Several months back, my car was in the shop and I found myself without my primary mode of transportation. Rather than beg rides off of my friends, I decided that for a period of time, I would try to ride our public bus. In our city, we have a public transportation system like many others; the bus has routes throughout the urban core and provides a fairly inexpensive way to get around the city. Unfortunately, the system is not extremely developed and our city is fairly spread out; thus, the main clients who ride the bus are those who are lower-income, or those unable to obtain a car for whatever reason. But I wanted to try it out.
During my experience, I learned several things. First of all, I learned that those who are poor must be content to wait. Often I found myself waiting for a bus to arrive or to make a connection. To make a quick trip down the street took planning to know which bus I needed, when it was coming, where it would drop off or pick up. I had to think carefully about where I needed to go and decide if it was really worth the hassle to get there. Second, people were often shocked that I was riding the bus. Middle-class white people, like me, do not normally ride the bus. And when I told one person that I arrived to our appointment via bus, I received pity and he insisted on driving me where I needed to go next – although many people ride the bus every single day. But the most surprising lesson was the number of spiritual conversations that I had on the bus.
As I was riding to one place, I pulled out my Bible to do my morning reading. The guy behind me saw my Bible and he said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Yes.” “Do you know when Jesus is coming back?” Now, that is a conversation starter, if I ever have heard one. I told him that the Bible says that not even the angels know when Jesus is coming back (Matt 24:36). He proceeded to tell me his theory about the second coming. This led to a conversation about his spiritual life. He was recovering from an addiction. He did not have a church home. I invited him to ours. I gave him my card. On another ride, I heard someone say, “Hi, Pastor Steve!” I looked around and it was someone who had recently come to our church, and I was able to ask how they were doing and encourage them during their day. As I was waiting for a bus to come, I got into a conversation with a bystander. I shared with him that I was the minister and explained where our church was located. He told me, “I have been at your church for a funeral.” As we continued to visit, we figured out that he had heard me preach a funeral sermon just recently, and now we were riding the same bus. Every ride turned into a new adventure on who I might meet or what conversation might occur.
I learned a lesson through the experience: the call to incarnational ministry, or as I call it, a new kind of bus ministry. Back in the 1970s and 80s, many Churches of Christ would send buses through the neighborhoods to pick up children and bring them to Bible classes. This was a worthy ministry that eventually died out. Possibly one reason for its demise was that it was a ministry of extraction. It sent vehicles to extract children from the neighborhood to bring to the church. Often the children did not fit the normal Sunday school model and churches struggled in controlling them. But what if the church reversed the process? Instead of extracting from the neighborhood, what if they became sent into the neighborhood to walk alongside the children and families surrounding them, to become the presence of Jesus in the midst of the neighborhood, or to put it another way, to ride their bus with them. This is the pattern of the incarnation where God comes to us in the form of Jesus and moved into our neighborhood in order to offer grace and truth (John 1:14). When we follow this incarnational pattern and move into the world of our neighbors, walls come down, conversations start to happen, and God starts to work, as I learned riding on the bus.
A few days later, my car was fixed and I was back to my regular routine. While I was thankful for the efficiency of using my car, I regretted the loss of adventure and potential for ministry in riding the bus – maybe I will continue to ride it from time to time. Each of us in our cities and neighborhoods should find ways to engage in this new kind of bus ministry where we walk beside our neighbors in bringing the message of Jesus!