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Swimming pools & churches

This summer, the kids and I have been spending quite a bit of time at the community swimming pool. These homeowner-association-funded entities are a relatively new concept to me. I grew up in Phoenix, where back yard pools were much more common than community pools. While I took swimming lessons at one, I spent all my time in backyard pools a kid. My kids’ experience, however, is the opposite. While they’ve splashed about in a few backyard pools, most of their swimming experience has been in community pools. While it took me awhile to adapt, I’ve come to enjoy our trips, especially when we go with friends. We adults catch up with the latest in our lives while the kids play with each other and practice their swimming skills. We munch food during the breaks and soak in the sun. It cools us off and it’s fun. And all around us are folks doing the same.

Recently, as I watched kids splashing through the water and the adults clustered here and there, it dawned on me that our modern incarnation of the church has some things in common with the community pool—though, perhaps, a little too much.

Don’t get me wrong. Community pools are great things, and I’ve come to appreciate them for aspects beyond the fun we have and the relief it provides from the heat. In the pool we go to these days, folks of all ages, races and from all over the world and all economic strata are in that pool. It really is a “community” pool. We adults and our kids all mix together in those waters. It’s one of the finer aspects of community pools that I really value. And a community church can be that way, too. People from every walk of life meet and interact with each other.

But as great as the community pool is, it’s more about gathering than anything else. We go to the pool to spend time relaxing, enjoying the water and each other. Yes, we build and grow relationships with friends and family (and meet new people), and at some point we may even share our personal struggles and wrestle with how to and what we can do to be better members of the community in which we live. But, ultimately, we spend a couple of hours at the pool a few times a week and then go about our lives. It’s fun and I love it, but there is no sense of a greater mission.

And a greater mission is a big part of who we are as the people of God. By all means, gathering together is vital; when it’s authentic, it builds our relationships with each other and God. But if gathering itself is at the center of our concept of what it means to be the church, we’ve got a problem. Recently, I quoted from an article at Share the Guide blog, where David Muir reflects on how most churches today center on worship rather than a sense of mission as our reason for gathering:
Our challenge today is to create churches where the primary reason people join is the particular focus of its mission. Such churches will find worship hard – as hard as the worship-shaped churches find mission. Worship will not be the emotional powerhouse that it is for worship-shaped churches. But it will also not need to be. 'Gathering for mission' is what will give a mission-shaped church energy, and will keep it on track as a mission-oriented church.

I think Muir gets at something important. “Mission” is not something we do when we gather together but the context in which we gather.

Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson get at this idea of mission being a central aspect of our identity as God’s people in A New Testament Trilogy. They turn to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in particular the Fellowship—a group that is charged with taking the evil Ring to Mt. Doom and its destruction:
What Tolkien’s world tells us is that fellowship finds its origins in the context of mission. Where there is a purpose greater than ourselves or even the meeting of our own personal needs. Like the nine men in the movie who volunteered for the dangerous mission of returning the ring to Mt. Doom, we find ourselves in a similar situation in our churches and in our world. There is an evasive evil in our world that seeks to destroy us, and most of those that inhabit the earth, including many Christians, who are simply unaware of the danger that looms about us. God has placed it on the hearts of His people to make the journey to Mt. Doom, if you will, with the fellowship (that is, of the “Cross”) to destroy the evil influence (1 John 3:8b). It is a journey that has uneviable odds, enormous obstacles, and armies that outnumber and outclass us at every angle. It is the battle for our families, our cities, our state, our country, and even our world. Our Mt. Doom, like that of Tolikien’s world seems impenetrable by the likes of us and cannot be done by an army one. . . .

The biblical concept of koinonia, the basis of community, cannot take place unless there is a sense of commonality of heart and purpose—a mission that unites us. Koinonia for the Western 21st Century Christian has been reduced to potlucks or coffee and doughnuts. You know, “stay after the service and enjoy the fellowship.” True fellowship can only take place where people are willing to share their lives as they share their hearts for something bigger than themselves. . . .

Koinonia . . . begins with Jesus as we enter into communion with our risen Lord and from that relationship participate in the greater mission. . . . Out of this partnership comes a genuine and deep koinonia that knits souls together in a way that normal social gatherings at church cannot. Much like Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, genuine fellowship takes place when people are committed to a common purpose.

In modern church culture, all too often we’ve lost this sense of “mission” (being part of something bigger than ourselves or our personal needs) being the context for our fellowship (which itself is mostly limited for many to Sunday mornings). Not that we don’t know how central it is or focus on it. I haven’t been in one church in the last 10 years that hasn’t talked a lot on mission. It’s always part of their mission statement. Most of the churches I’ve been in have had multiple mission projects and support missionaries and missions around the world and here at home. And many churches have come to see their Sunday services as mission as well. These are all acts and commitments with biblical roots that we are called to. But, frankly, most of us come to Sunday services not with a sense of a greater mission but with the purpose to gather and participate in a praise service that will refuel us for the coming week.

Again, corporate praise is a biblical concept and something we are called to, but our sense of who we are must come from more than that kind of gathering—even with well-intentioned and biblically based acts such as praise and singing, bible study and support groups. It’s almost as if we’ve flipped the concept, as if this concept of mission is now part of something we do together rather than the context in which come together—as if our emphasis on mission has more to do with projects and something to do rather than a way of thinking and being.

But the greater mission involved in the kind of koinonia we are called and enabled to express as kingdom dwellers is a kind of mission mindedness or kingdom way of thinking and being—a way of approaching the world and people around us every moment.

And I think it starts right where we are, in the ordinary everyday moments of our lives. Some years ago, I read Jim Henderson’s aka Lost (later retitled Evangelism without the Additives), which contributed to a profound change in the way I approach the world. Henderson emphasizes a simple concept: pay attention. Really be in the room with whomever you are with. Listen. Pray. And be yourself. If we are really walking with Jesus, then our lives will reveal him as we walk with others. “Jesus,” he says, “is at the center of reality and has commissioned us to invite others into his reality by living it and loving them.”

Essentially, Henderson reveals a simple concept that is key to loving others—part of Jesus’ summary of all commands that could be said to be an expression of that mission that unites us. Loving others requires that we must intentionally pay attention: live in the present and look out for the best interest of others instead of ourselves. In our everyday waking momments, often this is as simple as walking, drinking coffee, and sharing transparently with as well as listening carefully and prayerfully to whomever we are with. And this expression of loving others is also an expression of what it means to be mission-minded—to be missional.

Now, imagine what happens when a group of people gather together who spend their waking hours paying attention and loving others as they go—excited and looking up with eyes to see what God is doing and joining in, as Paul puts it. What would it look like? They might erupt in praise and singing (how could they not?), not as a “reason” for gathering but a natural outburst of their synergy in being together. They would probably delve into the Word, encourage and confront each other, respond to each other’s needs and burdens of the heart, and mobilize to meet needs, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, take care of orphans and widows, confront injustice, speak for those who cannot—and a myriad of other expressions of kingdom living. These expressions would not be the reason for their gathering, but an expression of who and whose they are. They are coming together as a participation in, as Scot Mcknight puts it in A Community Called Atonement, “the redemptive plans of God”:
The kingdom of God, in short compass, is the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life. The kingdom of God is more than what God is doing “within you” and more than God’s personal “dynamic presence”; it is what God is doing in the world through the community of faith for the redemptive plans of God—including what God is doing in you and me. It transforms relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world.
And the specific actions such a group gathered take will look like many different things. The skins we people of God take on will vary according to time and place. Some will last for moments, some for days, and others for years. It would be as fluid and wild as the kingdom itself. It would be a joining in wherever God is working—which is everywhere.

But, I hate to suggest, I think too many of us are missing this deep understanding of what it means to be God’s people, his “called out ones.” Our gathering has become too much like community pools—fun places to go where we can be with and grow our relationships with friends while we get relief from the heat of the week—rather than an expression of who we are.

(Images: mine)