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Turning the Church Inside Out

By John Smith.

Baptist Minister and UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance

It was in a copy of Ministry Today that I found this quote, from Victoria Wood: "Church is what you did on Sundays before garden centres." It is a brilliantly perceptive analysis of how many people regard church - as something you do, an activity. It is something restricted to one particular day of the week. It is something that has been superseded by garden centres, or car boot sales, or shopping malls or - well, take your pick, really, because that is what people have done in our pick-and-mix, consumerist society. Church is now an option - one choice among many.

Since I read those words I have sometimes asked groups of people how they might respond to Victoria Wood (it passes some time in a seminar!). I have also asked this question: "Who gave her that impression?"

At least she has regarded church as an activity, not as a building, and that in itself is intriguing and positive.

But if anyone is to blame for an impression that church is an outdated activity which took place one day a week until it was superseded by more exciting things, it must be we who are the church. Oh, I know it is easy to blame the media, the scriptwriters of soap operas and the like... but they too are reflective, to some degree, of what is happening in society.

In biblical terms, church is who we are, more than what we do, and certainly more than where we go. And we are church wherever we are, not simply when we are gathered together under one roof or in one place.

Yet even when we sign up quite happily to that concept, our modus operandi as church leaders can give a different impression. We have a vested interest in the smooth running, efficient staffing and credible statistics of the church for which we have some responsibility. In fact our line managers, whether at denominational or more local level, will likely have placed success or performance based expectations on us. They may well be unwritten, but they weigh heavy nonetheless. More than that, we will likely have placed such expectations on ourselves.

Our benchmarks for success are invariably internal. They will be measured by attendance figures at Sunday services, house groups and prayer meetings. They will be measured by the number of children in our Sunday School or weeknight children's and youth activities. Perhaps they will relate to the number of overseas missionaries supported by the church family. Possibly they will be measured by levels of giving. Sometimes the successful completion of a building project will be our benchmark. It is commendable, if a little unusual, if we can rejoice in a steady stream of people coming to faith in Christ, yet most of us will feel the process isn't working properly if those who trust Christ are not in a relatively short time integrated fully into our round of activities.

Even when we run projects in our community, we will be always on the alert, talent spotting for people with ability and availability who can be deployed to run the operation of the church.

Whereas Campus Crusade's Bill Bright declared the first spiritual law to be "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" we have changed the script to: "God loves you and the pastor (vicar, priest, etc.) has a wonderful plan for your life."

As a local church pastor I spearheaded a bridge building vision in which we interacted with our community through a series of activities covering every stage of life - toddler group, children's club, youth club, Ladies' Supper Club, Senior Citizens' Club. Each of these activities in their own right impacted many lives. Yet the benchmark for success inevitably became how many of these people moved on to be part of the committed church membership. And that commitment was judged by attendance on Sundays and helping to run church based activities. I identified with a recent comment on the suburban church - the sign of belonging is being on a rota!

Some years ago I attended an international conference on discipleship. I confess to frustration as speaker after speaker restricted discipleship to the personal devotional life. I listened attentively as a presenter indicated that his course included time management. My frustration level plummeted to unprecedented depths as he explained the reason for his inclusion of time management. "You see, when someone becomes a Christian we need them to be able to reorganise their diary so they can attend our Sunday meetings and our midweek meeting and our..."

The truth is many of our churches are focussed on meetings. But as someone has rightly said: "Meetings eat people and eating people is wrong!" At the very least a constant diet of local church based meetings tires people out and reduces the opportunities for meaningful contact with neighbours, family, friends and colleagues. It is a long time since my wife as a little girl expressed surprise that her Baptist deacon father was in the house one night. "Is there not a meeting at the church tonight?" was her innocent, but extremely telling question.

As the well-known nursery-rhyme has been rewritten: "Mary had a little lamb that might have been a sheep, but then it joined a local church and died through lack of sleep."

There is no avoiding the questions:

* What are we doing to people?

* Whatever is the model of church that we have presented?

No wonder Victoria Wood commented as she did.

I have a different vision of church. I have a vision of a church in which Jesus is the centre. I have a vision of church in which the people of God focus outward more than inward.

I have a vision of a church which recognises and affirms that the people of God are just as much church when dispersed into the whole of life as when gathered together in meetings.

I have a vision of the people of God joyfully released to pursue their God-given passion, exercising their gifts in the most fruitful arena. For some, that may be in church-based administration and committees, in youth work or worship leading, but for others it will be intentionally, but in a non-contrived way, exerting kingdom influence in the spheres of life. I therefore have a vision of church leaders who affirm the ministry legitimacy of active involvement in local sports clubs, community groups and networks of friends even when they take place on the same evening as the church prayer meeting or house group and actively support their members in such ministry.

I have a vision of church members seeing the whole of their life as an expression of what it is to be church, with the openness to share their progress with church leadership and to accept support.

I have a vision in which the local church releases the people of God to be effective agents for change in the whole of life. And I have a vision of local church leaders being the change-makers who enable this process.

In Thessalonica the Christians were described as those who had turned the world upside down. I have a vision of church turned inside out so that our world may be turned upside down as kingdom values penetrate and influence every level of society.

Will such a church attract the attention of a Victoria Wood? Not just Victoria. Such a church has the potential to profoundly influence the whole population.

Ministry Today

You are reading Turning the Church Inside Out by John Smith, part of Issue 31 of Ministry Today, published in June 2004.

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