For over 20 years I have led churches and wonderful people that were part of them on, what I had always hoped, a journey that was continually drawing closer to the Jesus that we were all constantly seeking. Week after week exhorting people to walk out the door and apply the faith that they were exploring in the relative safety of the building to the insecurities that they were sure to encounter in between Sunday’s. Week after week my closing prayer was that we would know that we were not leaving church, but that we were the church, scattered throughout the land that God had placed us in. Somewhere within my calling, I felt that this would be enough … that if we just claimed it enough then it would in fact be so. 20 plus years later, during a time of intense self examination and reflection of my calling, here is what I’ve come to understand:
- Life change doesn’t happen in a Sunday gathering … Oh sure, I still believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in (many of) our church gatherings and still has the power to convict and draw out decisions and “a ha” moments through teaching and the experience of worship. But I can tell you, from my experience and I’m fairly positive that mine is not an anomaly, that the numbers bear witness to my observations. Good people of faith are less and less likely to even be part of a Sunday experience (or whatever day your group gathers). Since I began this journey, the average time for a “committed” follower of Jesus (their words, not mine) spent in a church gathering has decreased exponentially… and this during the era of attraction based ministries. I see it first hand in the people who were once “every time the church doors are open” participants and are now “when nothing better is going on” spectators. And just for the record, something better is almost always going on when you view faith as a spectator.
- When you live by the program, you die by the program… Someone will always have a better program than yours. If you build your church on the best (fill in the blank) program led by the best paid expert, eventually that will fail you. They will go on to greener pastures or church XYZ down the street will build it bigger and better, followed by church ABC, followed by church (fill in the blank). Make no mistake, I am not anti-program and I am not anti-staff, unless the motivation is to get and keep people in the building. God’s people, Jesus followers, were never meant to stay in the building. Programming and staff need to equip and send their people to follow Jesus out into the same earth that He was sent. “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message). My people have all lived in neighborhoods of some form or another, but I don’t think that I successfully equipped them to “live into” their neighborhoods. Theologically, this is known as the incarnation.
- Incarnation is a lifestyle, not a program … Here is where I know that I have failed … and unfortunately I’m not the only one. Because of our tendency to rely on programs, we have (I have) inadvertently conditioned our people that living our faith Monday thru Saturday needs to be held up and supported somehow by a program or our small group. While these can certainly be encouraging, they also become barriers. We aren’t equipping to just randomly serve without a sign up sheet with a convenient day and a time slot and the subject of the service. We aren’t equipping to intercede prayerfully in our neighborhoods unless it’s a small group effort. For most of my ministry I treated the idea of incarnational Monday through Saturday faith journeys as another form of programming … and the results bore that out. I lived in denial of my (our) failure for a long long time. Now I can look back and remember the exceedingly small percentages of people joining us in the neighborhood… the times we begged for “volunteers” to fill up the sign up sheet … ( As I write this I can’t help but realize that there’s something inherently wrong with labeling someones expression of faith as volunteering) …the terrified looks and incredibly lame excuses that kept Jesus followers securely behind the walls. We have long joked about the 80/20 rule of church … that 80% of the work is accomplished by 20% of the people. The joke has worn old and thin, yet it is still painfully accurate. In the same way, as I honestly look back I can say that, with my best efforts, I could only manage to inspire, guilt, lead, coerce about the same percentage into activities and expressions that took place outside of the walls of whatever church I led at the time.
- Liturgy guides people inside, it can also lead them outside, “into the neighborhood” … Liturgy is simply “the work of the people”. We use it most often inside the walls of a church gathering to lead us through and ground us in our worship. They can be routines that are established that center us on some certain aspect of our worship or some inherent quality of God. They can be prayers, postures, or participation’s that connect us to the bigger story of God and our place in it. In the same way, I have come to believe that they can do the same by guiding us in the lives and stories that take place outside of the walls we tend to take refuge behind. I know this to be true because the current community that I am part of (I’d say lead, but many times they are leading me) does not follow the 80/20 rule. When we live “into the neighborhood” there is no one reluctant or fearful (or to their credit it doesn’t affect them outwardly). I will tell you that even though we are feeling increasingly more comfortable with it, many others still want to “go to church”. Most people who wander in to our community are simply looking for what they’ve been conditioned for … programming, spectating, and low barrier faith. We are forming a neighborhood liturgy that guides us in unique expressions that center us in the story of God outside the walls. My desire in developing this liturgy further is that eventually, it becomes as second nature as breathing … that when we enter in to situations we encounter, unscripted or routine, that we have a natural reflex that guides us how to pray, how to reach out, how to respond. I have no idea how long I may have left on this journey, but I am committed to this end. I have no idea how it will turn out, but I already know how the other way did.