The biggest challenge for me in Brian McLaren’s presentation is that Brian seems to believe that the purpose of church is not church.

Brian does not seem to care about my annual attendance statistics or growing my church finances. That’s easy for him to say. Brian does not have a building to keep in good repair, salaries to pay and denominational commitments to meet. I have responsibilities. After all, when all is said and done, my reputation depends upon the successful smooth running of the little church machine that I spend my days operating.

Well I guess I’m not all that concerned about my reputation. And, the truth is I have never been much good at looking after buildings, dealing with finances, or focusing my attention on “getting butts in pews.” I am something of a failure as a petty bureaucrat.

But I wonder if I am in fact totally free of some of those baser instincts that poison much church leadership and turn so much of what passes for “evangelism” into a self-serving enterprise with an eye on “the bottom line.” Am I really willing to embrace a vision of church in which church members see their primary ministry as helping their neighbour change the tire on his car rather than serving on the evangelism committee? Do I really see my job as encouraging people to form compassionate relationships outside of church even more than getting them into a church Bible study group?

Is it possible for churches that meet in expensive buildings to ever get fully free of feeling the need to get people into the building in order to keep the building going? Can churches that develop elaborate programs ever be liberated from feeling the need to get people to sign up to keep those programs running?

Brian sums up his model of evangelism as: Serve – Leave – And Don’t Take An Offering. This sounds suspiciously like the model Jesus followed. Jesus did not build anything. He did not call people to form groups. He walked into town, healed, taught, and left. He kept no records of who was healed or whose lives were touched. He asked for nothing in return for the ministry he offered. Jesus seems to have trusted that God’s Spirit would guide those he left behind to embody the healing presence they had encountered in the way that was right for them in the place where God had placed them.

Perhaps I need to stop feeling nervous and trust God’s Spirit. It may sound hopelessly naïve but maybe I really need to have confidence that if God wants people to meet in buildings, God will provide the resources necessary to keep those buildings operational without me needing to badger people into being on the building committee. If God does not want people to gather in buildings, those buildings will not ultimately be sustainable no matter how well-managed they may be.

I do believe that God is at work in the world. Church is happening wherever people are finding a deeper connection with God. I still believe that this deeper connection with God can be served and enhanced by gathering with other people who experience a connection with God and joining them in opening and surrendering to God’s Spirit. In order for people to gather some organization is necessary. And the larger the gathering, the more complex the organization will need to be.

There is still a legitimate function for buildings that enable people to gather in groups larger than can be accommodated in my living room. There is something powerful about meeting together with a large number of people who share a common desire to encounter God and to support and encourage one another in being the church beyond the building. But, as soon as the focus of the gathering shifts primarily to serving the gathering, the gathering ceases to be church. We do not meet in order to keep the machinery of church operational. We meet so that we might be empowered to go back out into the world to encounter the world in such a way that we participate in God’s healing and transforming work for all of creation.