The Church: A “What” or a “Who?” – Lessons from Mao Tse Tung & Tom Hanks

By Art McNeese, D. Min

Question: What one person had more impact on Christianity than any other in the 20th century? Perhaps the answer is: Mao Tse Tung, the leader of Communist China until 1976. When Mao came to power, there were very few Christians in China. But by the end of the 20th century, there were probably 80 million believers. So, the church was growing in China. But during those same years, the church was shrinking in Russia. When Communism overtook Russia in 1917, the ‘church’ had already been established. Cathedrals and church buildings were common. People equated the church with buildings. And the church didn’t flourish like it did in China. Why? Because in Russia, people thought of the church as a “what.” But in China, the church flourished because it was considered a “who,” not a “what.” People didn’t quit going to church because they had no concept of “going to” church. They just kept on being the church!

Here’s another example: think of what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. People’s homes and businesses and dreams were devastated. But after Katrina, some churches thrived while others didn’t. The churches that flourished after the storm were busy being the church, not just going to church. The churches that were defined by their buildings came to a screeching halt once their buildings were blown away!

Reggie McNeal points out that the church is a who, not a what. Go read his book, Missional Renaissance. We need to change our concept of what the church is. We tend to see the church as something outside of ourselves. Something I can go to. Something I can support. Something I can get something from. The church becomes a vendor of religious goods and services. So we become religious consumers. We “go to” church and support the church as long as the church does what we want it to do. Churches actually become competitors to see how many they can attract and how they can keep the customers satisfied. We forget that the church is not something outside of us: the church is us! We are the church. Too often we have made the church a noun, instead of a verb. Something we attend instead of something we are!

We need to change our concept of what the church is. We tend to see the church as something outside of ourselves. Something I can go to. Something I can support. Something I can get something from. The church becomes a vendor of religious goods and services. So we become religious consumers.

The Biblical model is different. We’re called to be the aroma of Christ in the world. As McNeal points out, in this paradigm, we’re not the point! God doesn’t build a church and give it a mission. The mission predates the church. God has always been in the process of bringing people into his kingdom. And now He looks to us to be part of that process.

Think of it this way. Airports are not destinations. Airports are only connections. We tolerate airports because they deliver us where we want to go. Tom Hanks starred in a movie about a guy who made his home at an airport. He never went anywhere. We’re vulnerable to the same temptation. We’re enticed to turn the church into a destination. We think if people are hovering around the building, the church is winning. We devolve into seeing church activities as our reason for being. When we slip into thinking that church busyness is what God is looking for, it’s like thinking that the airport is the destination.

This is not to denigrate bible study or worship or fellowship. All are vital. But can we move from an internal focus to becoming communities of faith that embody a passion for our appointed mission?

Will we be reduced to being a “what?” Or will we accept the challenge to embody the “who” of Jesus Christ?

Dan Kimball describes the tug of this inward direction in his own life: “A few Sundays ago, I was heading home after preaching three times. I was tired and looking forward to opening my laptop and reading my favorite blogs—particularly ones focused on missional theology and leadership. Just then I received a text message from a friend. He was inviting me to a club to see a band with a number of non-Christians, including one I had been trying to build a relationship with. I suddenly faced a decision. Do I go home and read blogs about being missional, or do I go to the club and actually be missional? It sounds like an easy decision, but it wasn’t. In all honesty, part of me truly wanted to go to the comfort of home and just sit in front of my laptop.”

This is the challenge for every church leader and all who follow Christ. Will we be reduced to being a “what?” Or will we accept the challenge to embody the “who” of Jesus Christ?


Contact Art: amcneese@aol.com

 

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