I once dated a guy who intended to be a pastor.
He went to a Bible college; all his friends were either Christians from the youth group he led or from his church. He listened to only Christian music and went to only Christian concerts, he read only explicitly Christian books, and he attended only specifically Christian events.
I attended a secular college, which he found disconcerting; he glanced around, uncertain and nervous, every time he dropped by to pick me up. He didn’t really know what to do with me when I expressed little interest in dating by the numbers from a Christian handbook. He loved my Christian friends, but was unnerved by the non-believers I knew and made every effort to avoid them.
Will he be a good pastor? Probably. He’s accustomed to dealing with Christians, and most churches are filled to the brim with them. But will he be good at ministry? Outreach? It’s hard to say. His encounters with non-believers were so few and so rare I’m not sure he’d know what to do or how to respond.
And I worry that is becoming a pressing problem for believers in general.
Our churches have expanded over time to become life centers: places where believers go not only to hear sermons but to drink coffee, play games, socialize, exercise, and even sometimes shop. We have small groups so that we can “do life together.” And the end result of this is that most of the people we see and interact with the most are other believers; we run into non-believers or attempt to engage with them only on concerted evangelism sweeps and our interactions with them are reduced to stilted, scripted encounters.
In our efforts to emulate the New Testament church, I fear we’ve forgotten the entirety of what the New Testament church did. It’s true that believers “were together and had everything in common,” and that they “broke bread in their homes and ate together” (Acts 2:44, 46). What is also true – and what we tend to gloss over – is that they engaged with their local community and with nonbelievers. The early Christians engaged with whoever happened to be present, wherever they happened to be. Their interaction was not limited solely to other believers – and had it been so, their mission and goals would have floundered before ever getting off the ground.
Peter and John stopped to talk to beggars on their way up to the temple. They “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). Philip ministers to an Ethiopian he runs across. As the disciples and apostles scatter, so does the Word. Work and daily living all becomes a part of ministry, and the great work of the Gospel did not occur within the church walls. Rather, what occurred within church walls – the breaking of bread, the prayers, the praise, the togetherness – prepared and strengthened Christians for what they would encounter outside them.
As our churches grow more insular and our lives become centered more and more within the church, we must not lose sight of the fact that the bulk of our work lies outside it. Engaging with those around us, believers or not, is a part of our mission. As Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12, it is our business not just to love all of God’s family where we are, but “to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: you should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…”
Rather than building up our church lives as a bulwark against the world, our job should be to gather strength and hope from the church so that we can go out into it and bless and love and serve others. Being out there is part of the mission and part of the ministry; isolation and insularity makes it impossible for us to offer anything at all.