Not our house, But God's

“[T]he church is missionary by its very nature,” and that nature impacts any expression of a Christian community that is gathered and sent.

from The Institute of Evangelism

By Ross Lockhart, used with permission

Not our house, But God's

“[T]he church is missionary by its very nature,” and that nature impacts any expression of a Christian community that is gathered and sent.

from The Institute of Evangelism

By Ross Lockhart, used with permission

In children’s ministry over the years, I have often pulled out the guitar and sung the famous line from Richard Avery: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people!” While the affirmation that the church is not a physical building made of human hands is wonderful to sing, Covid-19 has put that truth claim to the test. Tim Soerens writes in his latest book, Everywhere You Look that as a parent he decided, to avoid using the phrase “we are going to church,” instead opting for expressions like “we are going to a church building or a church gathering.” His purpose was to avoid confusing his children regarding Christian identity versus participation.[1] The church is not the building. We’ve been saying it for years, but how has Covid-19 tested that sentiment for your congregation, and what implications might it have for our evangelistic witness?

 

What is “the Church”?

As a missiologist, I approach ecclesiology from a particular perspective. The church is not a fraternal organization, country club or social service agency. At its core, the church is not a building for religious services or yard sales, or a rental space for choirs or yoga groups. Instead, “the church is missionary by its very nature,”[2] and that nature impacts any expression of a Christian community that is gathered and sent. The church is missionary by nature since, as it defines itself as the body of Christ, it is consistent with the nature of God, and as such, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.”[3] The church is the sign, instrument and foretaste of the Kingdom,[4] a place where we discern Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in our local context, and become witnesses famously summarized as “the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel.”[5]

 

It is important for us to note that “Church”, Ekklesia in the Greek, is mentioned 114 times in the New Testament and never once does it mean “building”. Ekklesia means “the called-out people”, folks who are summoned out, an invited concourse of people, an assembly. It doesn’t matter where they gather, but who is gathered and why—they are God’s gathered, equipped and sent people, participating in God’s reconciling mission made known to us in Jesus and continued even now by the Holy Spirit.

 

The post-Covid church

In some ways this Covid-19 disruption feels a little bit like the dilemma faced by the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple by the Roman forces in 70 CE, following yet another failed rebellion.[6] The result was a shift of worship and the centre of religious/relational life from the temple to the synagogue network in Israel, and throughout the Empire in the Jewish diaspora. In this sense, because of the closure of our church buildings due to Covid-19, we were forced to expand our understanding of ecclesiology from seeing church buildings to seeing our homes as our worship centres. But shouldn’t they have been all along? Our house has become God’s house!

 

The post-Covid church has an opportunity to help make the home and neighbourhood (what missiologist David Fitch would call the dotted and half circle[7]) a more fulsome place for discerning the presence of Jesus in everyday life. Darrell Guder has suggested that witness moves beyond the traditional understanding of evangelism as a speech act of sharing the gospel. Instead, Guder argues that we are called to be “be, do and say” witnesses in a more holistic way. How has this time of being “deployed at home” for Jesus shaped the way that your being (character) is an evangelistic witness? How have you enacted signs of mercy, justice and healing in partnership with the Triune God (doing) through evangelistic witness? How have your conversations been shaped and blessed (saying) with an evangelistic witness?

 

Being, Doing, Saying

For the two years before Covid-19, I served as the Interim Moderator of a faithful, small Presbyterian church in the most violent and troubled neighbourhood in Surrey, BC. The church had vibrant outreach ministries and faithful leadership, and just a few months before Covid-19 they welcomed a new pastor. I checked in a few weeks after the start of pandemic restrictions to see how the congregation was doing. I was delighted to hear that instead of retreating online to focus solely on their “member’s needs,” the church wanted to continue serving their homeless neighbours, with whom they had built such good relationships over the years.

 

By the time the local newspaper rolled around in June for an article, they were packing their 10,000th bagged lunch of the pandemic, feeding their neighbours both on the steps of the church and through their local partner, Surrey Urban Mission. Their longtime loving relationship with neighbours (being-character) encouraged them to show Christ’s love through daily meals (doing-action), and when asked by the media and others why they were doing such a thing during a pandemic, the leadership (in true 1 Peter 3:15 style) had a testimony to share about the saving power of Jesus (say-speech act).

 

How have you been engaged in the being, doing and saying of evangelistic witness with your local church in these Covid-19 times? What might you try at this time to demonstrate that the church is not the building, but the redeemed people of God in Jesus Christ? How might you look back years from now and celebrate the risk and reward of evangelistic witness to a sin-sick, anxious and watching world?


[1] Tim Soerens, Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020), 17.

[2] Darrell Guder, “From Mission and Theology to Missional Theology,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 24, no. 1 (2003): 47.

[3] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991), 389-393.

[4] Newbigin, The Open Secret: An introduction to the theology of mission, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 110.

[5] Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1989), 227.

[6] The destruction of the temple also had a tremendous impact on Jewish Christians who were people of the Way.

[7] David Fitch, Faithful PresenceSeven disciplines that have shaped the Church for Mission, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 40. Fitch argues that Christians attend to the presence of the risen Christ in the close circle of Christian worship where Christ is host, in the dotted circle of our homes where we host others, and in the half circle of the community around us where we are guests.

Ross Lockhart

Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall and Professor of Mission Studies at The Vancouver School of Theology.

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