Church, Blood, Bees, and Fighter-Jets

What should your home church have in common with a beehive, your circulatory system, and an aircraft carrier?

  • Watch the honeybees. They gather in their hive, each playing a role. There are worker bees, nurse bees, and house bees. From there, forager bees scatter on their mission—to collect the nectar that becomes honey.

  • In the circulatory system, your heart scatters blood all through your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to keep you alive. The blood then returns, carrying carbon dioxide. While regathered in the lungs, the blood releases carbon dioxide and reloads with oxygen for your cells.

  • The planes land and gather on an aircraft carrier for refueling and repair. Mechanics, technicians, dentists, doctors, and cooks get pilots and planes ready to scatter again on their missions away from the warship.

So what should your church have in common with bees, blood, and fighter jets? Gathering and scattering. To carry out their work, they must all engage in this coming-and-going rhythm.

Shared Church: Two Modes

In the past, these shared-church blogs have focused on the need for participation when we gather as congregations. But the term, shared church, reaches even further than our Sunday assembling. Shared church also calls for the fruitful partnership between both modes of the church: church gathered and church scattered. Each must play its part. Each must support, strengthen, and depend on the other.

Hold on. . . doesn’t the Greek word usually translated as “church” refer to an assembly—a gathering? Yes. But the New Testament Christians did not spend 24/7 in their assemblies. In one of its modes, the church bunched up. In its other mode, the church spread out. For example, in Acts 8:1, when persecution struck the Jerusalem church, all its Christians (except the apostles) “were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Did that church, when scattered, cease to exist as the church? Of course not.

Gathering-Scattering Rhythm

The God who made blood and bees to alternate between gathering and scattering also built that cadence into his church. God does not endorse “lone-ranger” faith. Unless we meet with other believers, we won’t last long. In a blog on beekeeping, the author says, “A single bee cannot survive on its own. It is helpful to view the hive as the organism and the individual bees as the cells, tissues, and organs that carry out the tasks needed to sustain the life of the colony as a whole.” Does your church operate as an organism and conduct itself as an earth-based colony of heaven?

On the other hand, no church can carry out God’s purposes in the world without scattering. Nor can any hive of bees. The nectar collected by the roaming foragers gets turned into honey and sealed into the honeycomb. This stored-up honey becomes the food supply for the winter months, when blossoms—the nectar wells—dry up. Beyond the hive, the honey blesses the world. Does your church give at least as much priority to its health and effectiveness in scattered mode as it does to its weekly gatherings?

Where is the Church on Monday?

Which brings up an important question: After the benediction on Sunday, your church scatters into what locations? Homes? Yes. Neighborhoods? Yes. But almost certainly the bulk of its non-gathered, prime-time hours will be spent in workplaces. The U. S. labor force includes virtually half the population. Come Monday, if those in your church reflect a similar cross-section of ages, every other person may well scatter into a business, a government agency, or some other workplace. Many will head off to do unpaid work.

Over the course of a year, each of those Christians may spend between 75 and 200 hours in church gatherings—ten percent or far less of the 2,000 or so hours invested in working. Put graphically, that difference looks something like this:

Church Two Modes.jpg

Which Mode Gets Most Attention?

As I look back over decades of church involvement, it’s clear that we spend a great deal of time and effort on what happens when we gather. Planning the sequence of Sunday meetings. Writing and printing bulletins. Creating PowerPoint song and announcement slides. Practicing with praise bands or choirs. Preparing and preaching sermons. Organizing greeters and ushers. Arranging for small groups. And so on.

But it’s also obvious that we put little if any time into equipping Christians for their scattered-church roles—especially their working roles. Ask yourself these questions about your own church:

  • How are you equipping young people with biblical understanding about choosing their life’s work, in which they may invest 80- to 100,000 hours?

  • How are you helping those in non-church workplaces to identify and encourage fellow believers on the job?

  • How are you enabling employers and employees to recognize what is and is not appropriate in witnessing at work?

  • When was the last time, on a Sunday morning, you heard someone tell how God is moving in their workplace?

If your church experience is anything like mine, the answers to those questions are—well—embarrassing. “In the church,” writes John Mark Comer, in Garden City, “we often spend the majority of our time teaching people how to live the minority of their lives.” Could this help explain why the church has had so little influence on our outside-the-gathered-church culture?

Why Gather? Getting Set to Scatter

What do all the activities on board an aircraft carrier aim to accomplish? They prepare the pilots and planes for what they will do in the air, away from the gathering on the ship. In a similar way, what we do in our church gatherings should prepare us for what we will do outside the huddle. In another way, though, the aircraft carrier analogy doesn’t fit. Only a few on the ship serve as pilots who scatter. But in the church, everyone who gathers also scatters.

So in our one-anothering on Sundays, all of us should be helping to prepare each other for what we will be doing on weekdays. Shared church—at work in both its modes—is vital if we are to carry out God’s Kingdom purposes in his world.

Watch Your Language: Part Two

The previous blog explored how the clergy-laity divide works against shared church. In Part Two, we’ll look at how misuse of the word ministry has a similar effect.  

“When words shrink, people get smaller,” wrote musical composer Paul Crabtree.

Ministry Boxes.jpg

Among us Christians, the withering of the word ministry has done just that to people. Originally, any Christ-follower could engage in ministry. But the term has undergone something like what happens when you drag the corners of a computer image to resize it. What began as large-box ministry has become small-box ministry.

Diakonia. That’s the Greek word usually translated into English as ministry. One Greek-English dictionary says it means “the role or position of serving” or “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people.” Most legitimate work, paid or unpaid, serves and cares for the needs of others. “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others,” says Lester DeKoster in Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

Enter Ministry-Lite

But in today’s church circles, the ministry has narrowed to mean work such as serving as a pastor or missionary. It’s easy to find examples online:

  • “Five Signs You’re Meant to Enter the Ministry”
  • “Should You Enter the Ministry?”
  • “He left the ministry to follow business opportunities.”  
  • “She . . . left the ministry to pursue a writing career.”

It seems, then, that the resized ministry has come to resemble a room with a swinging door. You may enter it today and leave it tomorrow. Which raises serious questions. If you, as a mature believer, enter the ministry, what were you doing before that? And if you leave the ministry, does that mean you have now entered “non-ministry”?

What if you switch back and forth? A friend of mine asked an acquaintance, “You’re retired, aren’t you?” The reply: "I’m still working part time with a parachurch, international students’ organization.  We recently spent a year where many of these students had come from. So we taught them English for 20-30 hours a week.  The rest of the time we did ministry.” Was this person stuck inside a revolving-door: entering-leaving-entering-leaving? Did Paul rotate in and out of ministry, making tents now, doing ministry then?

Those words, “entering” and “leaving,” show that the ministry has been professionalized. Lawyers and doctors may enter or leave their professional careers. But as Os Guinness points out in The Call: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.”

Does the Small-Box Ministry Issue Matter?

Yes. First, because the resized word works against shared church. It tends to supersize those in the ministry. This only increases the distance between “clergy” and “laity.” Pedestals do not promote healthy one-anothering.  

Second, small-box ministry lets far too many Christians slip, so to speak, off the hook. It is easy to justify not laying down our lives in service for others by thinking, “But I’m not in the ministry.” Shared-church means every-member ministry. No one called by God gets a pass on serving him and others full time.

Third, countless Christians who wholeheartedly desire to serve the Lord in their work, get the strong impression—some are even taught—that this means they ought to “enter full-time ministry.” This is, they are often led to believe, a "higher calling." Far too many learn too late that God has not wired them to be pastors or missionaries. Some even end up needing the help of a psychiatrist or counselor.

Can We Find More Accurate Words?

Why do we continue to describe only the work of pastors and missionaries as the ministry? Do we lack the language to express the true situation? To find better ways of saying what we mean, it will help to keep a couple of truths firmly in mind:

  1. The church operates in two modes—gathered and scattered. Neither outranks the other. Each needs the other. Some have compared the rhythm to the body’s circulatory system. Blood gathers in the heart and lungs to be replenished, then scatters to the extremities to deliver life-giving oxygen and nutrients. Practicing shared church requires that we recognize both church gathered and church scattered and to give each its rightful place.
  2. God has called all of us to serve him and others—to minister—both with our words and our works. Many Scriptures emphasize both kinds of serving. For example, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed [literally, work], do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). The word-to-work proportion varies from member to member within the Body of Christ. Some are more word-focused. Some more work-focused. But each of us should engage in both.

With these gathered/scattered and word/work truths before us, perhaps we can discover new ways of speaking without falling back into the small-box-ministry language. Instead of saying, “He entered full-time ministry,” perhaps say something like, “He now serves as a shepherd in the gathered church.” Instead of saying, “She did not enter the ministry,” say something like, “She serves as a social worker in the scattered church.”

“Words are powerful; take them seriously” (Matt. 12:36, The Message).

Finding the Church Outside the Building

Why do we need to see the Church in both its modes (see previous blog)? One major reason: if the scattered church remains out of sight, we will not recognize or serve it.

The church does not go into freeze-frame between Sundays. Instead, it simply shifts into its scattered state. The scattered church crops up just about everywhere: in homes, neighborhoods, social events, schools, and workplaces. The paths of Christians may well intersect more often in the work world than in any other arena.

A Survey of Christians in the Workplace

Henry Blackaby: Equipping the Church in the Workplace through the Local Church

I once surveyed 60 Christians from 3 different churches—urban, suburban, and rural. All lived in the northwestern corner of the State of Washington. All worked in non-church-related jobs. I asked: “How many other believers are you aware of among those you interact with at work (coworkers, clients, customers, students, etc.)?”

Only 3 knew of none. More than three-quarters (46) could identify 3 or more professing Christians in their on-the-job networks. The follow-up question asked, “If you do know of other believers where you work, do you deliberately seek for opportunities to encourage them in their faith and walk?” The responses were almost equally divided: yes (31), no (29).

The point is this: for most in the workplace, the scattered church is within easy reach. But among those I surveyed, many do not search out fellow Christians on the job for mutual strengthening. Why might this be? The New Testament repeatedly says that one of our main responsibilities is to serve other Christians in all kinds of ways.

Jesus’s New Command to love one another (Jn. 13:34-35) unleashed scores of one-another/each-other instructions. Our one-anothering is to include: serving, encouraging, spurring on, praying for, accepting, forgiving, showing hospitality, bearing burdens, not grumbling about, greeting, submitting to, and warning/counseling—to name just a dozen.

Why So Little One-Anothering at Work?

The New Testament oozes with these one-anothering instructions. Why, then, do many Christians make little effort to find and serve other believers on the job? At least four possible reasons come to mind:

1. Blind Spot. We are unaware or only dimly conscious of the scattered church. Our traditions have conditioned us to think of “church” almost exclusively in terms of buildings, church-sponsored programs, and Sunday gatherings. Yet the church spends the overwhelming bulk of its time in scattered mode.

2. Near-Sightedness. We perceive our responsibility for one-anothering in terms of the gathered church (those in our small group or the church directory). We may feel safer around such Christians, because they share our “brand” of Christianity or our positions on certain issues of faith and practice.

3. Tunnel Vision. Once outside the gathered church and in the work world, we see our ministry responsibility to be only that of evangelizing unbelievers. Countless Christians have heard rightly that that we should always be prepared to speak to “outsiders” (Col. 4:5, 6; I Pet. 3:15). The problem: for many, that is all they have heard.

4. Fear. Some might worry that finding and serving Christians among their coworkers will jeopardize their jobs. After all, our employers hired us to carry out the tasks in our job descriptions, not to act like ministers.

5. Overbusyness. We can get so wrapped up in gathered-church activities and programs that we have no time left for significant one-anothering on the job. Richard C. Halverson served as senior pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, and later as Chaplain of the United States Senate. In his book, How I Changed My Thinking About the Church, he writes: “The minister finds himself preoccupied with the employment of people in church work—at times inventing tasks to keep them interested and busy.” But as Halverson came to realize, “The real work of the church is what is done between Sundays when the church is scattered . . . in homes, in schools, in offices, on construction jobs, in marketplaces.”

Becoming Scattered-Church Detectives

Knowing what prevents one-anothering among Christians on the job makes it far easier to find remedies. Simply recognizing the reality and importance of both church modes—gathered and scattered—can correct the problem of the blind spot.

The fix for near-sightedness may take a bit more effort. We will need to learn how to locate likely Christ-followers among our on-the-job networks. Years of focusing only on the gathered church can cause our believer-finding skills to atrophy. In the Sunday context, regular attendance, Bibles in hand, small-group participation, etc., often serve as our clues.

But in the world of work, we will need to look intentionally for other signs. For example, what can we learn from the vocabularies of coworkers? How do they spend their weekends? How do they treat the “nobodies” among clients, customers, patients, students, etc.? How do they use or respond to the name of Jesus? These and similar signs are only pointers—not ironclad evidence that they trust and follow the Lord. But such hints can pave the way for further discernment.  In all of this, we need to recognize that Christ-followers may gather in churches that differ sharply from our own. Some may have received little teaching, poor teaching, or downright wrong teaching. But if they are seeking to know and follow Jesus, we can come beside and help them along the way.

If the problem is tunnel vision—the idea that ministry outside the gathered church is just about evangelism—we need to find a wider-angle lens. Ministry outside the gathered church includes more than evangelism. The New Testament puts a priority on our serving “those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10).

Fear that one-anothering among Christians might end in job loss can be overcome by recognizing that we are to serve our employers “wholeheartedly” (Eph. 6:7). We should never steal time from employers to minister to other believers. But as relationships with Christian coworkers naturally grow in the course of our work, we can arrange to use personal time—coffee breaks, lunch hours, off-hours, weekends—to serve one another.

Which brings us to the final difficulty: over-involvement in gathered-church programs. Yes, each of us should serve the gathered church in some way. But evening and weekend hours crammed full with church-related work will leave no time for hanging out with Christian coworkers who need our friendship, encouragement, prayers, or counsel. Or for letting them serve us in those ways.

Shared church must extend far beyond gathered-church mode. The work world is spiritually dark. We Christians are also the light of that world (Matt. 5:14). One-anothering among coworkers remains one of the best ways to keep our lamps there burning brightly.

Seeing the Church in Both Its Modes

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?

Neil Hudson, Imagine Project Director, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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.

Seed Preparation

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.

Why Gather?

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.