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.

Shared Church on Sunday Morning?

The other day, a woman who recently began participating in our home group made a telling comment. She has regularly attended a variety of churches for decades. “But in church,” she told us, “I could never ask my questions and hear answers about the Christian life.”

Sunday Calendar.jpg

Today shared church—the sort of one-anothering seen in the New Testament church—is more likely to take place in small groups that meet in living rooms than in main congregational meetings. Yet few Christians ever call those home gatherings “church.” Instead, like the woman in our small group, when they say “church," they mean the large assembly that usually gets together on Sunday.

Many Never Take Part in a Small Group

So although what happens in a home cluster comes closer to the practice of first-century Christians, a great many believers never experience that kind of involvement. According to Joseph R. Meyers, in The Search to Belong, “Books on small groups, tapes, seminars, and models abound, yet few of us achieve more than a 30 to 35 percent participation rate.” If accurate this translates to 65-70 percent whose experience of church is something far less participatory.  

Aaron Earls, writing in the website, “Facts & Trends,” pegs the small-group participation rate a bit higher: “In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.” 

Jesus clearly intended that his followers share in the give-and-take of one-anothering: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

The dynamics in a congregation of 150 or 300, of course, differ greatly from those in a group of 8 to 12. But as already noted, a large proportion of believers never take part in a small group. How, then,  can they experience one-anothering in the only form of church life they know?  

One-Anothering Possible in Congregational Meetings

The interviews with church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis make it clear that some level of body life can take place even in the larger congregational setting. For example:

Panels. One pastor, after his sermon, invites questions from members of the body. Sometimes he organizes a panel of mature believers to help him respond to what people ask. Those on the panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones.

Shared Preaching/Teaching. In another church of about 300, the pastor shares the preaching/teaching ministry with a dozen or so church members who are gifted and able to serve in this way. “My goal,” he says, “is to have someone from the congregation preach once a month, without pulling in a guest speaker from the outside.”

FaithStories. Nearly every Sunday a church in Minnesota includes “FaithStories” in their congregational meeting. Each one usually runs about five minutes. In addition to the examples included in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, these stories  cover a wide range of topics, including reports on: How Christians are living out their faith on the job; How a new mom received encouragement from the church’s meal’s ministry; How God worked in the life of another mother to heal her after she lost two of her children; How the Lord delivered a man from his involvement in a cult. Those presenting their stories are carefully coached as they develop what they will say and how they will say it. This avoids the objections raised against what, in other times, were called “testimonies.”

Sermons with Dialogue. Some pastors have carefully developed the art of preaching that draws the congregation into conversation. They prepare a significant part of the message ahead of time and present it without interruption. But with the skillful use of thought-provoking questions, these pastors invite the people to take part in a dialogue. Anyone may ask about something they do not understand, contribute an insight, express a doubt, or read a related Scripture.

By means of these and other ways to structure the main church meeting, a leader can open new opportunities for those who will never join a small group. This frees them to become contributors instead of passive consumers. They get to know the names and stories of others in the congregation. And after tasting body life, they may even choose to join a home group.

An Experiment

In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens invites churches to “Consider an experiment that has been undertaken in several churches. The culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks by refusing for one year to give ‘air-time,’ speaking time, to visiting missionaries, denominational officials and professors from denominational colleges in the Sunday service. Instead each week an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: 'What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?'”

Ephesians 4:11-12 calls church leaders “to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (NLT).” God’s people include not just those in small groups but also those whose only church experience occurs in the main congregational meeting. Church meetings, even fairly large ones, can be structured to some degree as shared-church gatherings that allow that kind of body-building work to take place.