About twenty years ago, in a local, growing church, a group of us began to explore what church might look like if it did not look like what it looks like today. From our theological research and prayerful deliberations over a few years, we became convinced that church as we know it (and have known it for the past nearly 2000 years) was not connecting effectively with our community and that there must be a better way to express the gospel than by meeting in a building a few times a week and making occasional forays out into the community in the form of programmes for children, young people, adults and old people; education, employment and immigrant projects; helping lower socio-economic neighbours; gospel promotion events and the like.
This led us to sell our church building, buy an office/warehouse complex in our local town centre and develop a community centre that research had shown our town desperately needed. Our dream was to provide a venue for community use through which could form meaningful connections with our neighbourhood that would lead to opportunities to invite them to join us in following Jesus.
However, as this dream became a reality, it concerned me that it seemed that the only way we had of demonstrating that someone from the community had connected with us was that they began attending our Sunday services. There was scant awareness of how this decision to join the church had affected what happened in their lives from Monday to Saturday (a conclusion similar to that reached in research by Willow Creek a few years ago). Moreover, those of us in church were modelling this Sunday-centric, venue-dependent and event-focused approach to Christianity at the same time as we preached on Sunday morning that coming to church on Sunday morning was not as important as what happened in the rest of our lives. But, as soon as someone didn’t show up at church, we began to wonder about their commitment to following Jesus.
And so a few of us began a process of asking, “What if church as we know it is not what we make it out to be – the centre of our worship life, the source of our teaching about our faith, the place of fellowship with fellow believers, and the house of God? What if the reality of worship, teaching, fellowship and the presence of God was to be found outside the walls of the building we call church? What would that make church? How would that change our worship, teaching, fellowship, and experience of the presence of God? How would that change how we ‘do’ church?”
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Around the same time, at a gathering of the members of the mission order I belong to, someone commented that there seems to be a lot of hype in church as we know it. Not just in the big, raving Pentecostal churches (which I enjoy immensely) or in the upmarket large evangelical churches or in the hothouse camps and conferences (some of which I have previously enjoyed producing and promoting) that proliferate (or pollute, maybe) the landscape of Christianity. But even in the small, quiet, fundamentalist, local church (like the one I belonged to for 25 years) there is still hype. The hype is that the experience of Sunday morning (or the experience of a massive conference or camp or special event) is what church is all about, that this is real church, and that we need it every Sunday and we need more of it.
But, in our misguided and thoughtless enthusiasm, and despite our strenuous and fervent proclamation in our events and meetings that following Jesus is an everyday lifestyle, maybe, through our policy (stated and implied), timetabling and expectations, we have created a fantasy that seems to have produced people who are committed to church but not necessarily committed to Jesus. We have communicated the fantasy that being committed to church means they are committed to Jesus. And, that being committed to Jesus means being committed to church. And being committed to church means being committed to the programs and events the church organizes. By communicating the fantasy as reality we have, in fact, achieved the very opposite of what we have stridently proclaimed.
Nevertheless, fantasy is important. We can’t live on reality alone. We indulge in fantasy every day. I have this fantasy as I wake up most mornings that I’m going to have a great day and that motivates me to get out of bed. Think about romance. It’s fantasy. But try maintaining a relationship with your partner without romance and you’ll soon learn that a little fantasy goes a long way. Or, sport. Winners live in the hope that the fantasy of coming out on top in every game will become reality. Without fantasy, no sportsman will (or should) take the field. Even in business we use fantasy to motivate ourselves. Cold, hard reality is not enough in any field to guarantee success.
So, while what happens in church might be fantasy, it is not all bad. Really well-produced church events are great – like a good show, a good movie, a good romantic moment, a good game, a good gourmet meal. But none of these are ongoing reality. None of these happen 24/7. None of these sustain us in the long term. And, even worse, treating fantasy as reality is a path to disaster. The reality of following Jesus is an everyday lifestyle, not a regular meeting or event. So, “What if church as we know it in our community is just a fantasy?” How would that affect what we do in the building we call church and, more importantly, how might it affect what we do outside of that building?
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Perhaps we could start by being honest with ourselves and the people we are communicating to that none of the biblical narratives about pleasing God (from the Old Testament prophets to Jesus and Paul in the New Testament) make attendance at church events and meetings a requirement for spending eternity with Jesus. Quite the opposite. The truth about what pleases God and guarantees an eternity with Jesus is far more grounded and focused on the reality of everyday life.
Possibly we could consciously downgrade the importance of Sunday meetings (and maybe even cancel them occasionally or often) and special spiritual events and upgrade the importance of following Jesus in our community by pushing ourselves out there to engage with people instead of always coming into the church building. And, when we have a meeting or an event, let’s have a good one and indulge in some really good fantasy and acknowledge it as such but let’s make sure we continually challenge ourselves to never let the fantasy replace the reality of following Jesus in the lives and situations of people in our community.
If we don’t challenge ourselves on this and make some changes, I fear we may end up asking Jesus on judgment day, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?” And we may hear Jesus say (in the words of The Message version of an earlier passage in Matthew chapter 7), “Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master, ’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects [services, meetings, events, etc] had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’”
Mal Green is a member of Incedo, a mission order in New Zealand exploring what it means to follow Jesus with young people 24/7 outside of the structures of Christianity so that we can invite them to join us in our faith adventure. He has been hanging out with young people since 1969 while studying, lecturing, mentoring, pastoring.