community and world.  At the core of Common Table is a café from which we endeavor to serve extraordinary food to all people, both those with the ability to pay, and those who under typical circumstances would not be able to eat at a café of our quality.  The Social Entrepreneurship model that we have studied and intend will allow Common Table to serve the privileged and under-privileged, while being sustainable for many years without major annual infusions of new donations.

In addition to providing meals for all people, we will train workers in the food service industry; offer education about healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, local sources of food, and ethical sourcing; gather a diversity of people in the same space for many kinds of public discourse, music, and learning opportunities.  We will use the proceeds from our breakfast and lunch business to pay for the expenses of the facility, evening events, speakers, films, music, discussions, classes, etc. – all pieces of the full Common Table vision.  Common Table aspires to be the best of what a Public House can be.

Common Table exists for the good of the overall Bend community.  An investment in Common Table is an investment in people who need jobs, people who need wholesome good food, people who need community, people who need education and experience in the best life has to offer.

This is the “About Us” statement. I’ve read everything on the web site, including all the blog entries. The latter include an article from the Bend Bulletin that describes what Common Table is doing, as well as the growing number of non-profit, philanthropic restaurants across the country (evidently Panera opened one last year). The article quotes Hancock as saying, “We wanted to value humans, humanity, and highly value the Earth (on) which we live,” Hancock said. “We have a high priority to be a good contribution to Bend.” Which sounds nice in an air-headed kind of way, but which also has nothing really to do with the gospel.

In fact, after a perusal of the entire site, I realized that there was not a single reference to God. This “new church development” not only isn’t a church, it offers no evidence that it is any different from any of thousands of non-profit community aid organizations across the country. Exactly the same business might be run on exactly the same principles by Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Unitarians, or atheists. I don’t know what happens at the “discussions, classes, etc.” mentioned above–there was no information that would lead one to think that such things are happening, but maybe they are–but if it has anything to do with the gospel, Hancock and his steering committee have done everything in their power to disguise it.

I understand that in a place like Bend, it is necessary to think even farther outside the box than usual. But this seems to have strayed so far away from the box as to not even be in the same state any more. If in the process of “living into the reality of God” you no longer show any signs of being any different from a hundred other do-good groups, can you really be said to be doing the work of the Kingdom at all? I would be happy to be put straight about Common Table, and hear all kinds of testimonies from central Oregonians about how lives have been transformed and people come to Christ as a result of the work being done there, but unless such testimonies are forthcoming, I’d have to say that the PCUSA is not getting what it thinks it is getting.

(Via Layman Online.)