Don't Build a Church - Be the Church

Church happens outside the walls too.

Church happens outside the walls too.

I once lead a deacons’ retreat at a church.  The theme was a simple one:  “What Does It Mean To Be the Church?”  I asked the group to imagine that no church existed at all in their town and that they had been sent as missionaries from some far off place to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the folks there who had no idea about the Christian faith.  I wondered together with them about how they would start.  What sort of “strategy” would they identify as a means to share their faith?

At first they were puzzled by the assignment.  I had to clarify a bit.  “You mean, our whole town is following another religion?” one deacon asked.

I answered in the affirmative. 

“Or perhaps no religion at all,” I added.

“And we are supposed to plant a church here?” he continued.

“That certainly is one thing you might do,” I responded.  “But you also might decide to do something else as well.”

They divided into groups and started working.  Eventually we all came back together as a larger group.  And they reported on their conversations.

One group had a great idea.  They looked around the group and identified the various occupations that sat at the table—a couple of teachers, a lawyer, a hardware store owner, a landscape designer.  They determined that they could make a living in their occupations while working through those occupations to share the gospel with others in the community, to meet human need, to try to make the community a better place.

We tossed that one around for a while.  One guy just couldn’t quite get it.  He couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the goal of the group was to engage in mission in the world and not to “build a church.”  He kept trying to argue the others down and to insist that they needed a church building first before they did anything else.

Then someone said it.  “Isn’t this exactly what we are to be doing as church now?  Using our occupations and our lives beyond the walls of the church to be the presence of Christ in the world?”

The man who was having difficulty grasping it all suddenly slapped his hand to his forehead and said, “Wait a minute!  Do you mean to tell me that my construction work during the week actually connects to what I do at church on Sunday?”

I nodded yes.  Somehow through all the Sunday School classes and worship services over the years, he had missed this simple truth.

And I suppose this is what I carry away from the mission conversations we have had at church over these past Wednesday nights.  Our goal is the same as the goal of those who have shared with us.  To see ourselves as God’s people in the world as much as we see ourselves as God’s people in the church.  To move outside the walls.  To change and transform our community in the same ways that they have transformed theirs.  This truly is what it means to be church.  We just sometimes have to be reminded.