On a recent consultation with a congregation, I stumbled upon a question that sparked a meaningful and helpful conversation. I asked the group present at the congregational gathering I was leading to stand along the back wall of the room and pretend the floor was a giant continuum. One end of the continuum was designated as “outside” and the other “inside.” Then I asked this question: “Do the most important things in the Christian life happen inside, or outside the church itself?” I then asked them to move to the place along the continuum that best represented their answer to the question. They could pick any spot to stand ranging from one extreme (outside the church) to the other (inside the church) or anywhere in between. What do you expect happened? Most of the group eventually ended up clumped together between the midpoint and the end of the continuum I had designated as “outside the church.” In other words, they indicated a belief that more important aspects of living the Christian life happen outside rather than inside the church itself.
This is no great revelation or surprise in itself. It would be difficult to find a Christian congregation that did not define itself as “missional” to one extent or another. Typical congregational mission and vision statements reflect an understanding that they exist to serve, evangelize, etc., beyond the walls of the church. Christians have long interpreted such scriptures as Luke 9:1-6, Matthew 25:31-46, Matthew 28:19-20, and many others as a mandate for Christians to be “on mission” to the larger world in which they live. The congregation where I am a member (First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC) provides a good example of this:
“OUR MISSION: A family of faith seeking to know Christ and make Him known. OUR VISION: Combining our heritage with innovation, we will care for broken people, reach the unchurched, and develop disciples for Jesus Christ.”
It was my next question at that congregational meeting that sparked the most interesting and thoughtful part of the conversation that day. While they were still standing on my imaginary continuum, I then asked them to move to the place on the continuum that best represented their answer to this question: “Are your church structures (governance, leadership, programs, budget, ministries, etc.,) focused more on what happens inside or outside the church?” After only a moment’s hesitation, the crowd quickly migrated to the other side of the midpoint indicating that their structures were aimed more at supporting things that happen inside—not outside—the church. In that instant they were able to identify one of the huge paradoxes reflected in most congregations.
As Christians, we believe we should be focused on making a difference outside the church. Over time however, the demands of the institutions we have created have led us to focus most of resources on the inside. The congregational institutions we have created have needs that have to be met if those institutions are to survive. It is certainly legitimate to devote time, money and human resources to making them strong, healthy and effective. One might even argue that strengthening the institutional church is itself a missional endeavor. However, for too many congregations addressing the needs of the institution has become an end in itself. Church attendance, serving within the leadership structures of the congregation (committee service), and giving financially to support the financial needs of the church have in many cases evolved in the de-facto standard for what’s expected of church members and maybe Christians in general. The result is a congregation that wants to be outwardly focused and on mission to the world, but is in fact structured and designed to claim most of the energy and resources for itself.
What’s the solution to this problem? Like most important issues, I believe the problem and its solution are spiritual ones. It will take intentionality, time and effort to find the right balance that will allow our institutions to thrive but not become a stand-in for the real work to be done—changing the world.