Do me a favor and take a few deep breathes. Thanks. Not only do you feel slightly more relaxed, but you’ve also helped illustrate the rhythmic nature of Christian ministry. Like the act of breathing, the ministry of the church should be a perfectly balanced combination of inhaling and exhaling.
First, we are inhaled by God, gathered into a people. Just as Jesus gathered his earliest disciples around him for the purpose of instruction and training, we too have been gathered by God to hear the gospel and learn to practice it as his church. The very word church means “the called out ones” or better yet, “those who have been gathered.” A Christian then is someone who has been gathered by God. But there is more to being a Christian than just being gathered.
We are also scattered, exhaled by God into the world. Jesus would occasionally scatter his disciples by sending them out to minister to the surrounding villages only to gather them again and have them report back to him the results of their venture. This scattering in the gospels anticipates the mass scattering we see in Acts that is predicted by Jesus in 1:8 and realized in chapter 7 after the death of Stephen. Each Sunday this pattern is repeated as the gathered church is scattered back into the world.
What’s the purpose of all this gathering and scattering? The answer comes to us in the form of another illustration from the body. As blood circulates through our body it enters the heart and is pumped into our lunges where it is cleansed and oxygenated, then it is sent back out into the far regions of the body to fight disease and energize (Thanks to Darrell Guder for this metaphor). When we come together as a church, we come to be cleansed and oxygenated by the gospel, which is proclaimed in our midst through our singing, praying, preaching, sharing, eating, and drinking. Then we are sent back into the world to fight the disease of evil and energize those around us with the gospel we’ve been infused with at the gathering.
All this begs the question: which part of this process is more important? Which is more essential to the life of the church? Being gathered or being scattered? Inhaling or exhaling? If you’re not sure, try this little experiment with me. Take a deep breath and hold it for a second. Now, without exhaling, inhale again, and again. Now exhale fully. Without inhaling, exhale again, and again, yet again. If you’re still conscious and reading this then you’ve probably come to the conclusion that both inhaling and exhaling are equally important to the body.
Yet what comes so easily to us as breathers is often quite difficult for us as Christians. The balance between gathering and scattering is rarely maintained. When it’s lost, the usual result is that as a church we stop exhaling. We make gathering our specialty. We build expensive buildings that strain our budgets so we can have a comfortable place to meet. We judge the faithfulness of our fellow Christians according to the number of consecutive gatherings they attend without missing. We thank God for giving us the freedom to gather unmolested. Ultimately, we reduce the sum of the Christian life to a regular meeting of Christians on Sunday morning. Meanwhile, the world waits for us to exhale. To scatter back into the soil of everyday life, bringing some gospel with us as we do.
It’s not only the world that suffers when we stop breathing regularly. A church that only gathers and never scatters eventually dies.
There is a lake in the Middle East that is 1200 feet below sea level. The mineral rich waters that run into it from the Jordan River have no outlet, except by evaporation. There are no currents or flowing tributaries. No movement in this lake at all. Because there is no movement and no outlet, there is no life in its waters, except for a few microbes. What’s the name of this body of water? You guessed it: The Dead Sea. (Thanks Wayne Cordiero)
Churches that only gather and never scatter become dead seas. They may be full of content, the gospel may flow into them every Sunday, but if there is no outlet, they are devoid of life, except for a few microbes that keep gathering every Sunday because that’s what faithful Christians do.
To mix in yet another metaphor that I’ve learned from Wayne Cordiero: Each Christian is a sponge. We can come to the gathering and learn a lot useful stuff about God and the gospel, but once we reach our saturation point, what we know about God needs to be squeezed out of us and into the world. Its only after we’ve been squeezed that we are ready to come back and absorb more of the gospel at the gathering.
If you’re feeling stagnant in your walk with Christ, if your faith right now seems lifeless, even though you haven’t missed a gathering in weeks, then my guess is that what you really need is not more soaking; instead, you need a good squeezing. You need the gospel to be wrung out of your life and into someone else’s.
Of course, none of this diminishes the importance of the gathering. The result of being scattered and having the gospel wrung out of us on a daily basis is that it makes us long for the gathering and the refreshment we find there.
This is to be the rhythm of the Christian life, until someday we are gathered around God’s great banquet table in the New Creation and are told that the days of scattering are over.
Until then-we breathe.