We sometimes forget that the church exists from Monday to Saturday, and not only on Sunday. So why do we spend so much time thinking about our gathering on Sunday—and so little about being the church during the week?
Have you heard the term “vacuum cleaner church”? Whether you’ve heard it or not, you’ve probably experienced it. “Oh, can you help out with this committee? Can you do a reading this Sunday? Why don’t you join this small group?” It goes on and on. I remember a friend joking that there was only one night a week when she was at home, and her husband was worried that she’d give that one up to being “at the church” too. It wasn’t a particularly funny joke.
The trouble is that it is all too easy to measure people’s spiritual maturity by the amount of time they spend in the four walls of the church building, or in “church”-related activities. They’re the people we value most, the people we trust with yet more responsibilities, and the people we reward.
What is the church?
What is wrong with this picture? It assumes a very distorted understanding of “the church.” What is church? Church consists of those who have responded to God’s call to “repent and believe” through faith and baptism. And what does “repent and believe” mean? Jesus connects it with his announcement of “the kingdom” (Mark 1:15). So we could paraphrase Jesus’ words about the arrival of the kingdom this way: “Now I’m here, God’s plan to restore and renew the world is reaching its climax: drop whatever you’re doing and come join me. Stop wasting your lives and get with God’s program!”
If this is the heart of church, then how does it operate? Some have suggested that church exists in two modes, the “gathered mode” (when we come together for worship and teaching) and the “scattered mode” (the rest of the week, when we live our lives in the places God has called us—home, work, or leisure). Church is an apprenticeship in the ways of the kingdom, a co-op program with a (relatively small) classroom component, and an on-the-job component (most of the time).
The trouble is that church leaders usually value the gathered mode more than the scattered mode. It’s natural enough, since—traditionally anyway—the focus of seminary training has been how to lead the church in gathered mode with excellence. But Lesslie Newbigin warned, over a quarter of a century ago, that this is not enough: “it seems clear that ministerial training as currently conceived is still far too much training for pastoral care of the existing congregation, and far too little oriented towards the missionary calling to claim the whole of public life for Christ and his kingdom.” Did you notice the word “still” in there? He was looking back—and in 1977!—and seeing that even then this was a long-standing problem. So has it changed since then?
The need for missional leadership
In recent years, seminaries like Wycliffe and Tyndale have increasingly reoriented their teaching and training to take on a missional dimension: that is, like the church in general, we have realised that the purpose of the church is to work with God in God’s mission to renew and restore the cosmos. The church is not there to supply services to religious consumers, or to meet people’s “spiritual needs,” or to provide a “spiritual dimension” to society’s life. We are a community of Jesus Christ’s apprentices in the transformation of the world for the glory of God. This is the key to understanding Scripture. This helps us know who we are meant to be in a post-Christendom world.
But I’m not sure this awareness has percolated through into the life of the average local church. Our instinct is still to suck people in to innumerable activities—all of them worthwhile, of course—within the church community (and all too often in the church building), instead of seeing church events as equipping Christians for their missionary work in “the world.”
John Stott warned us of this danger almost forty years ago:
A convert to Jesus Christ lives in the world as well as in the church, and has responsibilities to the world as well as to the church. I think it is the tendency of churches to “ecclesiasticize” their members which has made so many modern Christians understandably wary . . . Conversion must not take the convert out of the world but rather send him back into it, the same person in the same world, and yet a new person with new convictions and new standards. If Jesus’ first command was “Come,” his second was “Go”—that is, we are to go back into the world out of which we have come, and go back as Christ\’s ambassadors.
Rather than honouring those who spend all their time “in church,” perhaps we should worry about them. How will they ever mature as apprentices of Jesus that way? How will they have time to fulfil their mission in the world? Of course, some people are required—and gifted—to maintain existing church structures. After all, we do need those structures to equip and sustain us for mission. But my hunch is not as many people, and not as often.
Maybe some of those who are in “gathered mode” too much of the time need to be pushed out of the nest so they can learn to fly—for their own good and the good of the mission. The opposite is also worth considering. We sometimes worry whether those who only show up on Sundays, and resist serving on church committees. We even question their commitment: are they really growing in their discipleship? But it may be that if we scratched the surface of those people’s lives, we would find that they are too involved with loving their neighbours to serve on yet another church committee.
Sending out, not sucking in
I had a friend once who started literally dozens of Bible study groups in workplaces across his city. Over the years, they saw about a hundred people come to Christian faith through their witness. My friend’s church—a Baptist church—said, “Look we would love to have you as one of our elders, but this work you are doing across the city is your mission, and putting you on a church committee would just be a waste of your gifts. So we will pray for you and support you in any way we can.” A truly missional response. After some years, my friend moved to a job on the other side of the country. So the man who had acted as Vice-President of the group was asked to take over the leadership. His response? “I would love to do that, but I’m much too busy in my church. Thanks, but no thanks.” Not surprisingly, the ministry declined in size and effectiveness.
Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. Good Christian leaders will ensure that the salt gets sprinkled liberally where it is most needed, and beware the piles that accumulate on the side of the plate. Or, to change the image: Christians are rather like manure: spread thinly, they do a great job. But gather too many of them together for too long, and they begin to smell pretty bad.
4 thoughts on “Vacuum Cleaner Church”
An excellent commentary on the church, John … esp the Anglican church. We are much too often inwardly focused on our ‘members’, our buildings, our budgets, our history and traditions, and our programs. Many of our ‘old school’ priests seem reluctant or unable to put primary focus on ‘equipping the saints’ to go out. Let us pray that Wycliffe and other places of learning are teaching the next generation that we need to turn this model upside down. Keep reminding us!!
Thank you for validating what I have been thinking for many years. It’s amazing how Christians will try to lay guilt trips on other Christians for not becoming more involved in ‘church’ activities. I’m going to send this to my Rector!
It was good to hear your voice yesterday. Hope you are recovered.
I enjoyed this piece, always a good reminder to remember that we are ‘church’ the body, in all circumstances. Thanks, Anne
ps We very much enjoyed the grandchildren yesterday – what a joy they are!
I recently attended your roots and wings workshop in London Ontario.
The subject of Dr. Harold Percy’s Christianity 101 came up and there seems to be some interest here in Kitchener. I hav sent an e mail and called Dr. percy’s home and have had no reply.
Would you know how I could get the material for this course. I know it hasbeen around for quite a while.
Any help that you could give me would be greatly appreciated.
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