It dawned on me the other day, in all places—a church, that Jesus never did his ministry inside of a church building. He did all of his ministry outside, or inside of people’s homes, anywhere, but a church building. Those times he did happen to be in the sanctuary, he seemed to irritate those who were gathered to the point that one congregation wanted to stone him to death. I’ve preached a few of those sermons. But, it hit me like a ton of bricks . . . Jesus never did his ministry within the walls of a church.
In W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, there is a line that is spoken to a hidden voice to the main character about building a baseball field in the middle of a Iowa cornfield: “If you build it, they will come.” (Actually it was, “If you build it, he will come”. It alluded to the main character’s deceased father.) This quote pretty much sums up the game plan of the “church” for the past several hundreds of years . . . if you build it, they will come . . . if you program it, they will come . . . if you entertain them, they will come. Everything is focused upon the people coming to the “church”. This plan worked for a while, but it hasn’t had much success lately . . . as quick as people are coming in the front door, just as many—if not more—are heading out the back door. The scary thing about this attitude, even as it continues to fail, is that it is still a prevalent attitude among a lot of those who serve within the church. Where did this model come from . . . it is not a truly biblical model as best as I can ascertain from my understanding . . . though, I must admit, I have fallen for it through the years in my own ministry.
I know that most people think that I am joking when I tell them that one of the reasons I went into the ministry was that if I was going to have to go to “church” every Sunday, I might as well be the one doing all the preaching. I seem to enjoy hearing myself talk. The truth is, I am not real big on going to “church”—at least organized “church” as it is today—if I am not the one leading the experience. Trust me, I am no pulpit giant by any stretch of the imagination . . . I don’t think that what I have to say is any more important than what anyone else has to say . . . I’m not the gatekeeper to the kingdom; but, I do think that it is one way to get me into “church”. “Church”, as it is primarily practiced today, does not work for me . . . didn’t work thirty years ago either . . . thus, I became a minister.
Actually, I received a call to follow Jesus. I thought that Jesus was within the walls of the “church”. That is what I was led to believe. I should have been listening more closely, because that is not what was being said. Trust me, Jesus has led me lots of places and few of them have been within the confines of the four walls of a building called a “church”. Most of my deepest and most touching experiences of Jesus and his call upon my life have been outside the walls of the “church” . . . in fact, they didn’t involve buildings at all, but people. It has been through people . . . relationships with people . . . that I have experienced Jesus the most prevalent within my life.
Because of that, why is it that the “church” continues to buy into this idea that ministry is a series of programs or projects within the confines of its structure that will bring people to Jesus? I mean, Jesus did not minister within a “church” . . . no, Jesus was among the people.
There is the little children’s ditty about “here is the church . . . here is the steeple . . . open the door and see all the people.” Problem is . . . there are no people! I was taught that the church was the body of Christ in the world. I was also taught that whenever two or three people gathered in Jesus’ name, he would be present. In the presence of Jesus, is that not the body of Christ . . . is that not the “church” as Jesus understood it? I think so. I have heard countless clergy . . . countless ministers . . . countless laypeople . . . all say, “Church is not a building, but the people.” They say it, but do they believe it?
Now, do not get me wrong. I love the “church” . . . I enjoy my time that I spend in “church” each week. But it is not because of the building. It is not because of the worship service. It is not because of the study group. It is not because of the Bible study. Not because of any fellowship groups or program we might have. No, I do not enjoy my time because of the “church” as most folks understand it; but, because of the people. I love the people I get the opportunity to share with each week . . . I love the fellowship . . . I love the sharing . . . I love the intimacy . . . the care and the love. It is when I am among them . . . relating to them . . . that I come to experience the “church” . . . that I experience Jesus.
The “church”, as most of us know it, is on a nexus . . . either towards extinction or of becoming what Jesus intended it to be. I doubt seriously if it will die tomorrow, but from the pulpit I serve, the “church” is struggling. It is struggling with the reality that they have built it and no one is coming. And, why should they? Jesus came to the people. Jesus ministered among the people. Jesus taught among the people. There were no “walls” hemming him in . . . and, so it was in the early church. Somehow, we strayed away from the path of Jesus.
The “church” as we know it is not the answer. The words of Shoe, in the comic strip above, are truer than any of us really want to admit. Jesus knows the answer . . . but, are we going to listen? To really listen and follow? As always, Jesus is the way.