First Church of the Olympics

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I am looking forward to the paraOlympics starting tonight because I have been getting withdrawal symptoms since the Olympics finished two weeks ago. Like probably hundreds of millions of others I was sat in front of the tv for hours engrossed and inspired by the performances of those amazing athletes. The one thing I think that has really been a feature of the Olympic Games in London has been the crowds of supporters. Apart from no-shows from among officials and sponsors the seats at just about all the venues were packed. (OK women’s football was never going to pack them out at Hampden) However it wasn’t just the size of the crowd which made a big impact but the passion of the spectators. All the athletes not just the British competitors spoke about an almost physical wall of encouragement they encountered as they competed.

That picture of a very few professionals performing while all most everyone else watches and enjoys the performance might be the formula for a successful Olympic Games but its a terrible model of church and the awful tragedy is that it is without doubt its the most popular understanding of the church around. Watching other people perform is how most Christian experience what they primarily understand to be church. So Catholics, Orthodox Christians and some Anglicans see “Church” as happening when they are led by priests who “perform” the correct liturgy and do all the right liturgical “moves.” The preacher is primarily the performer in most protestant churches, what really matters is what they say and of course everyone else’s job is to listen. Even in more “contemporary” churches most people are relatively passive while the worship group perform.

Now I need to make sure you understand what I am not saying. I am not saying that any of that is wrong in and of itself, though personally I do wish there was room for a bit more participation in church services beyond singing or repeating the words of the liturgy at the right time. What I am getting at is when we promote the gathered expression OF church AS “CHURCH” then we inevitably end up with a model and experience of church which is unbalanced and therefore unhelpful. When we overemphasise the Church service when we gather with God to worship him to the exclusion of being equally the church when we go with God to serve him in mission we make most Christians feel like and understand themselves to be mainly spectators in the Kingdom of God. The other danger when we overemphasise Sunday services is that what becomes (all?) important is, like the Olympics, is the performance of the professionals. Christians then end up judging what it means to be Church by how well the liturgy was performed, how good a sermon it was and how well the band played, and even what a great experience it was to cheer on that performance.

So here is my proposal what if we turned the picture of the Olympics around a bit and helped people understand that they are the competitors not the spectators (didn’t Paul say we were all to “run the race”)? I believe one of the most important paradigm shifts that need to happen as move into a Post Christian culture is for those who are part of the church to grasp that “Being Church” is primarily about being active participants not passive if enthusiastic spectators. Here are the questions I am thinking about how to answer.

What if we helped Christ followers to understand that the primary way we should experience being Christ followers, being part of the Body of Christ, is not as seated passive spectators of other people but as active participants who are coached and inspired to do what they are called to be and do?

What if we got everyone committed to our churches to understand that every believer from the moment they believe is called to be a disciple of Jesus and that being a disciples means being an active participant with Christ in His mission of embodying and expressing the Kingdom of God? We need to see baptism as ordination!

What I am arguing for, if you hadn’t realised, is to get rid of this destructive “caste system” in Christianity where some people talk about being “called to full-time Christian service” which effectively makes everyone else is left to feel that their calling is to some form of second best “part time Christian service.” In the Kingdom of God we are ALL CALLED TO FULL TIME CHRISTIAN SERVICE, its only the context that differs not the level of commitment or contribution to the Kingdom of God or the importance of the calling!

The role those of us called to serve primarily within the gathered expression of church have in leadership, teaching and guiding worship are not to be the “professional performers” of the church but to use the Olympic metaphor to be the coaches who train people to be able to fulfil their potential and the officials who organise things so that others can express their gifting. I love what Mike Breen says to church leaders, “we must learn again the art that Jesus exhibited: the task of multiplying missional leaders and releasing them into the cracks and crevices of society where there is little-to-no Gospel presence.” As a Church leader I am trying to train myself to understand that when I take part in the gathered expression of church I am not there to put in a great performance that others will enjoy or applaud but to help people worship and encounter God in way which glorifies God and inspires them to be the church in those crevices and cracks Mike Breen speaks about.

If we really want to authentically and effectively be the church, then I think we need to reject EITHER / OR thinking and embrace BOTH / AND thinking when it comes to church. We shouldn’t over emphasise either the Sunday gathered expression of church or the sent expression of church so as to relegate the other expression of church to being relatively unimportant. We need to experience being both the church when we are gathered with God in worship or going with God in mission. So get off those seats and get in the race!

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