Saturday, February 11, 2012

You don't need a church to be the church

The recent decision by New York City to ban churches from meeting in public schools has been rich fodder for culture warriors. "Our rights are being violated" they cry! That cry is often followed by "Send some money so we can fight for your rights!". They are right about the problem if we look at this from the standpoint of being Americans first and Christians second. For a religious American, this is a travesty and worthy of a great deal of hand-wringing and lawsuit-filing and nodding in righteous anger while listening to Rush and Sean. That isn't how a follower of Christ should look at it. In a Kingdom view, this sort of thing is simply irrelevant. The church ought to be about the business of Kingdom and worrying about our First Amendment rights is not even on the radar. We don't need the ability to meet in buildings and we not only don't need but probably shouldn't even want the approval of the government. As I have written many times before, the acceptance and approval of the culture, the world, the government is not a blessing on the church, it is an indictment of our unfaithfulness.

Then this morning I read an article, New York City Churches Find New Homes, that talks about how church groups in New York are adapting in strange and wonderful ways. For example, the church gathering led by the author, John Starke, has found a new place to gather...
Congregations such as First Baptist Church, which meets in the Upper West of Manhattan, are adapting not just for charity but also for the sake of the gospel. Pastor Matthew Hoskinson has planned to forfeit their Sunday school hour at 9:30 a.m. to allow for a congregation to meet during that time, even as he has arranged for another congregation to meet Saturday nights, and still another Sunday evenings.

Our own congregation has benefited from First Baptist's hospitality and pastor Hoskinson's leadership. Starting February 19, we plan to meet on Sunday evenings at First Baptist Church. This effort to welcome churches takes more time and manpower than what you might first assume.
Imagine that! Giving up a "service" time for the sake of other Christians. Next thing you know we will start sharing with those in need among the Body of Christ. Crazy socialists in New York...

This has had some predictable but unexpected blessings....
As churches race for space and labor for their constitutional rights, we have at least two strategic opportunities to adjust our expectations for what a worship gathering looks like.

First, there is a unusual unity that comes from sharing space among evangelical churches. Many evangelical pastors meet for prayer and planning service projects. These are hugely strategic and a blessing. But there is something different that happens when you have to figure out how two (or three) churches are going share space. We have been blessed by First Baptist as they help us cope during this season of shared space. They don't just want us to manage---they want to help other churches flourish.

Second, many churches now planning for evening services have already found this is a more strategic time for many New Yorkers to meet. Few skeptics in this city wake up Sunday morning eager to check out a church service. And on the Upper West Side, where our congregation meets, many family sporting events have been planned for Sunday morning. So we've grown excited about planning for these new opportunities for outreach on Sunday evenings.
Wow. So when Christians are forced to share time and space with other Christians, God opens doors for ministry opportunities? Being united with one another strengthens the entire church and advances the mission of God? The mission of God is not a zero sum game where we divide a finite pie and there are winners and losers? Weird, I should blog about that or something one of these days... Of course I don't care for the idea of churches "laboring for their constitutional rights" in a city of millions where most of the people are lost and many are poor and hungry. We have plenty of Kingdom issues to "labor for".

I left a comment on the post, replicated here...
The lesson here is that the church is far more than the meeting place. If there were no buildings at all to meet in, would the church just give up and stop meeting? Or would they just gather wherever they could, in homes, in parks, in secret if need be, just as Christians have done for thousands of years. Instead of clamoring about our "rights" and seeking legal redress for perceived wrongs, we ought to thank God for the way He uses events like this to prepare the church for a post-Christendom mission. He is building His church and the lack of formal meeting spaces or New York City rulings are not going to change that one iota.
The lack of official places to meet and the approval of the governing powers didn't dissuade the early church. It didn't stop the Anabaptists. In fact when the opposite is true, when the government smiles benignly on "the church" and Christians have an embarrassing abundance of expensive "houses of God" to meet in, the church seems far weaker and more likely to take on the form of a moral, religious civic club instead of a radical band of counter-cultural followers of Christ.

When events like this happen, instead of letting the radio talk show hosts, the professional  perpetually aggrieved money grubbers and the "culture warriors" turn this into a war, we should thank God for the chance to break down barriers, to find new ways to minister outside of our stale assumptions and traditions and remember that if we believe God is sovereign then not even the government of New York City is going to thwart Him!

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