Redefining the Sanctuary

By Chris Lahr

A few years ago I visited a friend of mine in his new church.  He took pride as he showed me the newly constructed building and informed me of some of the work they were doing.  He then showed me a basketball court in their parking lot, and the pavement was faded as it was apparent the court got a lot of use.  My friend told me that the court was often filled with neighborhood youth and that one of the things that lead him to this particular church was the presence of these youth and that the mission field was right at their door.  As we turned to go back inside, my friend informed me that the door we were walking through acted as a “barrier,” as the youth rarely came through the door unless they had to go to the bathroom.  He longed for them to come in and be a part of their congregation, but there seemed to be little interest.  As I looked at my friend I told him I thought I knew what the problem was… he was looking at the basketball court as the mission field instead of viewing it as the sanctuary!

In Philadelphia we run a flag football ministry for urban youth ages 13-18.  Of our 250 youth only 32% attend church on a regular basis.  Yet something amazing happens each week on our field… youth memorize a verse before being able to play and after each game the youth circle up as a prayer is lifted up.  Our youth are “unchurched” kids, and yet when you ask them what they like about the league they say things like… it’s a family, it’s a safe place off the streets, it’s a place you learn about God, you learn about the Bible, it’s a place I learned to be a leader, and where I was mentored.  In Timoteo we are redefining the sanctuary.  Sure we still believe in the Church, as our league currently has 12 churches in partnership to make Timoteo happen, but we spend more time being the Church in real life than trying to talk our youth into conforming to us in our church settings. 

Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be a missionary, because the word “missionary” is never used!  Rather God calls us to be a neighbor!  The term “missionary” can carry a lot of negative connotations in the city as it often means a group of white teenagers coming in to do puppet shows and vbs’.  On the other hand, we are all called to be neighbors.  A neighbor is the call to walk as Jesus walked in real life, even in the ghettos of our world. No matter the context (overseas, urban or suburban), a neighbor represents the incarnate Jesus and we are called to show those living in the world a different way.

The football field as a sanctuary is a new concept for some, but for hundreds of youth in Philadelphia it is making sense.  The last 13 years we have seen lives changed, and leaders immerge.  The four pillars of Timoteo are: Jesus, Excellence, Empowerment, and Partnership.  It is ultimately Jesus, and His Kingdom values, that drives us to produce an excellent product for the youth in our community, as well as calls for excellence in our youth.  It is Jesus that has modeled for us a way of empowerment through mentoring and discipleship as we partner with people in our community to make a difference.