I have been doing a lot of thinking over the past few weeks about where we are as a church and where we are going in ministry. We have spent a lot of time talking about what can can do to bring more people into the church. We have talked about new programs, and about inviting people to worship or Bible study. We have talked about the need to get people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. But in all of that conversation, it is always about getting people to come to the church building. It is always about attracting people to come here. While that is not a bad thing in and of itself, and certainly some people may be attracted here through those things, that is not the full picture of what the church is.
I remember hearing a few years ago about the National Community Church in Washington, DC. This church began meeting in 1996 in an elementary school in the DC area. When the elementary school was closed due to fire code violations, the church actually moved to the movie theater in Union Station in the downtown area. This was a church without its own building. Over the years as the church grew in number, it came to a point where they could have purchased their own building. Instead, they decided that at the core of their values was to be a church in the world and for the world. Rather than purchase a building, the continued to meet in Union Station, and in three additional locations. They truly are a church without walls.
Here at Dunbar, we have two great church buildings that can be great resources for us, but we have to begin to live like a church without walls, like a church without a building. Rather than letting church be defined as this place that we come to meet God and hope other people will come to meet God, let the church be defined as the people of God, united in service, as we bring the church out into the world. There is no easy checklist for what this might look like, but it does mean that we have to move from a purely “attractional” model of church (ie. we put great programs at the church in place hoping that will entice people to come) towards a “missional” model of church (ie. we go out into the community with open eyes and ears tuned towards people and the distinctive needs of our friends, neighbors, and families and seek to communicate the love and grace of Christ through word and deed).
I have been reading several different books over the last couple of weeks that are helping me to articulate a lot of what I have been thinking about and longing for, and I will share that reading list at the end of this entry, but first I wanted to share with you something that Eric Swanson writes in The Externally Focused Quest:
It is only when the church decides to become the best church for the community that it at least has a fighting chance to reach the majority of the unchurched/dechurched population. The attractional church is about getting the community into the church. The missional, externally focused church is about getting the church into the community. Incarnational ministry, at its heart, is taking church to people by helping believers live out their calling among people who do not yet believe and follow Jesus. The missional, externally focused church begins with the missionary questions: “What is good news for this people group?” “What would the church look and feel like among this people group?” Entering into a community through love, service, and blessing creates new proximate spaces as we become good news to the community. At the end of the day the impact of a church is not determined by who it wants to reach but by who it is willing to serve.
At Dunbar, it is obvious that many here really care about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. We want people to understand who he is and what he has done for all people. We want people to become his followers. We talk all the time about wanting to reach people who have never been a part of the church or who have fallen away from the church. The field of dreams approach (“If we build it, they will come”) may draw some, and for those folks, we should keep doing what we are doing. However, if we are serious about proclaiming the good news in word and deed, then we must start living more like a church without walls, like a church without a building, and that is a shift for most of us. As these things that I have written about are weighing very heavily on me right now, I will continue to write about them over the coming weeks as I wrestle with them and try to tease them out a bit more, but for now, here are the books I am currently reading dealing with these questions:
The Externally Focused Quest by Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw
Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church by Reggie McNeal
The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation by George G. Hunter III