Not Your Normal Church by Amanda Brogan

Posted: January 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

The acrid tang of sweat hangs in the humid air like a mist. Echoes of screeching sneakers and the hollow thump of a dozen dodgeballs bouncing off the walls and floor fill the room, accompanied by shouts and “battle cries” of twenty or more high school students. In the midst of the adrenaline and organized chaos are a few key people who “run the show.” Whether it’s throwing dodgeballs with the rest of the kids, refereeing, or grabbing a quick water break and an escape from the stuffy back room where dodgeball is held, their focus is on those high school kids, making them feel welcome and loved. These are the staff and helpers of Sojourn. What is Sojourn? It’s probably not what you’re expecting. It’s not a school, not a sports camp. Sojourn is a church, but it’s not your typical church by any means. Sojourn is unique, engaging … life-changing.

What sets Sojourn apart? In what ways is it different? A more appropriate question may be, “In what ways is it not different?” When I tell people that my church is located in a mall, their reaction usually consists of raised eyebrows and repeating the statement back as a question, “It’s in a mall?” Yep, a mall. Shoppers can walk out of Bath and Body Works or GNC and discover our little niche at the end of a long dead-end hallway. When Sojourn was established five years ago, our pastor, Jim Parker, decided on “planting” the new church in the Mall of the Bluffs in order to have greater ministry outreach. This allows us to be more an active part of the community than we would be able to if we had a normal church building.

Our abnormal location is not the only factor that sets us apart from the usual stereotypes of church. During our service, we have what are called “worship stations.” Rather than conventional liturgy and traditions, worship stations bring a familiar topic home in a way that’s tangible. Worship stations can be anything from drawing a picture of something we’re thankful for, to game-like activities that demonstrate the topic of the sermon. The service has a very distinct youth-group atmosphere in that it’s very hands-on and encourages everyone to participate. Even the sermons are interactive. Rather than a podium, our pastor preaches sitting atop a tall wooden stool or walking back and forth in front of the stage, iPad Bible in hand. Throughout the sermon he makes use of slides, memes or funny photos, and an occasional movie clip. He also picks someone from the audience to be the “professional reader” for the day and read aloud the slide every time a Scripture verse appears.

Outside of Sunday morning, Sojourn sponsors several ministries throughout the week, two of the most influential being Celebrate Recovery and Dodgeball Night. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian based twelve step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but covering a broader range of topics. Dodgeball is a Friday night event that reaches out to high school and college kids who may have never set foot in a church. This ministry was created with the goal of providing these kids with positive recreation and role models.

One of the biggest success stories and proof of God’s blessing on the dodgeball ministry is Sojourn’s intern, Lucas Jones. Rewind about three years and you’ll see that Lucas had no interest in church. Like most high school students, he was on a journey of self-discovery, and although he didn’t know where that journey would take him, church was not on his list of places to look. “I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. … My identity was unknown to me and I didn’t know where to start.”

But things changed when a friend invited Lucas to Sojourn for Friday night dodgeball. At first, Lucas came just for the fun of playing a sport, but over the course of a few months, he developed a friendship with Pastor Jim and a few of the other Sojourners. After weeks of saying, “No thanks,” Lucas eventually conceded and decided to try out this “church thing” with his newfound friends. While sharing his story during a Bible study one night recently, Lucas said, “I thought that Jim and the other guys were cool, so their church might be cool too.” He wasn’t wrong. The crowd on Sunday morning was just as warm, energetic and fun as they were on Friday night, minus hitting each other in the face with dodgeballs.

Despite his general love for the unconventional church and its members, Lucas still didn’t understand the purpose behind Sojourn. Not for awhile. “I went for a couple months and he (Jim) shared the gospel in almost, if not every sermon. I just didn’t connect with it. One day, as I was driving home, I was thinking about it. All of a sudden, it just clicked in my head! It was in that moment that I realized that I understood what Jesus had done for me.  I didn’t have a hunger for finding myself, but Christ slowly revealed himself to me and it started slowly clicking in my head.”

Seeing this young pastor-in-training in action now, it’s astonishing to think back on how far he has come. He began as just another dodgeball kid, coming to Sojourn on Friday nights and avoiding church at all costs. Now three years later, he is our pastor’s “right hand man,” studying seminary and preparing to start his own church plant someday. All because some of our church members invested their time in this young man’s life.

I’m sure that if I sat down for coffee or lunch with anyone who has attended  Sojourn more than once, I would hear story after story of some unique way those people have been impacted by this little church at the end of a shopping mall hallway. The dictionary definition of the word sojourn is “a temporary stay as a traveler or guest.” Our mantra at Sojourn is that “We are on a daily, interactive, life-changing journey with Jesus,” and as such we believe that this mortal earth is but a temporary home. At Sojourn, church is not a building. It’s serving and loving others in every day life. Whether that means being an example at work or volunteering our time to hang out and chat with some sweaty dodgeball players. You never know what small action may impact someone’s life forever.

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