Updated: Mar 31
By The Reverend Dr. John E. Hill Jr.
What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? Congregations have used these terms to describe discipleship since the Early Church, and yet I am not sure we fully understand what it means today. Christian faith is centered on the idea of the sacrifice of one’s selfish ambition and vain conceit, in exchange for a more abundant life by following the wisdom and teachings of Jesus and confirmed most notably in His death and resurrection. If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must take up the cross daily and follow Him. But follow Him where?
Follow Him—Out! The real work of the Church is not done within the walls of the building. Yet, the bulk of what we describe as discipleship is indeed within the walls of classrooms, sanctuaries, and gyms. When does the membership carry the work of discipleship into the world? “Church” isn’t something you come too, it’s something that you do!
Faithful congregants will quickly, and generously give to mission projects around the world, claiming they cannot go to the mission field, but they will send others. But why can’t we go? How far do we have to go to find someone in need of the Gospel? Our faith without works is dead, and it is time we get to work. If you wonder why congregations die, it’s because their actions did not match the level of their faith. More correctly, their faith did not sufficiently fuel their desire to work in the world for the Kingdom.
While traveling in an airport recently, I was grounded for several hours due to a storm. The planes which had already pulled away from the gate returned to allow their passengers to disembark. Perhaps thousands of travelers sat stranded in an airport. Just in case you have not considered it, no one goes to the airport as a final destination. No one says, “Honey, let’s ride over to Concourse B and grab some Popeye’s chicken.” The airport is intended to be a short stop in a long journey to a grander destination—and the quicker the stop the better.
As I consider this scenario, I recall a similar lesson taught by Reggie McNeal. The Church is the airport to get weary travelers to the next destination. The Church was never intended to be the final destination. People come in, get a little respite, refreshment, new direction, and exit towards the next stop. We may offer a cafeteria-style list of programs and services, but in the end, our mission is to get people to the next place. When the airport masses travelers into one place, the system is broken. I appreciate the mega-churches taking those passengers who want to sit at the airport and free up the small and medium airports to those who want to fly!
Consider this; does anyone go to a sporting event because of the halftime speech from the coach? I played football when I was young, and at halftime, the coach would tell us what he was thinking. His message was not always good, and it didn’t tickle our ears or give us warm fuzzies. However, his sermon was still encouraging and reminded the team our goal was to win the game.
For some reason, we forget that the “game” is life and we are intended to “win” in Christ Jesus. We are to advance the ball down the field to expand the Kingdom of God and to overcome the evil in the world for the benefit of ourselves and others. But we have the idea that we come to the congregation on Sunday as if the halftime sermon is all there is to the game. To the contrary, the church is a break in the action to reflect on your level of Christian followership. We have a game to win, and right now we are deep in the opposition’s territory on the third down, and we need to make up some yardage, or we will have to punt to the other team.
To be a follower of Christ means there will be times we, like Jesus, will enter the Temple for worship and instruction. There will be times when we will go to the Temple for holy days and festivals—and that is the excellent and right thing to do. But we must not forget that Jesus’ ministry was not in the synagogues or Temple, but it was out among the people who lived and worked in the area where he was staying.
Your congregation needs to take responsibility for the community in which you are planted. Your parish is your community, not the membership. The church building should be like a set of lungs with rhythmic breathing; sometimes people coming in, at other times, people going out. Ministry is happening inside, and at other times, ministry going out. If you’re always inhaling or holding your breath, you will soon die. Likewise, if you’re always exhaling, you are forsaking the assembly of yourselves as scripture instructs.
If your congregation had no walls, roofs, budgets, or bank accounts, how would you continue to do ministry? What does it look like to have a ministry without walls?