A few weeks ago I went to a forum for everyone who holds a formal leadership position (mostly members of the myriad of committees) in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conversations were mostly interesting and fruitful, but I did notice one recurring theme that I found disappointing: most of the discussions of what it meant to be missional - a popular buzzword at this and other recent conference gatherings - were aimed primarily at how to get more people to come to our churches. The watch-word of the day was, "Why?"; indeed, that's the watch-word for the next four years in our conference. But the big "Why?" question that remains unexplored is why are the most interesting things we can think about to make our churches more 'missional' basically directed towards getting more 'butts in the pews'? We would be much more interesting and much more faithful if we concerned ourselves a little more with how we send our members out into the world than how we get more members in. And then, when we do actually get new members in the body, we can actually invite them to join us in doing something other than just expanding membership. Then last week I went to our conference United Methodist Women's fall festival, where I was invited to lead a 'focus group' about how that storied ministry could better reach out to youth and other young people. But most of the ideas that came up and generated excitement had to do with sometimes creative ways of getting youth and young people to one way or another come to their 'circles' or their churches. The thought was that if we could just get more young people to come to us, then we might be able to figure out what to do with and for them. Ideas included inviting local teens who like basketball to come play basketball on the church grounds, or to come to a free community meal and stick around for Bible study. I pointed out that these attempts at outreach were really more like 'in-reach', and challenged them to think about ways they could go out and meet youth on their home turf. Someone commented that youth who come to in-reaches like those listed above probably feel really awkward, and we made the connection that in legitimate outreach it would be the church who would have to surrender home field advantage and meet youth where they already are, and thus bear the bulk of the discomfort.
Also within the last month, as if to remind me that this is not a distinctively Methodist problem, at an ecumenical, community-wide gathering the preacher's basic message was that Christians need to be more bold in their faith. How? By inviting their friends to church. Now hopefully when people come to church they hear Good News about God's great love and mercy, and about his bottomless grace. And hopefully when people come to church they hear the story of how God's love came down to save the world. But the teachers and preachers responsible for sharing that News and that Great Story in the context of a church worship service aren't the only ones allowed to tell people these things. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we encouraged Christians to really own and live out their faith among their friends and neighbors? And wouldn't their friends and neighbors be more likely to find the story of God and humanity more interesting if they initially heard about it from a peer instead of from some professional stranger who has no idea who they are? And think about this: if you hadn't heard this Story and didn't know this News, wouldn't it just seem odd to get invited to a place where the central activity is to sit and listen to a guy tell you that you need to invite more people to that place?
All of these stories share the same fundamental misconception about the kind of thing a church is. They all see church primarily as a place or an institution. If church is first of all thought of as a place or an institution, then people associated with that church will attempt to live out the church's mission within its geographical boundaries and institutional parameters. This is actually really comforting to such people, because it takes a huge load off their backs: they can think, "The church needs to do more _____," as if the church were some kind of reality external to themselves that they have basically no responsibility for. Or they can safely avoid risk, discomfort and awkwardness by staying within the safety and familiarity of literal and/or metaphorical church walls by doing outreach that is really more like what I've called in-reach. Or they can through inviting their friends to church take comfort in the idea that they are let off the hook for telling their friends the story of God's love for the world, because that's the preacher's job.
But the church is not primarily a place or an institution. The church is a people shaped by God's story and sent out to show and tell that story for all the world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then when one realizes that the church needs to do something, they can't avoid a fair share of ownership of the problem and should thus be more motivated and empowered toward a change. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then risk, discomfort and awkwardness are things that all in the church will have to bear together as this people-on-a-mission bears God's love outside church walls to a hurting world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then instead of the first 'evangelical' move being to invite people to come to a worship service at church, worship services can be about shaping pew-sitters into people who will go out and be the church for their friends and neighbors.
The primary point of church as place or institution is to get more people to come be members. But 'members' here is more analogous to members of a country club than members of a living body. But if the church was really that called out people-on-a-mission for God the Biblical metaphor of the living body of Christ (unified in its mission but diverse in its gift and activity) becomes a more sensible metaphor for our churches. And then, almost as if by accident, churches would actually have become the kind of thing worth inviting people to come and be a part of anyways - not just for a few hours a week, but in every waking moment of their lives.