Making the Most of Every (Sunday) Opportunity

In the last blog, I asked you to envision your church. Most of us, I suspect, can easily picture the gathered church as a meeting-room full of people. But how might we visualize the church scattered? Does this picture come close?

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Not so fast, some might say. In Jesus’s parable, “seed” means the word of God. You know the story. Wanting a harvest, a farmer goes out to plant. The seed lands on soil of varying quality. When his disciples ask him to explain, Jesus says, “The seed is the word of God.” Definition given. Conversation over . . .

. . . Until We Read On

In Matthew’s gospel, right after explaining this parable, Jesus goes on to tell a second. In this next one, seed means something else. As before, the farmer goes out and scatters seed in his field. But then an enemy of the farmer sneaks in after dark and blankets the same ground with weed seed. Jesus’s disciples ask him to explain. The good seed in this case, he says, “stands for the people of the Kingdom” (Matt. 13:38, NLT).

In this parable, seeds are . . . people. And the people-seeds are all spread out. So maybe seed does give us a good visual of the church scattered.

Jesus told his seed parables to explain the Kingdom. The seed image, then, helps us see God’s strategy for Kingdom fruit. He plants seed—not only word-as-seed but also people-as-seed. So those gathered on a Sunday morning are not simply the people of the church. They are the seed-people of God’s much larger kingdom.

Two quick points about the second parable:

One: Jesus scatters his seed-people. His sowing hand has sent them flying into the field of his world—into homes, into workplaces, and into neighborhoods to take root there. To thrive. To produce Kingdom fruit. And, as one writer has put it, to provide “foretastes” of the fully-revealed Kingdom yet to come. They spend vastly more time out there than cloistered in a church building.

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Two: Seed-people face stiff resistance. The enemy, the devil, has broadcast weed-seed-people right in among Jesus’s good-seed-people. Growing and producing fruit for God in the scattered church is no picnic. It’s a constant struggle for root-space, branching-out-space, water, and sunlight. So maybe we need to change slightly our picture of the scattered church:

Preparing Seed-People to Scatter

This revised picture of the scattered church raises a most-important question about how to structure our time together in the gathered church. As we saw in the last blog, a 75-minute church meeting gets less than one percent the 100,080 minutes in a week. A tiny fund of time. How can we best use it to get the scattered seed-people ready for the challenges and opportunities they meet out there?

Or ask the same question in different words: How can time in the gathered church equip, build, and encourage Christians for serving God and others in their weekdays? Three words in that question point us to what we see happening in the New Testament church:

  1. Equipping. This is the special task of church leaders (Eph. 4:11, 12). God’s people will spend most of their week in families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They will be scattered among unbelievers who are walking radically different paths. What truths and tools will the good-seed-people need for serving God and others Monday through Saturday. How will they practice using those tools?

  2. Building. The ministry of body-building—strengthening Christ’s body—belongs to all the Christians: “The body builds itself in love as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Serving God and others in the scattered church takes spiritual muscle. God calls each member of Christ’s body to build others and be built up by them (I Thess. 5:11). This can happen only in the gathered church. You and I can’t use our gifts to build each other up while miles apart all week.

  3. Encouraging. Encouragement too is the responsibility of all the believers, not just church leaders. Serving God and people in dark and difficult places can wear us down and out. (A Christian I know who leads seminars sometimes gets marked down in evaluations for using the gendered pronouns—he, she, etc..) Our counter strategy? We are to “encourage one another” (Heb. 3:13, 10:25). And again, our way of gathering together needs to make room for this mutual ministry. God’s scattered seed-people need to encourage each other by telling how God is at work out there.

For Example . . .

Let me illustrate. In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller relates exactly that kind of God-at-work story experienced by a man and woman in Redeemer Church, NYC. A non-Christian woman was working in Manhattan as a fairly new employee. One day she messed up in a major way. She thought she’d get fired for sure. But, to her sheer amazement, her supervisor took the blame on himself. He was penalized for doing so by losing some of his own standing in the company.

The grateful woman, stunned by his self-sacrifice for her, told him she was used to having other bosses claim the kudos for work she had done. But this was the first time she had ever known a boss to take the hit for her error. She pressed him repeatedly to explain.

So he told her: “I am a Christian. That means among other things that God accepts me because Jesus Christ took the blame for things that I have done wrong. He did that on the cross. That is why I have the desire and sometimes the ability to take the blame for others.”

“She stared at him,” Keller reports. Then she asked, “Where do you go to church?” He told her the name of the church, and she began attending Redeemer.

Making Sunday Space for Preparing Seed-People

Stories like this renew spiritual vitality in people who serve as Kingdom seeds. From each other, they need to hear such reports in the gathered church. To make this possible, church leaders need to think, pray, and ask hard questions about how best to budget those few gathered-church minutes.

  • How can we help those in the scattered church to see themselves as the seed of God’s Kingdom?

  • What nice but non-essential activity can be cut from our usual Sunday morning agenda?

  • What do seed-people need to hear and do on Sundays to prepare them as Kingdom fruit-producers in the scattered church?

Making Whole-Life Disciples

Whole-Life Discipling: What Is It?

Last month I spent a week in Manila taking part in the Lausanne Global Workplace Forum. As mentioned in the previous blog, we heard from a variety of speakers and—around tables of six—discussed what they had said. One of the presenters, Mark Greene, unable to join us in person, addressed us in a video. Greene serves as Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity established by John Stott.

As he spoke, Greene called for churches that are “gripped by the whole-life vision of the missio Dei [mission of God].” Again and again, he spoke of our need to “make whole-life disciples.” What did he mean by those words, “whole life”?

Visualize Your Church as If in a Video

What did you just see in your imagined video? A building with crosses? A group of people sitting in chairs or pews looking toward an elevated stage where a band performs and a pastor speaks?

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If you saw the first, you weren’t looking at the church at all. If you saw the second, you were seeing the church in its gathered form. Let’s say the meeting in your mental video went on for an hour and a quarter. For each one in the gathering, that represents how big a slice of his or her week? I’ll spare you the math. Those 75 minutes make up less than one percent of the 10,080 minutes in a week. Picture it like this:

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So if your mental video showed you God’s people in gathered mode, you were seeing only a tiny fraction of the church’s life. Goid’s people spend far more time scattered. Members of the body of Christ allocate that dispersed time in various ways. But the percentages may typically look like this:

Whole Life Leaves Nothing Out

“Whole life,” then, includes everything people do in the 168 hours of their week. “Making whole-life disciples” means helping prepare them for all they engage in during those scattered-church hours—working, playing, resting, parenting, neighboring, and so on. Here comes the hard question: On what do churches typically focus most equipping efforts? On getting believers ready to serve Christ and his Kingdom in their scattered-church roles—with families, co-workers, neighbors and others? Or on training them to carry out gathered-church duties—serving in or leading programs, ushering, maintaining the building and grounds, pledging, running the sound system, decorating, practicing for praise bands, and other in-house chores?

Work—paid and unpaid—is one of main things Christians do in the scattered church. Many will devote 36 percent or more of their waking hours to their work (red blocks). You might think we would spend a significant portion of our gathered-church time gearing them up to serve Jesus in that world into which he has sent them. But how often does the work we do on weekdays come up in the gathered church on Sundays?

The Church’s Silence on Work

Greene quoted Dorothy Sayers, a British Christian writing in the mid-20th century. In her essay, “Why Work?” she said: “In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious or at least uninterested in religion…. But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of their life?”

Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf open Chapter One in Every Good Endeavor by saying, “The Bible begins talking about work as soon as it begins talking about anything—that’s how important and basic it is.” The Bible does more than just begin that way. The word “work” appears hundreds of times. And Scripture shows us all kinds of working believers who lived out their faith in the whole-life context. Here are some samples:

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Whole Life in Shared Church

A shared-church meeting offers those from the scattered church opportunities to encourage the gathered church with whole-life reports on what God is doing out there. Does a shared-church meeting include hearing from those gifted and qualified to teach? Absolutely. The gathered church needs to hear from shepherds and teachers who can correctly explain what the Bible is saying.

But most pastors spend little if any time “out there” in the world’s workplaces. As one speaker in Manila put it, pastors literally “have no business there.” Their “business” mainly involves working with the gathered church.

So pastors need to make room in congregational meetings for those whose business is in the work world to tell what God is doing in and through them there. If such contemporary stories are not heard, it may appear that God has little if any concern for everyday work. The responsibility for making whole-life disciples, then, belongs not only to pastors but also to the entire church body. “The whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

Think of the typical Sunday-morning agenda of your church. Then ask:

  • Would a Daniel have any opportunity to tell what his toxic coworkers did and how God rescued him from their scheme?

  • Would a Joseph be able to share how God was at work for good, even through the sexual harassment he suffered in his first job in Egypt?

  • Would an Esther find an opening to encourage fellow believers by describing how God protected her and her people?