Acts 1:6-11

Acts 2:1-21

This is the second of a three-part sermon series I’ve titled “My Dream Church.” These are some ways to think about being the church that would maybe give us a new way of measuring ourselves. Hint: much of this we already do. Last week, I talked about embodying those who came before us, carrying on the work and traditions of our ancestors in faith, as a way of honoring their memory and receiving the guidance they’ve shared with us. Next week, I want to talk about just how strange the church ought to look. This week, I want to say a few words about giving our ideas away to the people around us.

Today is Pentecost, which we often call the “birthday of the church.” Thinking about churches being born, I wanted to share this report from an Evangelical missionary planting house churches in Ecuador. As I read, remember that his assumptions and his criteria for success might be different from yours, but he’s working as faithfully as any of us are.

The setting is an “urgent meeting” between two house church leaders, Monica and Medardo, and the missionary church-planter. The missionary was worried, because “urgent meetings” are usually about some major problem that threatens the life of the faith community. He writes:

After the initial small talk, they got down to why they had called the meeting.

Mónica voiced their concern, “When can we be a church?”

As hard as it was for me to think this was the real issue at hand, and not something else, I went along and began a series of questions…

“How many believers gather together with you?”

Medardo answered, “Usually between 10 and 15, but only seven have been baptized so far this year (2009). The rest are waiting until we can coordinate a time when we can all get down to the river.”

“How often do you gather together. Once, twice a week?”

“We meet every evening Tuesday-Sunday from about 7:00pm till people get tired and go home,” answered Mónica. “They are just so excited and eager to learn and share. We tried suggesting getting together only 3-4 times a week, but that didn’t go over very well with the group.

The missionaries went on to ask about the group’s prayer life, which is vibrant. He learned that they’ve “only” been able to start two other house churches while also leading their own and holding down jobs and family life. He learned that the questions and troubles people bring to the group leaders are deepening their faith and developing their knowledge. The missionary kept talking for a while, then:

After a few minutes, Mónica interrupted and asked again, “so when can we be a church?”

Just ponder on that question, given what you’ve heard. A Christian community gathers six nights a week to pray, plants two more similar communities, and works to transform lives in light of God’s great love. “So,” Monica asks, “when can we be a church?” The missionary answers:

“Medardo and Mónica”, we said, “YOU ARE ALREADY A CHURCH! AND HAVE BEEN ONE NOW FOR QUITE SOME TIME!”

At that, they smiled and we talked about putting together a celebration where several of the other house churches would be invited for a time of praise and thanksgiving. They liked that idea, and Mónica began talking about what food might be good to prepare for this special occasion.

The missionary is overjoyed! Later, he reflects:

No one has ever told them Christians only gather on Sunday mornings for church.

No one ever told them churches less than a year old cannot start 2-3 new churches themselves.

No one ever told them they needed more than the Holy Spirit and the Word of God in order to lead three different house churches–all of which came to the Lord through their personal witness.

No one told them that to be church you have to have all this “stuff.”

They are just doing it, trusting the Lord as they go along. And the Lord is blessing!

And that’s all true. But, apparently someone told them that you need permission from someone else to be a church in the first place. Apparently someone told them that you’re not a church until you’ve done the hard work of gathering some number of people together. Apparently someone told them that once you are a church, you have to shift your focus from living the good news to planning menus.

Well, in reality, nobody really told them that last part. They’re planning a party, and they know the work that goes into planning a party. And we can all pray that once they finished the party, they got back to the real festivities: praying, sharing good news, living the new life that Christ lived to share with us. But the point is that yes, they did know that there was something more to the status of “being a church” than just being a group of people gathered in Christ’s name. They knew that there were logistics to be managed, a status to be achieved, pride to be stroked.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong and much that’s right about providing the best hospitality we can, about celebrating God’s presence as joyfully and splendidly as we’re able, and even about maintaining the institutional and physical structures that make up the church as we understand it. The danger is that all those trappings can entrap us. All the arrangements that we make to support our life in Christ can weigh us down. Being a church can get in the way of doing what the church is here to do.

I don’t know what will become of Monica and Medardo’s house church, and it’s completely unfair for me to use them as an object lesson, so remember that what I’m talking about is not them, it’s us. It’s our tendency that sounds so familiar here, where at some point we determined that being the church is about achieving a status and raising potluck dinners to a competitive level. At some point, we became a church, and on some level our life together became preoccupied with all sorts of things that by themselves are not essential. We could strip away almost everything there is to this institution, and we would be every bit as much God’s beloved people as we are now.

There’s a lot we would have to keep doing, of course. Gathering for worship and prayer. Visiting the sick and lonely. Sharing what we have with those who are hungry or poor. None of this work requires us to be a legally recognized church organization. This is just the business we should be about as God’s people in the world. (Here I’m very indebted to Shaun Groves’ tongue-in-cheek expose of the misguided efforts of church leaders in the developing world.)

This is what being the church is about, except that the word “church” implies so many other things. To our ears, “church” implies potlucks and pipe organs, brass crosses and fund drives. And it means forming our children in the faith, studying the Bible, sharing our joys and concerns, and reaching out to care for the poor. As important as everything else is, that second list is what matters the most.

What’s different about that second list – teaching, studying, sharing and caring – is that it’s all very dangerous for the church. These are all acts of giving ourselves away, even at risk to the institution we belong to. When we engage deeply with the world around us, as Monica and Medardo’s church did, we don’t know what will become of us. When we offer our good news in terms the world can understand, as the disciples did that Pentecost, we lose control over the message. We no longer get to be the “church,” in charge of who gets to hear God’s welcome. Instead, we become a people who live out that welcome in our daily life.

God may or may not call us to be something that looks like a church. I know that I, and many of us, need to be fed by some of the things church is, but that still doesn’t mean we have to look like the first thing that comes into our minds when we hear the word “church.” What we need to look like, what we’re called to look like, is a group of people living out some radically good news in terms that the world can actually understand.

That’s going to look awfully strange, if you ask most any of us. Just how strange that looks is the topic of next week’s sermon. In the meantime, imagine letting go of some of the things we’ve clung to about being the church. Imagine letting go long enough to meet someone where they are, that much more deeply, speaking the language they speak. May God bless us with a vision of church that we couldn’t imagine before.

Amen.

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