(gathering to send)
Is it a fair statement to say that for some time now, people in general have defined “church” as a place you go to on Sunday morning to worship? I think it is a fair statement. Whether we think that is the definition of “church,” it certainly is a fair description of how we tend to talk about and act about church. I would suggest that there is so much that we need to rethink with regard to that definition, especially in how we talk about it and live it out.
The principle exists that you reap what you sow. I hear people teach “love your neighbor” and “go into the world locally and globally and be a missionary everyday.” I see signs that promote a way of living to “reach” people for Christ. I know of groups that push people toward “discipleship” and growth. But what do all these really mean inside the contexts where they are talked about?
I ask that question, because there is a very important principle in group leadership dynamic (and in parenting, friendship, coaching, and a whole lot more) that is often missed here. It is this principle–IT’S NOT WHAT YOU TEACH. IT’S WHAT YOU EMPHASIZE. Being a missionary, loving your neighbor, and getting involved in discipling are all great things to teach and push people toward. But they are more importantly great things to emphasize over and over again in more than just words. Something is not being emphasized when it is just talked about. It is emphasized when its message influences both what is said as well as what is done. Something is emphasized when the practical day-to-day strategic purpose of a specific group reflects that emphasis in everything they do.
[the church is a “who”]
Let me give you an example. I have personally never met a “preacher” who disagrees with me on this statement–The church is not a place or an event. She is a who. The church is people.
I have heard preachers teach that very statement on more than one occasion within their specific context. However, the bridge from philosophy to pragmatism can be a long one. What I mean is that they teach it, but then they turn right around and let these messages be communicated within their group in some form (signage, websites, handouts, etc.):
- Such-and-Such Church…a place where you belong.
- Invite a friend to church!!!
- See you at church Wednesday night!
- Who’s missing from CH_ _ CH? U R!
- GOAL – 900 in Sunday School. 1200 in church.
- Church Campaign Fund: $70,000,000 (and this is for more buildings on a central campus)
In addition, with regard to scheduling, the tendency is to put something on the calendar for people to be a part of every night of the week. Now granted, in some cases, there is not an expectation that you be there for everything. But in other cases, there is this unwritten expectation that you are there for everything, and if you are not, people think you might not really be committed.
Like I said, the bridge from philosophy (thinking a certain way about something) and pragmatism (what actually is the practical thing to do) can be a long one. Let’s come back to the original question and unpack it.
Is it a fair statement to say that for some time now, people in general have defined “church” as a place you go to on Sunday morning to worship?
First, is church a place or an event? Did you know that the New Testament of the Bible refers to “church” in some form more than 140 times. I can’t find one single occasion where the reference is to a place or an event. While it is certainly true that it often is referring to “people who gathered together,” it is still referring to people. The early church gathered in many ways, with one another and within their community, and did life together daily, not just weekly. So, “church” is not a place.
Next, “church” also isn’t some event we “go to on Sunday morning.” The fact is that the early church gathered in many ways together. In Acts chapter 2, the early church is described as praying together, breaking bread together, listening to the Apostles teachings together, fellowshipping together, and sharing all they had with anyone who had need. They deeply loved each other, all week, and deeply loved their families and neighbors and people in the marketplace all week. They didn’t GO TO CHURCH. They WERE THE CHURCH. And we, too, are to BE THE CHURCH everyday.
Furthermore, the suggested statement of how church has been defined implies that we go to church on Sundays to WORSHIP, as if that is the only time during the week that we worship. Now, you may not think this is a big deal, but people often miss the multiple opportunities during their daily lives to worship because “worship” has been emphasized (though not necessarily taught that way) as singing together on Sunday morning.
Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, you see people worship in multiple ways, encountering God and responding to Him through song, through prayer, through connection with people, through difficulty, through victory, through tragedy, through shame, and much more. And all of these were not at a gathering on Sunday morning. They happened in ordinary, everyday life.
Could it be that people have emphasized “place” so much for “church” that gathering at a central campus at a specific weekly time has become the main way we think of it, and that this way of thinking is actually hindering us from BEING THE CHURCH and living with the daily purpose Jesus intended His church to have? It seems like we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to doing life deeply with one another, because we did “church” this week already on Sunday.
[more than semantics]
This is more than just a language issue, more than semantics. It is evidence of the need to rethink so that we can renew how we are being the church. I know, I know. You know the church is people. You even hear preachers and priests teach that from time to time. Great! People need to hear that. But, is it being emphasized?
This is not only important for those who already follow Jesus or those who might be connected to a local church family doing life together. It is also important for those who don’t yet follow Jesus but are searching for real and abundant life. Like the woman at the well in John 4.
Jesus met her in her way of thinking about “worship” and “church” (even though she would not have called it “church”). She asked him about “place”–Jerusalem or Gerazim. Jesus told her that place was not the point. Worshipping connected through the Spirit and in the fullness of truth–what God intended her to be–was what mattered. She had stumbled around location and division among the Jewish religious emphases and the Samaritan religious emphases for some time. That, along with some personal shame, hindered her from encountering God for real.
So God came to her. Jesus left the “place” and met her where she was. He challenged her own thinking about the proper “place” and how she thought of “worship,” and He transformed her into a “worshipper.”
God wants more than for us to just show up to worship. He wants us to be His worshipper everyday. Then, when we show up to worship together with the church at a worship gathering, our worship together at that one time in that one place with that group of people becomes a reflection of and a celebration of what we’ve been experiencing with God all week.
Do you know of anyone looking for another good event to go to or another time slot to ﬁll in their schedule or another segment to create in their living? I don’t. But, I meet people who are looking for abundant life and who yearn for a cause that makes their lives significant. They are searching for something much bigger than themselves, not just another item to schedule that they feel obligated to attend.
So, if all we ever do is speak of church as this thing we go to or this place down the road or this building with a steeple, how will our culture ever understand that following Jesus is a viable spiritual option everyday? The best spiritual option? What they were made for, even? That’s a big deal.
It is important to think of and talk of church as a WHO instead of a WHAT, because Jesus did. And, if we really do, it will affect not only our language. It will begin to affect how we are BEING THE CHURCH DAILY.
I have often wondered when all this talk about church as a “what” started? You don’t see it in the early church. Historically, I have not found it. My research on the topic has come up empty, so I am only guessing with what I am about to say.
I would guess that the phrase became prevalent some time after Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. After that point, being a Roman citizen meant you were a “Christian.” Gathering for worship was just what you did. The “who” was lost. Church became a “what”–a segment of life that was obligatory, a “thing” people made a part of their schedule or went to from time to time.
Here’s an example that quite possibly backs up my little hypothesis. Randy Millwood is a very cool professor from my Seminary days who always challenged the norm and spoke of “simple church” before it became as popular as it is today. He asked me a question one day when we were hanging out. The question:
What one person had the most significant impact on Christianity in the 20th century?
I thought for a few moments. Several names passed through my mind. The one that came off the tip of my tongue was Billy Graham, but that seemed too obvious. Randy was the kind of guy who liked to point out the obvious as something that often clouded what really needed to be seen.
But, with a disclaimer, I answered with Billy Graham. My disclaimer was that I was sure there was someone more signiﬁcant that was not as obvious a ﬁgure as Graham, or Randy wouldn’t be asking me the question. Randy’s response might surprise you.
He said he thought the most impactful person on Christianity as we have come to know it at the close of the 20th century was Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the foremost Chinese Communist leader of the 20th century and principal founder of the People’s Republic of China. Randy expounded.
When he came to power, it had not been long since following Jesus had been introduced by missionaries to the people of China. The number of Chinese who were following Jesus at the time was relatively minimal. When the 20th century came to a close, the number of Christ-followers considered to be in China was estimated at 80,000,000. Probably more, though, because of so many underground that we can’t
In contrast, when communism overtook Russia in 1917, the “church” had already been established. Cathedrals of brick and mortar were abundant. People equated Sunday and buildings with church. Under communism, the “church” did not ﬂourish there like it did in China. Why? Because the construct was church as a “what.” When the “what” got oppressed and controlled by communist leaders, it became stagnant.
In China, however, it ﬂourished as a “who.” People did not quit “going to” church because they had no concept of “going to” church. They just kept on being the church.
Here’s a modern day example. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the town I grew up in. New Orleans is an earthy city, full of artisans and ethnic groups and chefs and everyday folk who make up a cultural melting pot known as the eclectic city they call the “Big Easy.” If you really want to get a feel for it, search “Chuck Perkins” on Google. He is a poet from New Orleans who has a poem on the city that describes my hometown better than any other description I’ve seen. Well, that “earthy” city became a muddy waterhole when Katrina’s storm surge and rain overpowered the levees that kept back the canal waters that run four to six feet above the city. Chaos and death and confusion ensued, and an event occurred that those involved and those whose hearts are tied to this expressive city will never, ever forget.
Many churches that existed before the tragedy did not continue afterward. But, some did. When I talked with local friends and pastors about this dilemma, there was a common denominator that became clear. Those local church families that were being the church, not just going to church, before the storm, continued to be the church after the storm. The existence of those local churches whose buildings and events defined them ended was swept away in the flood or torn down when their buildings were demolished.
My “home church family” lost their building. The whole thing. But their ministry lives on and their heart continues to beat for the people of the city they love. The “Big Easy” was not so easy during that time. Still isn’t. But the people who were being the church before the storm are still being the church afterward. That’s a fact.
It does seem to me that for the most part, and by most teachers that I know in North American and European church culture in particular, “the church” has been taught as a “who.” However, what has been emphasized is definitely more of a “what,” a place, or an event. What has been sown is “come and see and a master teacher will feed you.” What has been reaped is followers of pastors and/or other good teachers who have:
- made Sunday mornings a sacred cow
- equated discipling with getting more people to the place where they can hear the pastor
- developed spiritual nourishment patterns defined by gluttony on the Sunday “worship” experience, as well as on the words of the pastor on Sunday mornings, all the while starving themselves
- become lazy when it comes to living out the teachings of Jesus the rest of the week.
Surely pastors have not intended for this to happen. While it may stroke the ego of these equippers, it has stifled the daily ministry of everyone else. And it is the daily ministry of everyone else that seems to be much more important according to the New Testament, and much more influential according to the stories of the people of our culture.
Why? Could it be that the daily ministry of the church as a whole tells a story and engages people in a way that pastors never could on Sundays? Could it be that the credibility of daily living is and always has been a much more significant form of influence than what one individual tries to communicate?
Not that what pastors communicate is unimportant. Not that the role they play as equippers is not necessary. But Sunday mornings cannot be viewed as just “fueling stations” any longer. They must be viewed as POST OFFICES, gathering and sorting mail in order to send out those letters into daily culture.
Process that for a moment. How much more focused and intentional would you be in each of your relationships if you thought of each of those relational encounters as the very mission we are called to as the church? How would you rethink church if you understood that you are a letter containing the message of Christ’s love, and that you were intended to live out and carry that love to the world?
Johan is a friend of mine who is a pastor of a local church family that our church family partners with from time to time. The phrase he uses to emphasize this is “Church 168.” There are 168 hours in the week, and we need to be BEING THE CHURCH all 168 HOURS!!!
With a Post Office, letters are always going out. This is a much better way of thinking about Sunday morning. How would what happens on Sunday morning change if we thought of it this way? What happens on Sunday mornings–is it catalytic for sending out letters or just attractional, attempting to draw more and more people in?
If “church” is nothing more than Sunday morning refueling stations for you, think about this. Aren’t you going to run out of gas during the week? Don’t you need more nourishment than that? That way of thinking, church as Sunday mornings as a “fueling station,” is such a self-absorbed, consumeristic mindset. It is like eating a bagel on Sunday morning, even if it is with that really yummy flavored cream cheese that you can get, and expecting that one meal to satisfy you for the whole week. That’s ridiculous. About as ridiculous as putting the burden of your spiritual nourishment on one person who is supposed to flavor up messages each week so they’re good enough to sustain you until you can come back to eat again the next Sunday.
What if we have had it backwards? I mean how “church” has been emphasized. What if we have been thinking of gathering on Sundays and how we fuel up there as the most important element of “church,” when all the while it has actually caused us to forget how we should be the church daily. Has that way of thinking, that emphasis, hindered us from living sent beyond the four walls where we gather? What if we gathered as “the church” less and lived sent as “the church” to our neighbor more? What if we worried less about the church as an entity to preserve and more about being the church as people?
Another friend of mine, a guy who was connected with our local church family through a couple that was simply being the church to them, wrote me a letter when they moved to Dallas. He had done life with us for a while, and his takeaway was significant. Here’s an excerpt:
When we first connected with Westpoint, it was to provide our son with some solid moral principals that would help shape him as he grew up…or so we thought that was the reason. In reality, God was the one doing the molding and the shaping. With my wife and I having “grown up in church,” we both were wonderful at talking the talk of being Christians and were both failing miserably when it came to walking the walk that accompanied it. God used our son to bring us to our knees and surrender ourselves to Him.
We felt loved from the very beginning. It just got better from there. Our eyes were opened to an entirely new path of how a church should function. Love Jesus…love people…love people the way Jesus loves people. What a concept! Westpoint is not about being a church with this huge list of religious dos and don’ts. It is about living with joy, living with stress, living with pain, living with your neighbors and co-workers…just living life. Letting Jesus live through you every day of your life. Not judging people, not condemning them, but loving them. Walking with them through both good times and bad. Doing this thing called life together.
Church was always such a chore for me before we were with Westpoint. Now church IS me. I am the church all day every day.
I have been blessed with Westpoint to have so many people to call upon if I need help, guidance, a shoulder to lean on, or someone to help me when I stumble (and we all stumble). Someone to hold me accountable in my words and actions. Our family is taking a part of each of you with us to Texas. We are taking the concept of love we have learned from Westpoint and will plant that seed in our new location. We will water it, nurture it, and let God run with it as only He can.
Being the church everyday. Church 168. Living sent daily as a letter from God to a people He loves and wants us to love, too. Very seriously, we must rethink church. We cannot emphasize the central campus and what happens inside the four walls on Sunday mornings any longer. Think of it this way.
I have an email inbox for more than just gathering emails. It certainly does that. But it actually exists to communicate fully–from and to. It isn’t worth much if I don’t send emails back, if I don’t respond. What I fear has happened in church culture for too long is that we have emphasized writing emails but never sending them. Like when I write a draft to an email and save it for review. What if I never sent it? It would just be “saved” sitting in the draft box. Saved but not sent. Sounds eerily like much of church culture today.
We must go beyond just gathering. We must gather to send.
[go this week and be the church]
We close our Sunday morning gatherings the same way each week, simply as a point of spoken emphasis. After we’ve done all we’re going to do and are about to release everyone to live sent during the week, one of us will say something like this:
Like we say every week: you don’t go to church. You ARE the church. So, go this week and be the church.
May we all do that, and be that letter everyday. May we see the vitality of gathering as a response of worship together, celebrating what God has done in and through us throughout the week. May we then leave that gathering, connected to the One sending us, so that we will continue to be living as this movement He started long ago called “church.”