The benediction ended minutes ago. The last car has just pulled out of the parking lot. At this point, where is the church? Thirty minutes ago, most could have said exactly where the church was: they were in it. But now, this family heads home, that salesperson drives to the airport, and a twenty-something clocks in at Starbucks. Where is the church now? Does the Body of Christ go into suspended animation until next Sunday?
Where is the Church Between Sundays?
Unfortunately, our vocabulary fogs the answers to these questions. Centuries of tradition have trained us to apply the word church to a building. It is to the building that we drive or walk to “go to church.” Once inside, we are “in church.” But such terms do not clarify what happens to the church when we disperse. Since we are no longer together in the church building, are we then out of the church?
The experience of the Church in Acts 8 offers a word that can help us think all this through. Persecution ignited by the stoning of Stephen slammed against the Jerusalem church. As a result, “all except the apostles were scattered. . . . Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4). So, the church, once gathered, had now scattered. Still the same people (minus the apostles). Still, therefore, the same church. Still doing the work of the church. But now, telescoping outward, operating in its extended form.
So, the church functions in two modes: gathered and scattered. If your weekend meeting typically runs 75 to 90 minutes, the church appears in that gathered mode less than one percent of the 10,080-minute week. Even if you add in, say, another two hours per week for participation in small groups, gathering still accounts for only two percent of the time. So, between 98 and 99 percent of the time, the church lives and works in its scattered mode.
We are Kingdom Seeds
Scattered, in Acts 8, translates a word related to the Greek diaspora. It means to sow, as in scattering seed across a field. In one of Jesus’s parables, the seed means God’s word. But in another parable, the seed stands for God’s people. Jesus reveals that he sows the “people of the kingdom,” as “good seed,” throughout the world-field (Matt. 13:37, 38, NLT).
In the Old Testament diaspora (dispersion), God scattered Daniel and his friends into a workplace right inside the idolatrous core of the Babylonian government. In that pagan context, they sprouted, took root, grew, and bore fruit for God. Today, in addition to knowing ourselves as priests, we Christians need to see ourselves as seeds—life-carrying cells flung into the soil of the world to carry out God’s agenda where we live, work, and play. God has so arranged life in his Church that it does most of its work not in its gathered but in its scattered form.
Literal seeds, like Christians, need to be both gathered and scattered. After harvest, corn or wheat grains go to a seed company. There, the gathered seeds may be fortified to make each one more productive when it is scattered. For example, some seeds get treated with a fungicide to protect them from damping off or root rot. Bathing seeds in insecticides can safeguard them from harmful pests. Others may be coated with fertilizer to spur growth once they sprout in the ground. These seeds need this together-time. But the real reason for the gathering is to prepare the seeds to produce fruit when scattered.
In a similar way, the tiny fraction of time spent in our gatherings as Christians should prepare us for the far larger amount of time we will spend as the church in its scattered mode. In gathered-church meetings, we need to hear from those gifted and qualified to preach and teach. But we must also hear from those who can tell how they are seeing God act in every phase of scattered-church life. In most cases, a pastor serving full time on a church payroll has little or no experience with what confronts people in, say, the ethical dilemmas of a contemporary workplace. This lack of work-world contact poses no problem if the meeting format of the gathered church provides opportunities for others to voice reports from the scattered church. How has God been moving in this spiritually dark workplace, that conflict-torn neighborhood, or those alienated families?
Sadly, church life in the gathered mode can become addictive. The camaraderie and closeness, fellowship and friendship we experience when together feels far safer than the abrasive, dog-eat-dog world we often face in scattered-church mode. Yes, assembling together is vital. But danger develops when we begin to act as if gathered-church is the goal, the only form of church that matters.
To counter that notion, we need to keep asking ourselves: Why do we gather? According to the New Testament, we do so to encourage, spur on, build up, equip, and strengthen each other for the mission of God outside the meeting place. In boot camp, NASA astronauts spend time together in training. But everything they do in this gathered mode aims at equipping them for their mission “out there.” The hands-on experience of those who have actually lived in space becomes an important part of preparing other astronauts for what they will face in zero-gravity conditions.
The scattered church not only has a mission, it is itself a mission. During their time in the gathered church, Christians who will spend most of their week “out there” need to benefit from hearing reports from others who have “been there, done that.” In our roles as scattered seeds, the world’s soil will confront us with spiritual counterparts of pests, fungi, viruses, and weeds. Over and again, we must hear others tell fresh stories of how God came to their rescue when these forces threatened to make them unproductive.
The small fraction of time we spend in the gathered church is precious. For the sake of God’s mission in the world, let’s make the best use of that time.