As I sat down to put some recent thoughts to screen, ironically, I stumbled on a new Barna report showing that more than half of US church goers have never heard of the “Great Commission”. Worse, in my opinion was that “Additionally, even when presented with a list of passages, 37 percent don’t recognize which well-known passage typically goes by this name.” In other words, they’ve never heard, or at least don’t remember Jesus’ call to “go into all the world”. Chances are a great many more, if they do recognize these words, feel they only apply to traditional “missionaries” … as in the super spiritual or the socially awkward that may find a more suitable place to serve in other cultures. I qualify this as ironic because the thoughts that I was (and am) about to express can be traced back, I believe, to what this study has found. In short, it is my observation and opinion we are drifting ever closer to turning both the concepts of church and ministry into nouns. There are some notable exceptions to this stirring throughout our culture that I will highlight in future posts … they are hopeful exceptions subverting the traditional church culture.
I will admit at the outset that I have never, at least not since childhood, considered “the church” as merely something one attends or belongs to. I have had the privilege of leading a few ministries who, over time, began to push back on the idea of church as a noun. The leaned into what I’ll term as the “verb-ness” of ministry and of church. My longest and most joy-filled experience was with a historic urban church who leaned into “verb-ness” as a way of revitalizing and reconnecting. We enjoyed several “don’t go to church, be the church” weekends where we traded the traditional Sunday morning gatherings for opportunities to spread out in the neighborhood serving schools, parks, elderly and artists … serving breakfast to firefighters and painting over graffiti local businesses. Each week in our regular gatherings were concluded with a benediction reminding us that we weren’t leaving church, that we were the church, “going out” into the lives that we’ve been placed in.
This past weekend my wife and I visited a new church … at this point in our ministry we have opportunities to visit other expressions of the church and explore new opportunities for community. I have known about this particular church for several years and respected them from a distance as they’ve grown and adapted their ministry. Imagine our excitement when, during the worship, a video outlining their target vision for the new year was projected on screen and it included a renewed emphasis on “being the church”. Those words thoroughly resonate with me and I rarely hear them in a setting like that. Now imagine my disappointment when this concept was defined and it was completely and unmistakably all about getting all of their members to be present on Sundays as well as getting them all engaged in their missional communities and serving opportunities. It was all about treating the church and the ministry as a noun … something that you come to or are part of … to form a subculture without acknowledging the “kingdom now” aspect of our faith. While this may not be the intent … it certainly leads to a well documented outcome. It’s the same battle that most of our churches are fighting and losing miserably at. How do we get people to come to us or our stuff? How do we get people to serve with us? Granted, with our current manifestation of church, some of these things are necessary, but our overemphasis has unintended consequences. We are spending all of our time, energy, and resources building a spiritual industrial complex (noun) rather than unleashing an organic band of Jesus followers (verb).
I don’t want to be overly critical of this particular gathering. They are not alone in this at all. The reality is they are overwhelmingly the rule and not the exception … come to our gatherings and hear about the kingdom. Come to our stuff and we will minister to you. Come out of your element and your comfort zones and into ours. Then we will love and serve you. Jump our hurdles, learn our languages and customs and we will gladly tell you our interpretation of who Jesus is. It is interesting that this posture of “come to us” is chosen by most communities and yet they are very often less than welcoming when you do get there. When visiting a new church, we nearly always arrive early, which is a dead giveaway you’re new, and then we purposefully hang a bit afterwards. It’s often only the pastors who make any effort whatsoever to be welcoming. This weekend was no exception. In so many instances we’ve staked our church futures on this method of invitation only, despite the fact that statistics continue to tell us that it’s not working. Think about it for a minute … how willing would you be to attend a party that you know either by experience or reputation to be lame?
So what happens when our methods of making ministry into a noun (as in “the ministry) don’t seem to be working? I have only one suggestion … let’s try doing what Jesus called us to do …to “go”. Go out to where people are … to be part of the culture we’re placed in … to serve people in the places they live … to treat ministry as something you do and not as something you come to. Only one time did Jesus call his followers to wait. Just before he left this earth, he asked them to wait on the Holy Spirit. They did, and the Spirit showed up on Pentecost. What are we waiting for? Let’s go recapture Jesus vision of the “verb-ness” of the church.