As traditional mainline denominations struggle with declining attendance and participation, it seems to have become increasingly popular to criticize churches for focusing inwardly and exhort churches to focus outwardly. Sometimes this focus is expressed in terms of existence, i.e., whether the church exists for its members or for those who are not yet members. Changing from an inward focus on itself to outward focus on the community outside its walls, many preachers and pundits say, will help a church reach more people, grow the church, and reverse the trend of denominational decline.
While a change in focus may be in order for many churches, I believe framing the issue in terms of inward focus versus outward focus is a false dichotomy that undermines the centrality of Christ both inside and outside the walls of the church. Stated differently, both choices fall short of the mark.
Unless I am mistaken (and, Lord have mercy, I could be dead wrong, so test everything I say), the church exists for Christ. Consider, for example, Ephesians 5:26-27 (Christ sanctifies the church “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless”); Ephesians 5:32 (applying the marital union as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with the church); and Colossians 1:16 (“all things have been created by Him and for Him”).
If we say the church (which is the body of Christ, Colossians 1:24) exists for the world outside its walls, we reverse the roles of the Creator and the creation, essentially saying the Potter exists for the clay. While Christ does serve the world (a unique claim among the world’s religions, by the way), ontologically, Christ pre-exists Christ’s service to the world and is not reduced to the functionality of service – even if that service is salvific, redemptive, healing, and freeing. So too the church, the body of Christ, cannot be reduced to the functionality of service, regardless of whether that service is to those inside or outside its walls.
Perspective matters. The difference in perspective we are talking about here is subtle but sublime, and makes a difference in what it means to be in ministry. At best, the false dichotomy of inward focus versus outward focus stops short of the ultimate goal of ministry and our very existence – the fullness of union with God in Christ (see, e.g., John 17:21). At worst, the false dichotomy can be a rhetorical form of bullying which, in the church, could constitute spiritual abuse. My purpose here is not to ascribe motive to any particular instance, but simply to draw our attention back to the person of Christ as the central reality and focus of all aspects of our existence, being, and doing, especially including ministry both inside and outside the walls of the church.
So, what does it look like, in a practical frame, for a church to see beyond inward versus outward focus and live more fully into existing for Christ? It is difficult to know in the abstract what Jesus would do in a particular context to open our eyes more fully to Him. After all, we’re talking about someone who once spit in the dirt, made clay, applied the resulting clay to the eyes of a man born blind, and then told the man to go wash in a particular pool of water (John 9:6-7). There may be no one-size-fits-all matrix of success that can be measured and monitored. But, maybe there are some possible markers of what it could look like to more fully live into existing for Christ.
First, existing for Christ may be marked with accepting the divine invitation to a holy preoccupation with the person of Jesus (see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:18). Clergy and laity together may rediscover, or discover anew, what it looks like to ask the Holy Spirit to help us adore and wait on the Lord, while receiving an outpouring of the Father’s love. Participation in Jesus’ intimacy with the Father, through the person and work of the Holy Spirit, may be deeply valued. Preaching and teaching may emphasize the person and work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Transformative questions may arise, such as: What is God showing me about who God is and who I am? What do the character and personality of God look like in this particular circumstance? What is God doing right now, and how is God inviting me to be a part of it? From this perspective, prayer, maybe even prayer that is too deep for words, becomes imminently practical as the language of intimacy with God that undergirds ministering the presence of Christ with authority and power, and most importantly in love.
Second, existing for Christ may be marked with intentional cooperation with Jesus in His work of sanctifying the church “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). Sanctification, practically speaking, is spelled h-e-a-l-i-n-g in the holistic sense of reconciling everything broken in the fall. Your healing and my healing are not just for us, and not just for them. Our healing is for Him. Our cooperation with Jesus in the process of practical sanctification could include, for example, experimenting in the church with people, places, and processes for individual and corporate healing, so that people who have not yet exhausted the transformative power of God’s grace (that’s all of us, right?) can become more available for the holy love of God to flow through more freely, both inside and outside the walls of the church.
Third, existing for Christ may be marked by deeply valuing, and sharing as appropriate, the stories of what Christ has done, and continues doing, in giving new birth to people who receive forgiveness for their sins, filling people and filling them again and again with the Holy Spirit, healing broken bodies and broken hearts, setting captives free from the chains of sin, unhealed hurts, and demonic oppression, and other stories of God’s continuing faithfulness despite our storied history of faithlessness. Praise God for all the stories of fellowship meals, community service projects, clothing collected, peanut butter sandwiches made, money raised for mission trips and disaster relief, and every other good work of mercy and justice of every kind whatsoever. Truly, praise God. And, the church existing for Christ also may remember and tell the stories of all the more deeply intimate ways the Lord transforms people’s lives, making the bride of Christ ready for the wedding, so to speak.
Fourth, existing for Christ may be marked by a shift or expansion of perspective from recruiting volunteers to equipping and launching people into manifold creative expressions of God’s ongoing mission in the world. The church existing for Christ may have a heightened sense of awareness of what Christ, whose throne is eternal (see, e.g., Psalm 93:2), already is doing outside the box, both inside and outside the walls of the church, and honor that divine movement by empowering people through whom Christ is working in creative ways that may not fit institutional molds developed and implemented over the last fifty years or so. While empowering people to minister in ways outside the expectations of then-prevailing religious systems could get messy, Jesus seemed to think it was okay.
Finally, for our purposes here, existing for Christ may be marked by a hunger for ecumenical unity in Christ among all followers of Christ. Let me be first to say I do not know what that looks like in a landscape currently marked by sectarianism between faith traditions and even within faith traditions. Nevertheless, Jesus prayed for unity among all believers “that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me” (John 17:21). The shift to existing for Christ may be marked by desperate longing for the unity Jesus prayed for, and desperate crying out to God until it happens.
The shift from inward versus outward focus to existing for Christ can be summed up in one word: love. As you continue experiencing the risen and ascended Christ in your own life and community, I invite you to look into the face of love, the face of Jesus, and invite Him to show you what it looks like to see beyond inward versus outward focus in your context, both inside and outside the walls of the church, and live more fully into love.
God bless you with the fullness of Christ, and a dogged refusal to settle for anything less.