The first time you explain the concept of Nightfever to anyone, it is universally met with malaise.
“You want me to do what? Approach perfect strangers on a Saturday night in Soho and invite them to come into the church?” Their eyes widen as they envision it. I know this partly because it was more or less my reaction the first time I heard about it.
Nightfever is an outreach ministry involving a group of young adult volunteers go out into the streets in pairs, inviting passers-by to come into the nearby church and light a candle to place before the Blessed Sacrament. For many people, this is the first time they have set foot in a church in years, or possibly ever. Some find this encounter with Jesus very moving. Nightfever began in Cologne, and is now running in cities all over the world. In London, it is based at St. Patrick’s Church in Soho Square. This ministry is done by young adult volunteers who generally do three things in hour-long shifts over the course of the evening:
1. Spend time in adoration, praying for the volunteers and all the people who will be invited into the church
2. Stand at the entrance of the church, welcoming people in
3. Street ministry – go out into the streets and invite people in
My friends told me it was a really powerful experience and persuaded me to come along, but I told myself “I’ll just go along to pray. I won’t actually go out and do the street mission part.”
Ah, but you know what they say about the best laid plans… That resolution didn’t quite work out, because it happened that Nightfever was short of volunteers that evening, and they needed more people willing to be stationed at various high-traffic spots around Soho Square. I decided to take the plunge. Pairs of street ministry volunteers are usually a male and a female, and new volunteers with seasoned veterans. I signed up with my friend Michael, and after spending some time in adoration, we ventured out to start our shift.
So it was that I found myself standing on the street on a cold February night, holding a lantern in one hand and a few tealights in the other, watching Saturday night revellers walk past and feeling pretty unsure of what to say to these people that would make them want to come into the church and light a candle. After watching some of the other volunteers, I eventually realized that the concept at its core is just to extend a friendly invitation. I started to approach people and say something along the lines of, “Hi there! Do you want to come and light a candle in the church?” I expected them to react with hostility, or at least obvious annoyance, but I guess Londoners are used to being approached by sales people or activists on the street, and to my relief they were actually really good about it. As you’d expect, most people indicated that they weren’t interested, but they usually just politely said “No, thanks”, or at the very worst, simply pretended not to notice us. No one got angry with us for asking. But every now and then, someone would say yes, and we would lead them into the church.
Can I just say that St. Patrick’s puts on the most beautiful adoration I have ever seen anywhere in the world in my entire life? The church is dark as you walk in except for the sanctuary, lit up with spotlights shining down on the monstrance, and all the candles laid by our visitors in front of the altar. The effect is absolutely stunning. Combine that with the beautiful music played throughout the evening, and the atmosphere is such that you almost forget you’re on earth.
I imagine our visitors are at least as pleasantly surprised as I first was to enter into this environment. It feels peaceful, sacred, and safe. Since churches don’t usually look like this, l think it makes people willing to put this experience in a new category separate from times they’ve been to church in the past, and maybe that helps them approach it with a more open mind. We lead them up the centre aisle, still lighting the way with our lanterns, and invite them to light and place their candle at the base of the altar. We also offer them a little piece of paper and a pencil to write a prayer intention if they want to, as well as a scripture verse to reflect on as they bask in the presence of Jesus. We stay with them at the front of the church, and when they’ve finished lighting their candle or writing their intention, we simply let them know they are welcome to take a seat in the pews and stay as long as they like. Then we wish them well, leave them to get better acquainted with Jesus, and head back outside to see who else God will put in our path. Some leave as soon as they’ve lit their candle, but others will settle into a pew and begin to pray, or at least to be still in the presence of Jesus. We often see people becoming very emotional, which can be a sign that something is moving deep within their hearts. Some of them even come back to us later to thank us for inviting them in, and share what made it a powerful experience for them.
So yes, in a lot of ways standing on a street corner with a lantern, inviting perfect strangers into the church is a fairly ridiculous thing to do, but I discovered that any discomfort in approaching those strangers is completely drowned out by watching even one person, who had probably only planned on having a fun night out in Soho, being touched by an unexpected encounter with Jesus Christ.