Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 15, 2014

“I Need To Get Outside The Walls Of The Church:” Finding balance between spirituality and mission

This weekend I had a great conversation with a friend who is very active in ministry at the church. On Sunday afternoon we were reflecting on the testimonies of our mission team members who spent this past week serving families who have children with special needs at “Camp Attitude.” In the course of our conversation he said, “I think I need to get outside the walls of the church more often.” Both of us acknowledged that we have very little connection to non-believers in the community.

In Jesus’ final prayer in John 17 he says to the father:

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

Jesus is concerned that his disciples find a balance between their own spiritual formation and their engagement with the world. On the one hand, Jesus prays that his disciples will not conform to the world. He desires that they be immersed in truth and be sanctified. This implies the need for an engagement with Christian community. He wants them to spend time in fellowship, prayer, and reflection on scripture.

At the same time, he prays that his disciples will not be disconnected from the world. He says that we are a sent people. We are called to go into the world so that we might make a positive impact.

We certainly need the church. We need a place where we can study truth, worship God, support one another in times of need, and serve together. I’m not advocating that we abandon the ministries we are running. Yet, the purpose of the local church is to equip us so that we can go out into the world and reach people in need. On the journey of faith, the church is not a final destination but a fueling station. We do not exist for ourselves, we exist for our world.

I’ve been trying to discern what this balance between spirituality and mission looks like. It is not necessarily about spending less time at church. The early church did, after all, gather daily to break bread, pray and support one another. Regular engagement with Christian community is vital. Perhaps, though, we ought to be reflecting on whether we have enough engagement with people outside the walls of the church.

Here are a few questions I’ve been wrestling with this week:

1. How many people am I in a relationship with who are non-believers?
2. How am I practically living out my faith in my neighborhood or at the workplace?
3. How am I gifted to serve Christ out in the world?

If we have little to no engagement with people outside the walls of the church our spiritual life is probably out of balance. Perhaps instead of joining a fifth church committee we should join up with a community organization. Perhaps instead of joining a church softball team we might join a city league softball team and develop relationships with non-believers. Perhaps we might invite our neighbors over for dinner on Wednesday nights while we take a break from our Wednesday simple suppers during the summer. Perhaps our small group might switch things up every few weeks and do a service project instead of having a bible study.

So how is your balance these days? Do you need to find more outlets for mission in the world, or do you need to find more space for Christian community? As a person who spends 50+ hours a week at the church, I know where I am out of balance!

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Responses

  1. I am not sure why,yet the pull of inclusiveness within a traditional church structure takes a strong decision not to be submerged by us verses them theology .Henry

  2. Hey Henry,

    That is a really good question to wrestle with. What causes us to insulate ourselves from others and form an us vs them theology? Do you have any thoughts as to why?

    I need to think a bit more on that today. In a traditional church setting part of the issue might be the challenge of adapting to current needs. Sometimes we hold on to traditions that may have worked in the past but do not serve our needs anymore. In that situation we end up trying to keep traditions going simply for traditions sake and we miss out on what we should be doing.

    Sometimes there is an issue of self-protection. A lot of older churches are at risk of losing membership and dying off. Ironically, instead of taking the risk of investing outside our walls in order to foster healthy growth, we can get into survival mode.

    Other times it may be an issue of leadership and vision casting. There are a lot of models of how to do church. In the 80s and 90s there was a huge push for being seeker sensitive / church growth focused. This can have an impact on the community if the church does a good job of bringing people into the fold of the church. However, it presents more of an attractional model than a sending model. The goal in this structure is to get people to come to us rather then sending us to where people are.

    In or current cultural setting I think it is going to be more important for us to take our faith outside our walls. People are more suspicious of religious institutions then they were 50 years ago. Attractional models may not have the best effect on non-churched people anymore. This is going to require a paradigm shift for a lot of traditional churches that used to be able to fling open the doors and get a crowd!

    Another more foundational reason for why we develop an us vs them mentality is because outreach comes with risk. We get comfortable with our friends and our communities, and enfolding others people can change dynamics. Perhaps the simple reason is that we can be selfish.

    Probably a lot of reasons. Theses are just a few thoughts off the top of my head.

  3. A very important topic, Phil. But, I struggled with the repeated emphasis on reaching non-believers when we leave the walls. I find more people are believers to some degree, but have rarely explored their questions and doubts. They have dropped the church, oft times as teen agers and are still living with the teachings from childhood, or they had no church background but were introduced indirectly through other organizations, such as Girl Scouts. One of the challenges for us is not to assume, but to listen, to attempt to heal past hurts and disappointments related to church organizations, and to allow the questions to be asked. Too many times we assume the questions and our responses are way off the mark. Can we be patient to allow people to share and then to encourage them to explore? My experience has been that we church goers, think we have all the answers, but we haven’t listened well enough to correctly hear the questions. Thanks again for your stimulating blog.
    D

    • Thanks Doris,

      Your comments are an important addition to the conversation. I didn’t really get into the question of how we actually go about reaching people outside the church. I think your assessment is absolutely correct. We need to approach our world with humility, openness, and sensitivity. Too often the church has “evangelized” from a position of arrogance and power. I also appreciate your point that many people outside the church have a history with religion – often a very negative history. Outreach is very different in a post-Christian society compared to a pre-Christian one.


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