Recently, I read the story in Acts 17 about Paul and Silas preaching the Gospel in the city of Thessalonica. Their preaching resulted in a number of people coming to faith, and becoming followers of Jesus. Also, a number of religious people in the same city were so offended they gathered a mob and attacked the home where Paul and Silas were staying. After dragging some of the believers before the elders of the city, they made this declaration, “These who turn the world upside down are come here also.” (Acts 17:6)
I’ve often thought about this statement and wondered why our churches don’t have this kind of impact. I dare say, few churches today can be accused of “turning the world upside down.”
I am convinced we’ll never turn our world upside down until we turn the church inside out! The fatal flaw of most churches today is our inward focus. What happens on the inside of our organizations and buildings dominates our time, and eats up our resources. Most church conflicts (fights) are not about ministry and missions, but about personal preferences and control. The sad truth is the average church in America spends 85% or more of their budget on staff and buildings.
Turning a church inside out however, is not easy. It isn’t just a matter of reprioritizing resources and budgets. It is more than just doing more missional things in the community. Although values and priorities are important, nothing will change until we have a seismic shift in our understanding of what it means to be church.
The single greatest barrier to becoming an inside-out church is our model or paradigm of church – that is, how we see ourselves. As one of my seminary professors said many years ago, “The greatest challenge facing the church today is not that we are unable to meet our budget, or that attendance is down, but that we do not know who we are, or what we are to become as the people of God.” (Findley Edge – The Greening of the Church, 1972). As someone else said, “The church is suffering from an identity crisis.”
Since Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, the primary paradigm of church has been the model of people gathering in structures designed for worship and fellowship. Since then, most of the energy and resources of the church have been spent inside organizations and structures. This “gathered paradigm” of church continues to define how we do church today. Gathering to fellowship and worship is necessary, not to mention biblical. However, our gathering is not our reason for existence!
Simply put, there are two ways to view the church. We can view the church as a group of people who gather on a regular basis for worship and fellowship, and occasionally scatter to do good things in the world, or we see the church as a group of people scattered to impact and transform the world that also gathers for worship and fellowship. In one view, the priority is gathering and in the other it’s scattering. One looks more like an institution, and the other a movement.
Gathering and scattering are both necessary, but it is the way we scatter that gives meaning and purpose to the reason we gather! Not vice-versa. In other words, what happens inside our gatherings must never take priority over what happens outside our gatherings. Salt looks good in the salt shaker, but it only fulfills its purpose when it leaves the safety of the shaker. And, keeping the salt shaker filled is not the ultimate goal.
This missional identity of the church is explored in detail in Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways. He says, “We have become so numbed by the opiate of institutional religion that we have simple lost contact with the memory of what we can, and ought, to be.”
The key to turning the world upside down is turning the church inside out, and that will never happen until we see the church as missional. It is not that the church has a mission, but that the mission (Missio Dei) has a church. Our very existence is about being on mission in a world where God is reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. 5: 19)
What are we doing to turn our churches inside out?