I’d like to tell you a story—actually, three stories—that completely changed the way I think about “church” or “ministry.” My wife and I were part of a Bible Study group that met in Chicago a number of years ago. It was the typical Bible Study gathering of people from different walks of life. There were about eight or ten of us. We would meet in our home. People would bring their Bibles. We would pray for each other and read through the text together and try to apply its teachings to our lives. This is not unlike many Bible Studies you may have gone to or hosted yourself. What accounted for the sudden change in perspective? Our good friends were in the habit of picking up some of those in our group who didn’t have a car or had to take public transportation to get to our home. One day someone suggested that instead of continuing to host the study at our home we should share the time among all of our homes—two or three weeks at this home, two or three at another, and so forth. It seemed like a good idea. The group agreed. He furthermore suggested we meet at the home of the woman he was driving to Bible Study each week—a home he had never visited. And so we did.
As we walked into the third story of her apartment building, things suddenly became very clear. There was one mattress on the floor of one of the two bedrooms. There was an air cooler unit in the wall, a refrigerator, and a stove. Oh yes, and there were a couple of shelves holding some of her grandsons’ karate trophies. That’s all I remember because that’s all that was there. Everyone from the Bible Study came in and we all sat on the hardwood floor. Nobody said a word about the apartment. We proceeded opening our Bibles and reading from the selected passage. Nothing was different about what we then proceeded to do other than sit on the floor. But my mind—and the minds of the vast majority of others in the group—could not stop thinking about the living conditions of this dear woman, her grandsons, and her daughter who all lived there.
A similar story. My wife and her good friend volunteered to lead the Sunday School class at the local church. There were about twelve to fifteen kids attending at the time. As part of the activities after puppets and storytime, the children were allowed to have some animal cookies. Four of the children quickly started eating through about half of the two-gallon tub of the animal cookies. When asked why they were taking so many animal cookies, the boys said they were hungry. In the context of “church”, this could be viewed as a selfish act of hoarding and not thinking of the other kids there that day. But after the class, my wife and her friend spoke with the mother about her sons: “Are they really this hungry all the time?” The mother said that she hadn’t had time to go the store recently to get some more food. So my wife and her friend volunteered to go shopping and bring lunch over to them. When they finally arrived at the apartment and opened the refrigerator, they found not only that there was little food there; there was hardly any food at all. The refrigerator was empty. Upon discovering this, they returned to the grocery store and bought groceries to help stock the refrigerator with some more food. We were of meager means ourselves at the time, but we did what we could. Eventually we connected the family with a local Jewish foundation nearby that had greater means and resources to help them longer term.
Another story. At the same church, we were all standing together as a congregation singing one of my favorite praise songs: “Blessed Be Your Name.” Every time I sing this song it reminds me of the prophecy Jesus made in Matthew 23:39 when he says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I longed to gather you together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing. You will not see me again until you say ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is a powerful prophetic phrase that echoes the messianic prophecies of old and testifies to the abiding love of God for his people, of his desire to bring redemption and salvation to those who would turn to him. As we were singing this song, the room filled with a rich spirit of praise and adoration for God. Suddenly the woman in front of me—who was raising her hands at the time—began to feel great sorrow. I could see it on her face. The Lord impressed upon my heart to comfort her, to extend my hand on her shoulder as if to say, “Daughter of God, be comforted in the name of Jesus.” And so I did. What transpired then was a rush of the grief she had been trying to hold down in the presence of such a great cloud of witnesses. She immediately fell to her knees and began to sob. Those of us around her stooped down to comfort her, put our arms around her, and prayed for her.
I bring these to your attention because they have fundamentally altered the way I think about church; and I hope that what I’m about to tell you will fundamentally change your perspective as well. I will state it as succinctly as I can:
Our churches spend too much effort trying to create a space that saves every week and not enough effort bringing salvation to the spaces people dwell in every day.
“Going to church” makes it possible for everyday people with very real problems to dress up, sing songs, listen to the Scriptures, celebrate communion, and yet go home to spaces in need of the salvation of God. And I’m not talking about the “getting saved” kind of salvation, but the kind of salvation Jesus talked about—the kind of salvation that saved the whole person, their families, their surroundings, their villages and cities.
Jesus was certainly in the habit of attending synagogues every Sabbath, as was the custom of his day. But more than reading and commenting on the Hebrew Scriptures every week, Jesus’ fundamental ministry consisted of going into peoples’ homes. Furthermore, it was not just “a” home—a home that could hold the most people for a Bible Study, or one with an amazingly hospitable host—but “this” home, the home of this particular person our Lord wanted to discover and completely save.
Consider the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Like most tax collectors, he was not highly regarded by the populace. He also happened to be short. The only way he could see Jesus was to climb up into a tree. What did Jesus do when he saw Zacchaeus in the tree? He did what any good pastor or priest would do: He ushered him to a nice seat among the congregation where he might be able to hear his sermon better. No. He stopped what he was doing and said, “Hey Zacchaeus, we’re coming to your house today. And guess what? I’m planning on staying for awhile!” When the people saw this they had a problem with Jesus. It was one thing to tolerate a curious tax collector in a tree wanting to catch a glimpse of Jesus; it was quite another for Jesus to enter into this man’s despicably rich house—adorned as it was with the oppressive taxes he had collected from surrounding towns and villages. They despised this man and everyone like him. How could Jesus defile himself in this way?! But Jesus didn’t hesitate. The kingdom of God goes where he goes. It is meant for everyone, especially those who are sick and lost—those in need of salvation. Jesus enters Zacchaeus’s home and Zacchaeus receives him gladly. The account is short and we do not know everything that transpired when Jesus entered the home of Zacchaeus. But one thing is clear: Jesus stayed long enough to bring about a transformative change in the life of this man. Zacchaeus says he will give half of his possessions to the poor. If he has defrauded anyone of anything, he will repay them four times as much—a sign of a truly transformed life. Such transformation happens because the kingdom of God has become experienced by the person in the context of the space in which they live every day. Contrast the difference in your own mind between a Zacchaeus who experiences the riches of God’s grace and forgiveness in his own home—in the presence of all of those he collected taxes from (both secular and religious)—versus Zacchaeus experiencing the same at a (decadent) church.
I would like to challenge you to think differently about “church.” And if you are a pastor or priest—or leader of anything that runs itself under the banner of the name of “Jesus Christ”—I would like to challenge you most of all. How much are you spending (and how much are your people spending)—in money, time, and effort—on enhancing a space to save those in your congregation? And how much are you spending—in money, time, and effort—on bringing salvation to the very spaces in which the people in your congregation live?
Let me tell you why this is important. You could very well spend your entire life going to “Bible Studies” and Sunday morning services—preaching sermons!—all the while the people who are coming to them never see the transforming work of God’s righteous power fully redeem the spaces they inhabit every day. Let me repeat that:
You could very well spend your entire life going to “Bible Studies” and Sunday morning services—preaching sermons!—all the while the people who are coming to them never see the transforming work of God’s righteous power fully redeem the spaces they inhabit every day.
That this IS happening is as obvious as can be. Divorces? Check. Abuse? Check. Rapidly deteriorating marriages? Check. Rebellious and apathetic teenagers? Check. Hunger? Check. Poverty? Check. The list goes on and on. As the church continues to do what it is used to doing every week, the culture continues to whittle away at the very spaces these people live every day. But we are teaching them about the Bible, you say? Sure. You’re teaching them about the Bible, but they are experiencing it every week the same way they experience going to a movie theater or taking a class. It has a particular place, a particular time, a particular context. They do church when they’re at church, and they do other things when they’re at other things. There is a complete disconnect between the message that is being taught on Sunday mornings and the lives that are being lived in the homes of those who listen to them every week. Don’t believe me? Go visit the spaces the people you preach to every week live in every day.
Don’t get me wrong. People need three-point sermons—good ones, anyway. People need spaces where they can be with larger gatherings of those who are redeemed and experiencing life lived in the fullness of the kingdom of God. But what people need more than all of these things is for the Spirit of God to come into their homes and families—the spaces they inhabit regularly. Like Zacchaeus, they need mature followers of Jesus—true disciples of his—to come into these spaces, observe what is going on, and then do what needs to be done there to bring total and complete salvation to that place. I challenge you, therefore, before the Messiah and Lord of All—who cares deeply about these peoples’ everyday lives (including your own), more than you or they can possibly think or imagine. Be struck with his own compassion and care for these people; and go. Bring the saving power of God into their homes and families. Shine the light on the darkness that still grips various pieces of their lives; work out the ingredients until they fill the entire lump of dough. Work out salvation until it extends throughout every space in which these people dwell. You are the salt and light of the world. Yes, and a city on a hill cannot be hidden. But the cities in the valleys can hide, and do. What’s more, they are legion. Don’t wait for the Zacchaeus’s of your congregation to start perching in your ceilings and trees. Get out there and find out what’s happening in your communities, in the homes of the people in your church. Perhaps you will discover the real needs of your congregation and be transformed yourself in ways you never thought possible. That’s what I’m calling “a Zacchaean approach to ministry.” And I pray—with all of my heart—that it sweeps over our churches and congregations like a holy wind. God knows this is what is needed right now; but then, that’s because he’s already there, knocking at the door. He sees the needs. And he’s waiting for you to get there so you and he can join efforts to do something about it. This is how we “make his joy complete.”