COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa—Thirty minutes before the Mall of the Bluffs officially opened for business one Sunday in late January, worship at Sojourn Church – located in a former Foot Locker bay – began to wind down. Mall walkers turned their heads as they passed by, catching portions of Pastor Jim Parker’s sermon or the worship music.
Pastor Parker, or one of the 30 people in attendance, waved at the passersby. Sojourn wasn’t just being friendly to its neighbors. They know their neighbors.
In late 2009, after being on staff at LifeSpring Church in Belleuve, Neb., Pastor Parker launched a mall ministry, supported by LifeSpring. He wanted to provide answers to people who would never walk into a church building. That’s how he came up with the idea for “Ice Cream and Answers.”
Parker served free ice cream to mall patrons and that opened the door for them to ask him questions about real struggles in their lives.
The first day, a man approached him and told him it was the first ice cream he had tasted in five years. As they conversed, Parker learned the man had just been released from jail.
“We chatted for a little while, talked about Jesus a little bit and he came back the next week,” Parker said.
They continued their conversation, which ended with Parker praying over the man. The former prisoner didn’t join Sojourn – which launched a few months later and has since baptized eight new converts. In fact, Parker never saw the man again. But Parker was thrilled to get a chance to speak into the man’s life.
“That’s the thing I wanted,” Parker said. “I wanted the church to be in where the people are, helping the people, and not necessarily for the goal of getting them to come to our church.”
Sojourn also reaches out by offering youth a place to play dodgeball on Friday nights in a backroom at the mall. Lucas Jones, a 17-year-old high schooler, began attending dodgeball and found a place where he was accepted. He started coming to church and then got involved in Bible studies with people from the church.
“I started believing more and more in Christ himself, and I had a wonderful lunch with this guy about two weeks ago,” Jones said, putting his arm around Chris Smolen who leads worship at Sojourn. “He explained a lot of in-depth details, so that really helped. If you ever want to know anything, there’s always people you can ask here.”
Jones announced after the worship service that he had become a Christian that same week. And one more was added to the kingdom.
As with any church plant, Sojourn depends heavily on the prayers and financial support of other churches and given that the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and the Baptist Convention of Iowa (BCI) have formed a four-year partnership, Sojourn would welcome a partnership with an MBC church.
“The Sojourn Church is unique in its location and in its approach to ministering to those who frequent the mall where they are located,” said Rick Hedger, MBC partnership missions specialist.
“It would be ideal if there were an MBC church with a similar mindset to partner with Pastor Parker and Sojourn Church for an extended period of time. That would allow for building relationships over the long haul and seeing firsthand the work of discipleship and church planting from that partnership.”