A few years back, a friend and mentor of mine introduced me to a concept that really made sense regarding the local church. He talked about the three C’s of church. Contents, Context, and Containers. The contents of what church is about is non-negotiable. If we are seeking to be faithful to the Bible, we will do our best to understand it and let the contents of what we do and say as the church be driven by what it says.
The containers in which that content is housed are negotiable, they can change. Another way of saying container might be presentation. How is the contents being presented? In which containers is the content housed?
But I haven’t really been thinking much about contents or containers lately. I’ve mainly been focused on context. This friend and mentor asked a question as he presented this idea of context. He asked, “How does God want to express himself through our church in our community at this time?”
As I’ve been on this church planting journey, I’ve been visiting other churches to get an idea of how they do things. I’ve especially wanted to observe churches that meet in non-traditional spaces, spaces that are not their own. Schools. Theaters. Rented spaces where they have to set up and tear down every week. We’ve visited a number of them.
As I look back over the past decade of my life in full-time ministry, I can see a progression of my thinking in regards to church. Ten years ago, I questioned why church planting was necessary. I also questioned why there are so many churches and why people feel the need to constantly change churches. It never made a lot of sense to me and it still doesn’t completely make sense, but I’ve begun to put some of the pieces together in my head.
You see, as I’ve looked around and seen these different expressions of the body of Christ, I’ve begun to understand that it makes more sense than I thought for there to be so many expressions. After all, we are a diverse people and that diversity is going to shine differently in different contexts and in different people.
But there are two things that I think need to happen in order for this to be more effective.
1) Before you leave and before you commit, ask a different question
It seems that people choose churches like they choose an outfit in the morning before they leave the house, it all depends on what kind of mood they are in. I think that often people come to the local church and ask themselves what she can do for them, and I don’t think that’s the right question.
With all apologies to JFK, I think his statement about asking what you can do for your country may apply here as well. Instead of asking what a church can do for them or even asking what they can do for the church, I think they need to ask themselves, “How can I best fit into this community?” or “Is there a place for me in this community?” or even “How can I best use the gifts that God has given me in this community?”
I think that some people may ask that question but I wonder how many actually go through the due diligence of seeking the answer in earnest. It seems that people are quick to express their frustration with the inadequacies of the local church and quickly go find another one. I wonder what would happen if every pastor expressed the same frustration over those members and their lack of engagement and using of their gifts in that same local church. That would be interesting!
If we think about it in terms of the context question my friend shared, I think we might wonder how we might fit into this local expression as God expresses himself through us in this place and at this time. Are we seeking ways that we fit or are we seeking ways that we disagree?
If the church is to be about the Missio Dei, the mission of God, her people will need to ask these questions with the intent of finding out how to best be used by God. This doesn’t mean that God can’t accomplish his will without us, but it does mean that we should always be asking how can I use what God has given me to best be a part of his work?
So, before you take your toys and go somewhere else, ask yourself if you have really been seeking to use the gifts that God has given you where he planted you.
2) Come Together Despite Differences
The town in which I am starting a new church is a unique place. It’s fairly diverse in many ways and it’s been cool and interesting to see.
There are a number of churches that already exist there and I’ve already had it asked of me more than once why this place needs one more church. And what I am finding is that God wants to take a group of people who come together in community to allow him to uniquely express himself in this particular place at this particular time.
If you were to put all of the churches together, I think you would have a lot of differing opinions on a number of different topics. But, I also think that there would be a number of areas where you would see agreement, and frankly, I think that gets overlooked far too often.
For how far down the road we are since the church was established in the first century, I don’t know that there will ever be a time this side of eternity when we could move towards one local expression of the body of Christ. In the meantime, though, I think we can look for a taste of what is to come. I think we can look at the essentials and see if we align there. If we do, I think we can have some discussions on the places where we differ and see if those differences prevent us from fellowship together. If we are honest, I have a hard time believing that they will.
In fact, as I look around at the community and its needs, I think that God can accomplish his work through his church if some of the barriers that have been keeping us apart are removed. That doesn’t mean that we will all agree on everything. That doesn’t mean that there might still be some significant differences. Could it be that some of these differences exist so that we can work through them and in spite of them? What would happen if the world could see the testimony of grace in these local churches as they put differences aside and seek to be on mission together?
As I continue to go from church to church to see how God is expressing himself from context to context, I am beginning to understand that these separate churches aren’t a bad thing if we can just try to find ways to come together now and then. We can be unique, express ourselves in the ways that God is calling us to express ourselves, and still find ways to cross over the barriers that keep us apart to have a taste of unity, not uniformity, not full agreement, but oneness. After all, there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.
The picture that we see in Revelation 7 seems to be a “someday” picture, a picture that we figure we’ll get to after Jesus returns. I wonder what it would look like if we began to practice that now, every tribe, tongue, and nation coming together to worship the Lord. A foretaste of what is to come, and I don’t think it’s a pipe dream to think we can begin to experience it this side of eternity.
Soli Deo gloria!