I was walking home from worship one Sunday morning when the thought occurred to me. Actually, it did not really occur to me, rather, it barreled in full force and took up residence in my mind.
What if the church was never meant to be an institution? (Thoughts like that don’t tend to waltz in without resistance.)
What do you mean, what if the church were never meant to be an institution? How can we even conceive of the church as other than institution?
And so it began.
Institution. Institutionalized. It is a term that we use for those who are locked away, kept separate from the masses. For whose benefit? For the benefit of those locked in, or those on the outside? Presumably it is for the benefit of those who are inside.
But I wonder, does it not also keep those who are outside feeling a bit more secure, knowing that they are kept at a distance? Does it not diffuse the potential threat, to keep those inside the institution, inside?
I wonder, does the rest of the world breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that we, the church, are kept securely within our institutions?
We are called to be salt. We dare not lose our saltiness. But in the effort to maintain our saltiness have we not kept ourselves safely tucked away inside the proverbial saltshaker? That way the saltiness of other Christians around us can mix with our saltiness and we will really be salty. It’s a great plan, until you taste it. My guess is that Britain’s well-known chef Jamie Oliver isn’t going to have any “salt only” menus on the new school lunch plan.
We are called to be yeast. But have we forgotten that yeast is not beneficial, in and of itself? Yeast does not nourish. Yeast does not feed. Yeast, when not added to the dough, does nothing but puff itself up.
By now the thoughts were firing one after the other.
If the church were not meant to be an institution, if the salt is meant to leave the shaker, if the yeast is meant to be worked through the dough, what might happen?
I worked for a summer as a hospital chaplain as part of my seminary training. One particular afternoon I really needed a break. The hospital, in the heart of Orange County, California, had a coffee cart in the lobby entry. In Southern California you are never far from being able to fulfill your latte needs. So, on this particular afternoon, I decided that I ‘needed’ an ice-blended mocha, and headed for the lobby. How could I justify taking an ice blended mocha break when literally, people were dying, and I happened to be a chaplain? But I had an idea.
I would go get my ice-blended mocha, and then find someone waiting in the lobby who looked like they might need a chaplain, sitting down next to them. It was a perfect plan—I could have my ice-blended mocha, and still be fulfilling my role as the chaplain, so that no one could say that I was shirking my duties. I still did feel a bit guilty, knowing that I had ulterior motives, but my taste buds spurred me on.
The other chaplains that I worked with that summer wound up calling it ‘lobby ministry.’ In a moment of guilt I confessed to them that I had obeyed my taste buds instead of my chaplain instructions. What amazed me was that instead of condemning this fleshly indulgence of taste over duty, they celebrated it. Instead of forcing me to try to defend the validity of ‘lobby ministry’ they encouraged this entrepreneurial spirit.
I guess the Holy Spirit can even work through taste buds. I should have been on the third floor, visiting patients. I should not have been taking a break, as it technically was not allowed. I should have been a better chaplain, I should… But out of that ice blended mocha came one of the most meaningful encounters with a patient and his family that I had all summer. It began with me sitting on a couch in the lobby, drinking my ice-blended mocha, and starting up a conversation.
So, my question is, what would happen if we really believed in this idea of the “Church Without Walls?” Perhaps believe is not the right term for it. What would happen if we really lived the church without walls? What if we followed our taste buds out into the world—into the places where we are led, not just to satisfy our tastes, but with a purpose, with ulterior motives, if you will? As Peter Nielsen, then head of New Charge (Church) Development for the Church of Scotland, stated, “What if we were to go out to where the people are and actually stayed there, not trying to bring them back here, to the church?”
What would happen if we were to unlock the doors of our institution and step out into the world? What might it look like to be a church whose saltiness actually seasons the meal? What if the yeast were allowed to permeate the dough, working its life throughout the loaf?
What if we, as followers of Jesus, saw ourselves as sent to permeate the world, not adding saltiness or puffed-up-ness, but bringing out its flavor and allowing it to rise in all its fullness?
What would happen if we left the institution and went out into the world, our world?