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?

Wheat Seed.jpg

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.

Seed Mixture2.jpg

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?

Serving One Another in Shared Church

As you slip into the church meeting, you guess the gathering must number about 300. At their appointed times, seven take their places up front—the pastor and six on the music team. From your spot eleven rows back and in the center section, you scan the bulletin. The text for the morning comes from Galatians 5:13—“serve one another in love.”

For the next hour, the seven on the platform devote themselves to serving the church body, using the gifts God gave them (I Pet. 4:10). But as you watch and listen, it strikes you that these with the microphones are the only ones with the opportunity to act on what the text says. That means less than two percent of those present are able—in this meeting—to do so. In your small group of twelve, you do serve others. But that still leaves your gifts unavailable to 96 percent of the full congregation.

True, before this meeting began, a few handed out bulletins. At offering time, others will usher. But you doubt that these activities, while useful, achieve what New Testament writers meant by one-anothering. In all your years in church meetings, this pattern of miniscule participation has prevailed. So you assume that a group of this size must make it impossible for any but a tiny minority to serve each other with their gifts.

However, one-anothering can work not just in small groups but also in the larger gatherings. Recent posts in this blog series have provided evidence. To recap:

Greeting

June 15: In Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN, Sunday meetings begin with a “community time” that lasts from five to eight minutes. Two suggested questions help people to begin greeting each other. As Stephanie Williams, one of their pastors, says, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

Confessing

July 27: Another blog presented the FaithStory of Rachel Bichler, from Northwood—a church of about 500 in Maple Grove, MN. As she unfolded her experience to the congregation, Rachel openly shared how drifting from a godly upbringing had led her to brokenness and repentance. While staying well within tasteful boundaries, her comments let everyone know that she had strayed.

Teaching

July 20: This posting included comments from three pastors. Although saying so in different words, all recognized the richness that comes when those in the congregation participate in the teaching:

Mark Brouwer, Jacob’s Well Church, Chicago, IL: “There is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.”

Bob Hyatt, The Evergreen Community, Portland, OR: “I came to realize that, although I am the recognized preacher, I might not have the most important thing to say on a given Sunday morning.”

Lowell Bakke, had served as pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Puyallup, WA: “Even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, my mind as a pastor is so finite that I don’t understand many things about the Bible that the congregation was able to bring to the table each Sunday.”

Spurring On

July 12: In Westview Bible Church, Quebec, Canada, a man who suffers from chronic back pain told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.” After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Nita Kotiuga, a pastor in that church, said: “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”

Encouraging

July 1: Bob Maddox, pastor in Grace Community Church, Gresham, OR, explained why their church meetings include frequent one-anothering: “One of our pastors can get up and say, ‘We’re going to have Tom come up and illustrate this point.’ Suddenly, the mood in the entire auditorium changes. Everyone stops and leans forward, wanting to hear Tom’s story. We choose to have people from the body up front on a fairly regular basis, because they can say things we staff people cannot.”

Praying For

June 22: Ollie Malone recalled how, as a seminary student, he had attended The Church on the Way shortly after Jack Hayford had retired from his role as pastor:  

“I was surprised when Pastor Jack (who, although retired, was leading the service that morning, but not preaching) asked the congregation to form in groups of four or so members, introduce ourselves, and identify any specific prayer needs we might have. I ended up in a group with three other men who were alone at the time. Quickly we shared names and prayer needs, then took to the task of prayer. “I have often thought how simple the request was at The Church on the Way, yet how powerful and transformative it was in my life and, I suspect, in the lives of others who still believe in praying for one another, as the Scripture exhorts.”

Serving

Greeting. Confessing. Teaching. Spurring On. Encouraging. Praying For. Each of these six can be practiced by members of a church body in a congregational setting. Each offers a means of carrying out a seventh one-anothering action: serving one another. And each flows directly out of Jesus’s New Commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” He loved us by laying down his life for us. “So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I Jn. 3:16, NLT).

In various ways, each of the seven one-anothering actions described above involves laying down our lives for each other. How? By giving up time and self-interest. By moving out of our comfort zones. At times, by risking misunderstanding or even disapproval. But as we serve one another in these self-giving ways, the body of Christ “builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16).

One-Anothering in a Shared-Church Meeting

Jesus did not offer this as a new suggestion: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn. 13:34). He called it his new command. So, one-anothering is not optional for Christians. The "must" is implied in the "command."

But wait. The command to love others had been around centuries before Jesus came. The ancient Israelites, in Lev. 19:18, were instructed to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus called this the second-most-important command of all (Mt. 22:39). Why, then, any need for another command to love? And in what way was it “new”? In at least three ways.

  1. The new command named different recipients: “Neighbor” in the old command; “one another” in the new. A neighbor might be an atheist, a cult member, or a Christ-follower. One another narrows the field to fellow believers.
  2. The new command set a higher standard for the love. “As [you love] yourself” in the old; “as I [Jesus] have loved you” in the new. His self-sacrifice for others becomes the new and higher benchmark.
  3. When acted upon, the new command would bring about a new result: “This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other" (Jn. 13:35. MSG). One-anothering authenticates us as gospel representatives.

The New Command Amplified

Jesus’s new command blossomed into the dozens of one-another/each-other directives that lace the letters of Paul, James, Peter, and John. For the most part, practicing these one-anothering instructions requires that we get together. One-anothering can take place in a meeting of two or three (Matt. 18:20) or an entire church (I Cor. 14:26).

Many New Testament passages that call for one-anothering consist of inward attitudes: accepting, forgiving, honoring, and so on. But at least seven involve outward actions that can be carried out in a shared-church meeting:

  • Greeting
  • Praying For
  • Encouraging
  • Spurring On
  • Teaching/Instructing
  • Serving
  • Confessing

This and each of the next few blogs will focus on one of these seven actions and our need to practice it as part of our one-anothering in church meetings.

Greeting Each Other

Let’s begin with “greet one another.” You enter a room where a group is gathering. No one speaks to you. Deep down inside, what are you experiencing? Isolation? Loneliness? Uncertainty about what to say or do next?

To anyone long familiar with Paul’s New Testament letters, it is easy to read right across the word greet and barely notice it. For one thing, greeting seems so mundane, disconnected from the “seriously important” matters of faith. Then, too, Paul uses greet/greeting/greetings so often (44 times in the NIV translation), we can begin to tune the term out, treating it like background noise.

Yet the roots of “greet one another” (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12) reach all the way back to Jesus’s new command. So, greeting each other—far from being trivial—becomes a matter of following Jesus our King. The Greek word for greet carries the ideas of welcoming, accepting, embracing—all part of showing love to one another.

In preparing to write Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I interviewed Stephanie Williams, one of the pastors in Mill City Church, Minneapolis, MN. She told me that their weekly gathering begins with a “community time.” This segment is always introduced with two suggested questions to help conversations get underway. First question: “What brought you to Mill City?” The second question is intentionally worded to work even if the parties are complete strangers. Sometimes this question relates to the sermon topic. For example, if the message will cover what Scripture says about listening, the question might be: “Who is the best listener you know?” To make it meaningful, the community time lasts from five to eight minutes (in contrast to the 60 seconds or so often given to a greeting time). As Stephanie told me, “You can’t remember someone unless they share something with you.”

Our Experience in Two Churches

Two personal stories—one positive, one negative—will illustrate the importance of greeting each other. In each case, my wife and I were visiting a good-sized church well outside our own community. In the first instance, a man in the church greeted us warmly. As we talked, he realized that we had never been to his city and that we wanted to visit certain places before we left. So, taking about 30 minutes of his own time, he led us to the subway, descended the escalator with us, and showed us how to use the system.

In the other city, we drove our car into the parking lot, walked a fair distance to the church building, and entered what appeared to be the main door. After a search, we finally found the restrooms. Next, we entered what was apparently the entrance to the main meeting room. An usher there had a handful of bulletins, but he was so engrossed in conversation with someone, we did not receive one. We found a place, sat through the service, got up after the benediction, left the building, and walked to our vehicle. During the whole time, not one person spoke to us or even noticed we were there.

The man in the first church demonstrated self-sacrificing love, reflecting the love with which Jesus has loved us. This stranger took time from his own schedule—perhaps even from dinner with his family—to greet us in a way that cost him something. Not every greeting needs to be that time-consuming. But every loving greeting will require us to place others above ourselves, putting I John 3:16 into practice: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (NLT).

Shared church means choosing self-sacrifice over self-interest—the way of the cross. Even in our greeting one another.