I meet hundreds of strangers while traveling, and I nearly always ask, "Are you in a church?"
The usual answer is, "Sometimes I go to such and such a church." They talk about going to church like they would going to the theater or the ballpark. Once in a while someone will say, "Yes, I'm deeply involved in …" but this is rare. I'm afraid the majority still think the church is just another thing you "go to."
When we look at the state of Christians and the church—at our values, beliefs, and lifestyles—there is certainly room for holy dissatisfaction. We are too easily satisfied with conventional success. We fall into an Old Testament mindset in which we look most intently at how many people come to the temple for the ritual. Meanwhile we forget Jesus' words in Matthew 12:6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here."
Cheap Christianity can usually pull a pretty good attendance on Sunday morning. It is cheap whenever people think of themselves as spectators at a performance. I'm always shocked when I hear Christians talk about being "in the audience." Audiences are fine at the opera or the symphony concert, but worship is another matter.
In Christ's clearest call to commitment, he didn't say, "Come join the audience." He said, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me." The yoke refers to the operation of a team. Early Christians called each other yokefellow (Phil. 4:3) in order to signify a practicing Christian engaged in a team effort.
So when leaders ask how the general operation is going, they must not be too easily satisfied with numbers. You can always get a crowd if you demand little and put on a show. Rather, we need to be asking ourselves, "Are we increasing Christ's kingdom? Are we doing what he intended when he invented the church?" I use the word invented deliberately because there was no church before Christ. An amazing invention it was, something far more revolutionary than we normally suppose.
The church can only accomplish its revolutionary purpose, however, when it has certain characteristics.
I heard a true story about a preacher who came to Laymen's Sunday and preached on the lay ministry. (That was his first mistake; he should have had one of the members do it.) He was persuasive, however, because at the end when he said, "Will any men who are willing to dedicate themselves to the lay ministry please come forward?" 100 men responded. Someone who was close to the pastor heard him mutter softly, "O God, how can I use 100 ushers?"
He entirely missed the point of his own sermon.
I call pastors to engage not in Operation Addition but in Operation Multiplication. This is the point of Ephesians 4. For the pastor to think of himself or herself as the only minister is to minimize the task. Whenever we make minister synonymous with clergy, we are pre-Christian. A clergyperson is a professional—one who takes on responsibility and gets a certain prestige for doing so. One pastor actually said to me, "I know lay Christians need to be developed, but I'm not going to have a book table because I don't want them to know where I get my stuff!" He thinks of himself as part of an upper class, which is precisely what the priests did.
All cultures before Christ had priests. These priests enjoyed great prestige. They were always closely allied with the monarchy, whether in Mesopotamia or Egypt or Israel. Julius Caesar was made pontifex maximus in Rome, even though everyone knew he was an immoral man. It didn't matter; he had the title.
Christ turned all this around, and we tend to forget how drastically he did so. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them," he said in Matthew 20:25, "and their great men exercise authority among them. It shall not be so among you." Then he made his revolutionary statement about coming not to be served but to serve. He turned the world upside down that day.
Unfortunately, we tend to forget this new reality and slip back into the pre-Christian model of priests and temples. Jesus sent out teams of workers not to perform a ceremony but to liberate and to heal. Instead of employing the priests, who were numerous, he entrusted the future to ordinary persons. Have you ever thought what a good joke it was when he gave Simon the nickname "Rocky"? That's like our calling a tall man "Shorty" or a fat man "Slim." Certainly others laughed when Jesus said it, because Simon was anything but solid. He was more like rubble than rock.
When I talk with rank-and-file church people, I don't call them laypeople. A layperson is a second-class citizen. I am a layman in regard to law because I have not passed the bar; thus, I am not allowed to practice law. There is no place in the church of Jesus Christ for those who cannot practice. I said to people, "You are not a layperson. You are a minister of common life."
I would be willing to ordain people to the ministry of journalism, banking, or photography. Why not? What an opportunity they have. They meet people I never will. Think of the chances a loan officer has to minister: he can keep young people from ruining their lives by overborrowing.
I was pleased when I saw one signboard outside a church in South Carolina. It read:
MINISTERS: ALL THE MEMBERS
The true ministers were the folk in the pews.
A healthy fellowship is a redemptive fellowship. It is penetrating the world not for its own aggrandizement but to change the world. Almost all of Christ's metaphors for the church are penetrators: salt to penetrate the food and keep it from decay, light to penetrate the darkness, leaven to penetrate the lump. The emphasis is never on the instrument but on the function. So a successful church is one that is changing the world, chiefly through the action of its members.
The true church is a place where one person is teaching philosophy and another is cobbling shoes and another is teaching kindergarten. If you had gone to ancient Corinth and asked where the Christian church was, nobody would have sent you to the corner of Eighth and Main. They would have sent you to where Paul and his friends were making mobile homes—tents, that is. He himself explained this on Mars Hill: "The God who made the world … does not live in shrines made by man" (Acts 17:24).
This is why the Quakers call it "meetinghouse" instead of church. We've lost on that one as far as the general speech is concerned, but the term does preserve the distinction between the redemptive fellowship on one hand and the building on the other.
I led a retreat in northern Ohio for 22 people, during which I went around the circle asking each to tell what had brought him or her into a full Christian commitment. I assumed some would mention a public meeting or a sermon. Not one did. They told about little people—for example, the shoe repairman whose life was such a testimony that it made a deep impression. Inconspicuous people.
Nobody said Billy Graham. Lives have certainly been changed by his public preaching, but my experience is the great majority are changed in a much less obvious fashion. If the church could make members realize this, that they are the team, what a difference it would make. How it would raise their sights!
This approach is not easily put into an annual report. Attendance and money are easy to write up for the annual business meeting, but you can never have a full report of the ministry of penetration. What people need to realize is that this is expected, this is what the church requires.
Church is more than an hour a week.
It is more important than ever for the church to be healthy. It is often poor and dull, but it's the best thing available. However sick the church is, this land would be much sicker without it.
If Christians could see the church as a society of ministers in the world, they would approach the radical change Christ sought to initiate. If that were generally accepted, the change would not be small. It would be enormous.
—D. Elton Trueblood was a Quaker scholar, teacher, and author; adapted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 1995 Christianity Today. For more articles like this, visit www.LeadershipJournal.net.
share this page
Also of Interest
Small Groups and Mentoring Dilemmas
Think through how you'll deal with relational problems in your small-groups ministry.
An assessment pack for your team
The Living Church
A leader’s dream for his church and the entire church
Five Reasons to Love Today's Church
In a critical culture, it's good to focus on the good things that are still happening.
Join the BuildingChurchLeaders.com Facebook groupFollow us on TwitterSubscribe to the Building Church Leaders RSS feed
Meet Our Editorial Advisors
More from Christianity Today