A man walks into a bar . . .” Not exactly an opening line for a Review article, is it? And yet it is an apt beginning for this story.
To meet Stephen (Steve) Colfax* is to meet someone who is friendly, open, and genuine. He falls into one of those categories of people who has yet to meet a stranger—only friends not yet introduced. There is, though, one more thing about Steve that everyone will attest to that has had the privilege of even a modest acquaintance: he’s passionate about Jesus.
“I’m obsessed with Jesus,” says Steve. “I cannot be in a conversation long before I talk about something that has a Christ angle to it. It’s just who I am.” And this is why our story, for at least today, includes a bar. Steve can’t keep Jesus to himself. If in church he’s talking about Jesus, it would be expected. But even in a store, the community, or, in this case, docking his boat in a marina to stop for lunch, there’s always a Jesus opportunity around the corner.
Steve takes a seat at the bar because he’s dining alone. After ordering a soda and a meal, he strikes up a conversation with the guy on the next stool, who is doing what people do in bars—sipping a drink and now, chatting with the guy that just walked in. What began as a friendly hello turned into a several-hours-long conversation, leading to a several-years-long friendship.
It’s about blurring the lines between the church and the world; making Jesus part of our everyday lives.
One day the barstool friend has a spiritual awakening. A natural place to turn is Steve, the guy that won’t stop talking about Jesus. What does Steve do? Not what you think. He doesn’t start a Bible study. He doesn’t offer him a link to an evangelistic meeting. He invites him to his Sabbath School class.
That’s probably not what the average Adventist might do, but it was a natural for Steve. In fact, he’s done it before. “If a person is responsive, intrigued with Jesus as well as the opportunity to talk about Him with other like-minded people, I invite them to class. And some of them stay,” says Steve. Between his invitations and those of other members of his class, there’s a growing percentage of nonchurch members attending regularly to meet with this small group and study the lesson quarterly.
This particular Sabbath School class has a long history. It began about 40 years ago with a group of people who not only enjoyed studying the lesson quarterly but liked discussion. Members have come and gone through the years, but the class continued on with its unique take on teaching the quarterly. Then COVID struck. But this doesn’t become one of those COVID-came-and-we-all-changed stories. The members simply moved to Zoom like everyone else. But one thing did change. Suddenly those that had moved away—loyalists who missed the interaction and style of this class—were able to return. The numbers increased to a steady group meeting from several states across the country and also Canada.
Because the opportunity to expand beyond the walls of a church building was now available, it became a natural step for Steve and his fellow class members to start inviting people they met in the community to join them. The guy from the racetrack, the teenagers from the youth group that suddenly did not exist, the former bank executive, the friend from the bar, including his mother, whom he invited.
Inviting nonmembers to a lesson study doesn’t come without its challenges. Members need to remind themselves to make the Bible understandable, not to drift into Advent-speak, and to be careful how they speak about their church, whether local or corporate. Teachers frame questions in a way that does not lead toward negative or critical language. It has been a great experience for all involved. They pray for each other, sharing their common concerns and individual problems.
The class participants range from administrators to doctors to teenagers to retirees whose great desire is to listen to God’s voice through one another as they study the lesson quarterly. Some of the nonmembers are quiet. Others speak up and challenge the members as they discuss Bible topics, searching for ways of understanding for all. And the friend from the bar? Doesn’t say a word. But afterward he has been known to call to debrief on all he has heard.
“This class means so much to me,” he says. “It’s providing me with guidance as I begin learning how to walk with Christ.”
One individual with a fairly high-level world profile states, “I have friends all over the world, but you [the class] are among my best friends.”
So the story is still unfolding. It’s about blurring the lines between the church and the world; making Jesus part of our everyday lives so that He frequents our daily conversations, eventually opening the possibility of invitation. As Steve says: “You never know. Sometimes they show up, and sometimes they stick!” And that is exactly as it should be.
*Name is a pseudonym.
Merle Poirier is the operations manager for Adventist Review Ministries.