By Matt Reffie
It is hard to believe it has been eight years since my last super consistent local Church involvement. This has not been from lack of trying. I have visited many of the churches in my area and even came close to working in a few of them. Yet, each time, God has seemed to lead me back out into a type of wilderness . For reasons it has taken me a long time to begin to understand, it seems I can’t both follow where God is leading me and spend my time in regular church involvement. Many times I’ve felt God nudging me to make time to go and meet this person or that person in their own setting, while simultaneously my Church life was calling me to participate in and invite outsiders to scheduled activities and events. It seems when it comes to being a part of an organized local Church while striving to follow God daily, often something has to give, right?
As I’ve thought and prayed through this reality in my spiritual life, I’ve come to two important observations, one about myself and the other about the general nature of the Church as I’ve experienced it. For myself, I’ve come to realize and accept that I am what I call an ‘outdoor Christian.’ Like an ‘outdoor cat,’ I’m just not suited to be indoors (in a local Church) all the time. I thrive and serve others best when I’m in and out, visiting old friends, meeting new ones, and helping the Lord cross-pollinate and make connections as I go. It is a calling I understand is not for everyone, but I have finally found the space to accept and embrace this role for myself. This often means continuing to follow God’s leading down a strange path in spite of the encouragement and pressures to be deeply involved in a particular local body. Like how Paul was often sent on to preach to the next community even though he desired to remain with the existing Christian communities at times , I have found myself more likely to get coffee with an acquaintance or accept an invitation to one of their events than to invite them to join me in something through the church. Too much of what we do together on Sundays flows in one direction, and more than anything today, people need to feel included and heard.
Unfortunately, I have not found much space for this within the form and structure of most local churches today. In our churches we primarily tend to encourage everyone to conform to the same positions on issues of theology and serve in the same usual types of pre-existing ministries . I worry our very idea of what Church is and what it should look like has grown too narrow, leaving many like myself left out in the wilderness without the ability to easily ‘check-in’ and participate meaningfully in the life of the local church. ‘Participation’ in many churches simply means attending services first and foremost, listening to the same speaker, and then volunteering somewhere within the existing services. True church body participation, though, entails both listening and sharing about what God is teaching us and doing in our lives. Presumably, God is speaking to each of us on any given day, so we need to be sure we are hearing from more than just a few people within the natural flow of our weekly gatherings.
All the Same Voices
We often are too nervous to allow any voices in our midst other than our chosen leaders. Like the Pharisees’ attempts to discredit or quiet Jesus, we simply aren’t open to differing opinions, sometimes even on small matters. How often in your church do you or a visitor get to share what God is doing in your life or gently question the prevailing teaching? I fear our individual local church bubbles (whether based on locale, theology, or socioeconomics) have become both too small and too difficult to penetrate without getting trapped either inside or outside the accepted norms. When a newcomer or occasional attendee walks in on Sunday, they generally can either fi t in or be left out. There simply isn’t a lot of room for anything or anyone not already built into the accepted culture and programming. I don’t believe this is ever malicious or intentional, but rather a natural side effect of structure and programming most prevalent in our communities.
For me, this has meant having a hard time connecting meaningfully with some of the local churches I’ve visited. To really connect, I need to be able to meet and get to know the people of a church more so than their programs or theology. Equally important, I like for them to get to know the real me rather than just the parts of me I think they might readily accept. Often once I’ve made it clear I’m not expecting to become a full member, simply due to differing mission or theology, the pastor or leader I’m connecting with naturally shifts their focus to visitors more likely to partake in their existing plans for ministry. But within this limited focus of local pastors trying to grow their congregation through program engagement, we’re losing something of the true communal nature of fellowship.
Program or Community?
If you think about it, the close friends and family type of relationships we strive for in the Church (capital C) only work where there is both mutual interest and mutual sacrifice. If we’re always sticking to the program and focusing on our own things (even if they are truly good things) we sometimes miss out on sharing in someone else’s gifting and calling.
Churches generally haven’t been able to adequately accommodate the cross-pollinating types of roles, where wandering Christians in the community can help make connections between fellowships sometimes too focused on their own things. Hosting local pastor get-togethers and partnering with other churches to help in the community are some of the ways I’ve seen churches begin to build cross-pollination into their regular programming. There seems to be both advantage and precedence for building more consistent cross-pollination avenues into our existing ministry structures. Much of the early church movements depended quite heavily on brothers and sisters traveling between communities, sharing their own spiritual observations and learning from the local flavors of ministry as they visited .
Does your church regularly host or engage with believers from other local churches, other denominations, or non-traditional ministries? Are there positions for traveling ministers on the church staff, who can serve as emissaries throughout the community? I think we can all agree Christian communities were not intended to be their own independent bubbles. We are meant to learn and grow in our diversity, not remain in cloistered uniformity . To do it better, we need to readjust some of the structures and general postures regarding what is recognized as ministry in our church communities.
For those who have been outside the local Church for extended periods, some might assume that ‘outdoor’ Christians have lost their way, giving up on fellowship. I would say they have only lost their way in as much as the local Church has lost its way in not keeping with the practice of sending and receiving cross-pollinators in the broader Christian community. There are many strong Christians I’ve met outside of local churches, many of whom still labor in relative wilderness areas, but have found it hard at times to remain meaningfully connected with local churches. One example of this is a friend who ministered to local homeless teens for several years. While he was connected to a local church himself at the time, he struggled to find congregations that had room in their ministries to accommodate the young men and women from the streets he would try to bring into the fellowship. Were his ministry better recognized and included in the planning of the church’s ministries, they may have added some wonderful young people to their number, whose insights and struggles they might have shared and learned from.
Instead of a symbiotic relationship with these in-between and fringe ministries, where both the serving body and the served each have room to grow and be edified, we often seem to be worried more about control and an overdeveloped sense of orthodoxy. We have developed a tendency to champion the idea of local church being central for the adherence to, and advance of, the Gospel, but our vision of ‘local’ has become distorted. While local participation is rightly encouraged, we’ve become rather selective in how we’ve applied it. It has become hard to walk into a church and find full acceptance without first finding full agreement with the particular interpretations and social norms. Homeless brothers and sisters feel like they have to clean up both socially and theologically before they are fully welcomed into the fellowship. Our first priority has somehow changed from ‘Welcome brother, welcome sister’ to ‘Are you of us? If not, here’s how to fit in here.’
What Can We Do?
So how can we work back towards more open and vibrant local church structures which include brothers and sisters who are called to serve in the in-between spaces? We might start by reevaluating our overall posture and programming. If we can come to each believer with the expectation that we will see and learn from God in them, we might be more inclined to ensure our conversations are two-way and not just geared at making them into our own image. This will mean being open to being wrong and it will mean being open to being messy, but we have to find ways to disagree in unity rather than settle into uniformity. We also have to open up our hearts and minds to what constitutes ‘ministry.’ The brothers and sisters who work on Sundays at secular jobs and strive to bring the light of Christ into all they do there are just as important in their ministry as the Sunday preacher. We need to find ways to invite and encourage less recognizable callings and ministries among us. That might mean just starting out by inviting members of the community or visitors up front on Sundays to share about the ministry they are doing outside of the church’s scheduled programming.
We also need to include outsiders in our regular programming. As scary as it might be to relinquish control of our pulpit or risk someone sharing a perspective we wouldn’t fully agree with, it is really the only way to open ourselves up to what God is doing around us. A great example of this is in the occasional exchange of preachers on Sundays. Church A hears a message from Pastor B and vice versa. But we also need to hear from those in the trenches: missionaries, social workers, off-campus support groups and book study leaders, the homeless, the young, and the wanderers. We all have spiritual insights to share. We all have some bad theology and misconceptions to be challenged. Our bubbles need to soften, need to move around a little, and sometimes need to bump into one another. Our programming shouldn’t be so demanding of us that there is too little room for the Spirit to move us in different directions sometimes. We will all have times when we have to decide between following God’s leading or following our church programming. If we can build in the acceptance and flexibility for each other to flow in and out without the heavy expectations and prejudgments of uniformity, we may just find ourselves all growing together in messy unity.
 ‘Wilderness’ here might give the impression I’m entirely on my own as a Christian, but the reality is far from it. Instead of enjoying fellowship mainly on Sundays, I’ve been finding it in close friendships near and far, through reading and writing with other Christians, and connecting with others online.
 In 1 Thess. 2, Paul writes about spiritual circumstances preventing him from remaining with or revisiting churches as he would have liked.
 Side note: this is particularly problematic when the majority of our Church time is geared towards program participation, such as sermon consumption and Bible studies, rather than active ministry.
 The apostle Paul is an easy example of this. While he did desire to be with various groups of Christian brothers and sisters, his calling was to move between them. I feel this role isn’t just reserved for such Biblical giants as Paul, and it is just as relevant and needed today as it was in the days of the early Church. Also, John 21 is a good example of how we shouldn’t expect the same or even similar callings for one another. Jesus rebukes Peter for worrying about John’s calling in relation to his own.
 Hebrews 10:24, “...let us spur one another on to good deeds…” is often cited as reason to remain in a particular church, but is best understood in the context of remaining in fellowship with all who call on Christ, particularly in your locale.