What do you think of when you think of “the church”? Some people, of course, think of a building. They equate the church with the classic stained glass windows, and pews. Others know that the “right answer” is people, the body of Christ, and they love to correct anyone who gets this question wrong. But when most Christians think of what it means to be involved in the life of the church, I’m afraid that the first thing that comes to mind is not the relationships they have with other Christians, but the programs that the church organization puts on.
To be involved with the church, people often assume, is to volunteer to teach Sunday School, or to be a part of the welcome team, or to attend a Community Group, or to show up at a Sunday Service, a class or Bible study, or some other church event. But all the work that can go into these various programs begs the question: is this what Jesus created his church to be about?
Jesus Spent Time with Needy People
Recently, I spent some time reading through the gospel of Matthew and observing how Jesus went about his ministry. Of course there are many things about Jesus’ life and ministry that were unique to him, however it’s undeniable that when Jesus told his followers “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19-20) they must have assumed that he wanted them to do whatever it was he had done with them. One of the things that stood out to me was the way in which he seldom, if ever, developed programs to facilitate his ministry.
Given who he was, Jesus could have set up a very strict program and schedule. He could have mapped out every moment of every day, and utilized his many followers to facilitate any formal program that he designed (and I’m sure he could have designed quite a program). After all, if he was on earth to announce the coming of God’s kingdom, a carefully curated schedule of events, communication strategies, and development of organizational structures seem like it would have been more than appropriate.
But that’s not the style of ministry Jesus modeled for us. While the revelation of God’s kingdom set the ultimate agenda for Jesus’ ministry, the people’s needs set his daily schedule. When the crowds needed teaching, Jesus taught publicly (Matt 5-7). When the crowds needed healing, Jesus healed (Matt 12:15). When individuals needed teaching, Jesus taught privately (Matt 8:18-22). When individuals needed healing, Jesus stopped and met their need (Matt 9:18-34). For Jesus, his presence was the program.
Jesus was Intentional and Strategic
Jesus never wasted his time trying to get people to attend or engage with his program. His program was always a response to the needs and longings of the people. And when there weren’t any people to minister to, Jesus didn’t create a program to draw them in, he simply went to them and gave them the revolutionary gift of his presence. Make no mistake, Jesus’ ministry was not passive in any sense. He was unceasingly intentional and strategic. But his strategic intentionality seemed to almost always have direct, personal ministry with messy and needy people as its goal.
When he wanted to invest deeply into a few of his followers, Jesus didn’t develop a program to put them through, he simply told them to come and follow him.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.Matt. 9:9
Similarly, after calling Matthew, Jesus didn’t plan an event to try and attract all of Matthew’s friends to come to learn about the kingdom of God, he simply went with Matthew and joined his friends where they’d most naturally be.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matt. 9:10-13
Now, this isn’t to argue against organizational programs in the church. Inevitably someone had to prepare the meal that Jesus and the tax collectors and sinners ate. And the table they reclined at had to be in some location. It makes sense to facilitate ministry opportunities through organization and in particular locations. However, it’s also clear that the most impactful aspect of these moments was not the meal or the location of the table. To follow Christ’s example is not to necessarily prepare a meal or recline after the meal. Jesus’ presence was the program.
The Church Is about Following Jesus Together
In the same way, our call to make disciples is the call to faithful presence. To be involved in the church is not a box that is checked by simply volunteering as a part of a program the church organization is putting on. To be involved, as we have been called to be involved, is to be present, in whatever we’re doing, as intentional disciple-makers.
Whether you’re setting up chairs, teaching small children, conversing at a Community Group, or enjoying a beverage with friends, your presence is God’s program. God wants to use you in each and every moment to be an intentional disciple maker and proclaimer of his kingdom. That is what it means to be involved with the church.
Yes, the church is so much more than a building, but it is also much more than a program. The church is God’s people and your faithful involvement simply requires your intentional presence with people. During his earthly ministry Jesus was announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and now that he has ascended to heaven, he has left us here to spread that message and to remind one another of that message every day (Heb 3:13).
But the model of ministry hasn’t changed. Today, just as then, God’s program for his church is the ongoing interpersonal ministry of people faithfully and intentionally spending time with other people. God’s program is simply for us to love one another, intentionally, intimately, and consistently. Presence is the program.
[This guest post is written by Scott Mehl, pastor of Cornerstone Church of West LA, a biblical counselor, and the author of Loving Messy People.]