Mark 1:1-3, 14-20
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
“Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors, and see all the people!”
When I heard the word “church” as a child, the image that came to my mind was a building, a specific building, First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, IL. Within that 1950’s New England style chapel rested a small quaint and cozy sanctuary, peaked at the ceiling with pews all lined up neatly on the floor; it was a holy room, where the minister’s voice, my dad, Rev. Richard Dempsey, boomed in deep and familiar tones. This is what church meant to me as a child.
What does the word “church” mean to you? When you think of church, maybe you think of this building, this beautiful sanctuary, the place where you get your spiritual lift each week. Maybe, when you say church you think of the place where you serve on a committee or volunteer for a mission project? Maybe church evokes for you the place where you got married, or where you had your babies baptized, or where a family member or close friend’s memorial service was held.
When most of us think of “church” we think of a particular building, the place where particular events take place, on particular days, especially on Sunday.
Today I want to press the point that how we think of church, what we mean by church makes all the difference in the world.
When the earliest followers of Christ called themselves “church” they didn’t mean a building where they gathered; in fact, until the fourth century, most of them didn’t have particular buildings set apart for worship, prayer and study – they met in each other’s homes. Nor did “church” mean the activities they did together: by calling themselves “the church” they didn’t mean the “ones who study Scripture,” or “the ones who pray together.” The Greek word for church is ecclesia.
The earliest followers of Jesus chose to name themselves as ecclesia, literally, the “called out ones.” I wonder what it would mean for us to claim that meaning today.
Lately a “shorthand” has developed to describe two different ways of looking at church: the “missional” church or the vendor church:
1. “Missional” churches are those that tend to think of themselves primarily as the “called out ones.”
2. Vendor driven churches are characterized by the large array of activities and programs that take place in the church building.
Let me state the obvious: no single church is ever completely “missionally” driven or “vendor” driven. Every congregation has elements of both.
What do you think most drives this church?
In order to answer that question, let’s take a closer look at what these alternatives look like.
Let’s start with the vendor-driven church:
First, the purpose of the vendor-church is to meet people’s spiritual, social, and cultural needs. Leaders produce products like sermons, music, and a Sunday school; in addition, like physicians or lawyers, clergy are the professionals to whom members look to for advice. Members are consumers who shop around to meet their needs. If the church ceases to produce the products and the quality programs that members want, they go to a competing brand – they go church shopping.
Second, success in vendor churches is primarily measured by numbers: the number of people attending worship, the number of people on the membership rolls, and in the Sunday school; if those numbers are increasing, it is a successful church; if they are decreasing, it is not.
Evangelism becomes member recruitment; stewardship becomes fundraising.
Third, the vendor church’s institutional viability is the point; members, like members of a co-op or a club, are expected to support the institution with money and as volunteers. Participation is motivated by a sense of obligation, peer pressure, social expectation, or, if those fail, good old guilt.
As pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson puts it:
“The pastors of America have transformed into a company of shop keepers, and the shops they keep are churches. We are preoccupied with shop keeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money … Religious shop keeping, to be sure, but shop keeping all the same.”
This is the essence of the problem. Pastors have adopted the identity as shop keepers; congregations have been turning into little corporations, and members have been morphing into consumers. American churches of all theological stripes have increasingly become “vendor” churches.
What’s the alternative?
The alternative is to become more of a “missional” church.
What does that kind of church look like?
First, the purpose of the missional church is to be people “called out” by Christ to be his body, every day, in the world. The church isn’t a place or even an activity. The church is US. Our identity is sealed in our baptism, when we are marked by Christ as his very own.
As Rick Warren so boldly stated in The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.” It’s about Christ, and his incredible vision for our lives – not as consumers or money-makers or even students of spirituality, but as his ambassadors, as his name-bearers, as his disciples.
Second, success in missional churches is measured by how faithful we are to Christ’s values. Sometimes that will draw great numbers; sometimes that may rub people the wrong way; sometimes Christ’s message may even offend.
A “missional” church knows what it’s about and doesn’t overly worry about numbers. The first question the next morning is not, “how many were in attendance?”
Third, members of missional churches spend the minimum amount of time and energy supporting the institution and the maximum amount of time and energy being Christians out in the world and then coming back together to praise and glorify God in worship, and to encourage and love another through service , study, and fellowship.
The purpose of membership isn’t to serve on a committee, or to be elected a church officer; it is to help, support, and encourage each other for ministry out in the world.
As Rick Barger writes in his book, A New and Right Spirit, Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Society, the meaning of membership in a “missional” church is not about insuring that “my” needs are met, but insuring that God’s needs are met! “Missional” churches are not consumer driven, but God driven!
And finally, the pastors of missional churches are not CEO’s or shopkeepers. The pastor’s function isn’t to run the organization; it is to coach, challenge, encourage, to counsel and lead church members in their daily Christian walk out in the world.
This transitional time is a time to look at yourselves; what are the things you are doing now, and which of those things promote the tenets of this church? What needs to be added or re-emphasized? What could be trimmed down or even eliminated in order to create more time and resources for the things that matter and have the potential to make KUC more of a missional church?
These questions revolve around who we are called to be in our daily Christian life as the ecclesia. If we keep our essential purpose and reasons for being ever before us, that is, KUC’s tenets of faith that state:
- God is active in the world and in each one of our lives.
- That by God’s grace, we are loved, forgiven and strengthened to respond to God’s call to live by the great commandment. (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”)
- That in the person of Jesus Christ we know what God is like and who we are to be like.
- That the Holy Spirit is present among us encouraging us to work for peace, justice and reconciliation in our broken world.
- And that in response to the gift of God’s loving kindness, we have a responsibility to live out what we say we believe… in our homes, in our workplaces, in how we treat others, in sharing what we have…
How will we know if we’re on the right track? We will know it:
- to the extent that we identify ourselves as the “called out ones;”
- to the extent that we measure our success by our daily faithfulness;
- to the extent that we are ambassadors of Christ in our everyday lives;
- to the extent that worship becomes the center of our life together;
Let me end by going back to our gospel lesson – where we read about Jesus calling out his first disciples.
Church scholar, Craig Dykstra says it well; he writes:
“It is an interesting thing about those people who became apostles; they were in business for themselves: fishing, collecting taxes, and holding households together, doing the things ordinary folk do to keep their heads above water and their hands out of trouble. Then something happened.
They were called by someone and sent somewhere. And when that happened, everything changed. They saw themselves differently, went places they never thought of going before, thought thoughts that never in a hundred years would have come into their heads, and did things they never in their wildest imaginations would have seen themselves doing.
Their world was turned upside down. They saw evil in what once had been business as usual, beauty and goodness in people and things they had scoffed at, scorned, or just plain ignored. Strangers became friends and enemies became neighbors. Called and sent, and everything was rearranged. A sense of mission is precisely a sense of having been sent. This is the key to understanding the church, ourselves as individual Christians, and understanding Jesus Christ.
If we want to know who the church is, we must see it … as the ‘sent people’ of God – the people sent by God through Christ. And if we want to know who we are as individuals, we must … see where it is Christ sends us. Then we come to know who it is we are.”
We are the ecclesia, the “called out ones,” the sent out ones.
“Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and send out, send out, send out all the people.”