Ever start having a conversation, think you are talking about one thing, and then realize you are actually talking about something completely different? That is how the missional church conversation has been for me. I think that I am struggling with one thing only to discover that what I’m fighting in my head is actually something completely different.
Recently something hit me like a tone of bricks. I don’t have it all figured out yet. I’m still working through it, but I’m at a point where I need to share it.
First, for those that might be new to this rant let me back up and give you a brief history…
A little over three years ago now Wendy and I began a journey of definition. We had a whole mess of ideas and frustrations rolling around in our heads about the church, and we were struggling to put them together. It was like looking at a bunch of puzzle pieces on the floor not knowing what picture they combined to make. As we encountered missional thinkers they put words to our emotions and desires. These thinkers (like Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Francis Chan, Hugh Halter, Reggie McNeal, Ed Stetzer, and others…I list those in case later you want to find a book and read for yourself) helped us begin to see how the pieces fit together.
Along the way we joined with a small group of like minded believers and planted a church in north east Baltimore we affectionately call “the Thingy.” A year ago Wendy and I also returned to the traditional institutional church Wendy grew up in to walk with them as they move from being a caring family to a team of people on mission with God.
So here is the latest puzzle piece I’m working to put in its place…
You’ve heard people say “Church is not a place it is a group of people.” I’ve recently come to realize that this statement is incomplete.
First, “church is not a place” – this is a great phrase. Often I’ve fallen into the trap of defining “church” as a building or location. I hear it when my kids ask me “where are we going today?” and I reply, “We are going to church.” When I say that phrase I have a big building in my head where I go on Sunday mornings.
This might seem like trivial semantics, but it is not. Our definition of “church” shapes our definition of discipleship, of evangelism, of God, etc… If we allow the word “church” to be defined as a place, then being a member of a church means going to a place routinely. We come to think of God as existing in a specific place. Evangelism comes to mean bringing people to that place. All of those are bad.
Our definition of “church” is important because effects other stuff.
Like I was saying earlier, the statement “church is not a place” does not go far enough. We must add the words, “or an activity.” You see, often when I talk about “church” I think of a series of groups of activities – singing hymns or praise choruses with a group of people on Sunday mornings, Sunday school meetings, listening to sermons, bible studies, small groups in a person’s home, and on and on.
Defining “church” as an activity or event carries with it the same problem as defining “church” as a location. The gathering becomes the point. Following Christ centers around attending a meeting.
Recognizing the church is not a building was easy for me. Understanding the church is also not an activity has been harder. Just one quick question to stimulate your thinking (and then I will come back to it more later)…
Let’s say you attend The Church of the Awesome Worship Band. If you miss a week of Sunday morning worship at Church of the AWB are you still a member of your church? What if you miss a month? Two months? What if you miss a year? What if you go for a month, and then don’t go, and then come back for two weeks, and then miss for another month and a half? Was your member turning on and off like a light switch? If you said, “I’m no longer a member after X amount of time” then your living in an activity center definition of church.
Second – while yes, “a church is a group of people” we need to add to that, “on mission with God together.” It is not simply enough to “be a group of people.”
I used to play basketball with the same group of guys every Thursday evening. We were not a church.
I used to go out to eat breakfast with the same friends in the cafeteria every morning in college. We were not a church.
This group of people, to be classified as a church, needs to be moving together after God. They need a common lifestyle they are sharing.
Don’t be confused, I’m not talking about following a set of rules or setting up some legalistic doctrine everyone has to live by.
“To be part of this church you need to wear a clown nose on Tuesdays and hope on one foot on Saturdays from 4 to 7pm.”
By lifestyle, I mean the group of people need to agree that following Christ is about _________. For example, at the two churches I’m a part of right now have both said that following Jesus is about loving like Jesus. We are now working to make that lifestyle, “love like Jesus”, the heart of everything we do together and in the community as missionaries.
There needs to be lifestyle at the center of our self-definition as churches.
I know this feels weird and confusing. I realize many of you are thinking, “I attend a building on a weekly basis but we have a lifestyle…don’t we?…I mean…we’ve got a slogan.” Other of you are asking, “Cant’ attendance be a lifestyle? Shouldn’t my activities define my lifestyle?” Others are thinking, “What is Jeff smokin’ today?”
Hang with me. In the coming weeks I’m going to jump on those questions and more that I’m struggling with too. For example:
- What are the problems activities centric thinking is causing? How will they be fixed by lifestyle centric thinking?
- Can a church be missional and activities centric? (a.k.a. – Both / And?)
- How does Activities centric vs. Lifestyle centric cross church models? Can a mega-church and a house church both be activities centric?
- What is the difference between having a mission statement or slogan and being lifestyle centric? Is the purpose driven model lifestyle centric?
- Where did Jesus fall on this? Do we see this distinction playing out in the Scripture?
- How do we keep lifestyle centric from becoming legalistic? What was Paul’s example?
Any who. I hope I’ve given you something to chew on. If so, welcome to my crazy. Pull up a comfy chair and strap in because things about to get really weird in here.