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Ministry beyond church walls: An outward focus shows Christ’s love

October 5, 2019

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Theologian Emil Brunner famously stated, “The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.” This didn’t quite sink in until I heard Darrell Guder, former dean and missiologist at Princeton Theological Seminary, put it more clearly for me: “The church does not exist primarily for the benefit of its own members. Instead, it exists for the benefit of those outside its walls.”

These truths illustrate why the Presbyterian Mission Agency has chosen “outward incarnational focus” as one of the seven marks of vital congregations. “Outward incarnational focus” is simply how we take the Christ light within us and shine it upon others. It’s not that church members should not also nurture each other. They should. Caring relationships constitute another one of the marks identified in vital congregations.

However, a congregation that worries only about its own members is not fully living out its call to ministry.

We see this in Luke 10:1–11, 16–20, where Jesus tells his followers that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The great need around him causes Jesus to send the 70, to go out into the world to share peace, rely on the goodness of their neighbors and proclaim the good news. The details of the passage sound peculiar to us today, but the takeaway is the same: The church is a force for redemption, bringing about Christ’s ministry out and about, not simply within its own building.

This challenges some of the ways we end up living out the faith. For instance, some churches want their minister and/or ministerial staff to focus all of their time on caring for the members of that congregation. The members understand their pastor’s primary task to be pastoral care for those ailing and the youth minister’s task to make sure the kids grow up in the faith. Whatever outreach there might be to those outside of the church is intended so that Sunday school classrooms and offering plates can be full again.

But Jesus didn’t appoint the 70 to stay put in their place of worship. Neither did he send them ahead to the towns so that newcomers would join their worshiping community. Jesus’ challenge was — and still is — to connect with folks on their own terms. He didn’t see people as potential ways to sustain church communities.

The second challenge from the Luke passage is that Jesus envisions a congregation whose energy is directed outside to the community, not toward the maintenance of the worship building. Our buildings can be powerful catalysts for ministry where we are equipped to turn outward to our communities, or they can be albatrosses that absorb our energy and finances. They can be assets where outside groups regularly use our facilities, or they can be tightly controlled clubhouses. Surely a savior who charges his followers to depend on the goodness of neighbors would prefer that we think of our facilities as a means to accomplish our mission to the world, rather than as an end in itself.

One final challenge from the passage comes from the nature of the ministry to which Jesus’ followers are called. Jesus doesn’t tell them to send money so that other people will go out into the harvest as lambs among wolves. No. Jesus wants them to live out their faith with their lives, not just with their wallets. It’s true that God loves a cheerful giver, but financial giving is not enough.

A church with outward focus moves beyond philanthropy. It lives and connects alongside its partners, building relationships for the sake of the gospel. After all, the church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning.

Chip Hardwick, Interim Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, Illinois

Today’s Focus:  Ministry Beyond Church Walls

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Anisha Hackney, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Cheri Harper, Presbyterian Women

Let us pray:

Dear God, open our ears, eyes and hearts to sense the possibilities all around us for mission and evangelism. Make us communities that sense needs and do everything in our power to meet them. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.