Can you be a Christian outside of the church?
Depending on how you hear that question, two different things might be arising to your mind.
On one hand, Can someone who doesn’t come to church be a Christian? Can you be a Christian outside of the church?
Or on the other hand, Can you and me continue to be Christians during the hours and the days of the week that we aren’t in the church? Can you be a Christian outside of the church?
Both of these are very important questions. And we think that the answers are fairly simple.
Let’s take the first one. As people who show up every Sunday morning, it frustrates us that there are people who claim to be Christian but never darken the door of the sanctuary. I think a big part of us really wants to answer NO to that first question. The church is such an important part of our faith journeys. It is where we worship God. It is where we learn about our faith. And yet we could all probably name people in our lives who do not go to church and yet are good people – people who even claim to believe in God.
As I thought about people I know who fit that description, I thought about my mom whose work schedule varies with the wind and who is either working or sleeping on Sunday mornings. And about the young couple I married this summer who can’t find a church home because the bride is a nurse who works the weekend option. Yes, they could have different jobs – but they don’t. They are where they are, whether by choice or by chance.
In many ways that’s actually the same story that we find in the book of Esther. Esther was a young, beautiful Jewish woman who found herself in difficult times. Her people had been conquered by the Persians and because of her beauty and virginity she was brought into the King’s court.
Her uncle wanted to protect her and ensure that she had a good future and so he ordered his niece to deny her family and her racial background. And after twelve months of purification this young, insignificant woman from Israel suddenly found herself as a queen of Persia. There in the King’s court, she was no longer allowed to practice her religion. She had given up her traditions and her upbringing. In fact – as an interesting note – the name of God is not mentioned at all in the entire book of Esther!
She was in a position of power, of success, and yet was completely outside of her religious heritage and upbringing. She left it all behind.
While this might not seem like the best role model for our children, we keep the story of Esther in our scriptures because of her faithfulness even outside of what is “ acceptable religious behavior.” Throughout the story there is an idea that she is where she is, doing what she is doing, for a reason…. “for such a time as this” as her uncle Mordecai puts it.
Because when the fate of her people is in danger, she puts her own life on the line to approach the king and to rat out his most trusted advisor. She speaks the truth in a time when it would have been expected of her to keep silent and still today, the Jewish tradition celebrates the feast of Purim in remembrance of her act of courage and faithfulness.
As a pastor, I absolutely want everyone to find a home here in this congregation or in another congregation. I want to make sure that as the church, we make every opportunity to encourage our brothers and sisters to be a part of a congregational life. Let me be clear… I’m NOT encouraging you to go home and tell your family, “Pastor Katie said it was okay for me to skip out on church.”
What we should do, however, is not jump to conclusions about why someone might be outside of the congregational life. In this story from Esther you don’t see the local rabbi knocking on the palace door wondering why Esther isn’t at synagogue. What you do see is her uncle Mordecai, quietly watching her, encouraging her, praying for her. He encourages her to use her time and her position to do good. He shows her that she can make a difference because of where she is.
And we too can do this. We can encourage our family and friends in their work and their play. We can point out and celebrate the ways that they experience God’s kingdom in their daily lives. That nurse who works on the weekends is bringing God’s love and healing to people who are in their darkest moments… that is a noble task and as her friend, I can remind her of that. And I can pray for circumstances to change so that she is able to join us. Those parents who are carting their kids off to soccer games and football games on Sundays need to know that we love them and care about them and that we hold them in our prayers as they work to raise their children in the world today.
There are absolutely things that we miss out on if we try to live our faith as a Christian outside of the congregation. We don’t get to share in the public worship of God – which centers our hearts and minds as much as it praises the one who made us. We don’t find opportunities for learning about the faith very readily outside of the congregation or have as many people to talk about the scriptures with. But just like Esther was still able to follow God in the midst of her circumstances…. our brothers and sisters in Christ are not cut off from God just because they are not here in church with us this morning. In fact, if we understand the church to be the people of God, rather than this building – perhaps they aren’t outside of the church at all. We can carry the church to them – through our actions of love and encouragement.
In it’s weekly feature: Pastor, Talk to Me, a website I frequent (Lectionary Homiletics) has a feature where church people are invited to ask questions about the weekly sermon texts. In many ways – it’s what we try to do with the Round Table Pulpit.
One particular story from a parishioner struck me. She talked about how she needed to support and serve the others in the world who God uses and shares that last Sunday a beloved member of the church was injured and could not attend worship. She describes her congregation as a small church with limited technical abilities, but then goes on to tell how she held up a cordless phone throughout the worship service, so that the member who was home could participate and interact with the rest of the congregation through hymn singing, prayer concerns, and passing the peace. Just because she wasn’t in the church building, didn’t mean the church was very far from her.
Which leads me to that second side of the question.
Can WE be Christians outside of the church?
I know that there are days we are so concerned about who is in and who is out, so prideful that we are here, that WE forget to take our faith with us outside of the congregation.
In fact, I think something that many of us practice is “two hats theology.” We wear one hat when we pray, when we come to church, when we are around our Christian friends, but when we go to work, or go home, or turn on the football game, we put on our other hat.
I was talking with a friend last night during the Iowa game… during the part of the game when things weren’t going so well for our beloved Hawkeyes. And this friend of mine who is a new father said that he had already gotten in trouble for cursing in front of the new baby. It was hard for him to censor himself because he had his football hat on!
This two hats theology makes its way into our lives whenever our business practices lead us to take advantage of another person, or our political choices lead to less equality and less justice.
Two hats theology makes its way into our lives whenever we push back on the urgings of the Holy Spirit because we are too busy to respond.
In fact – we are so busy with the other things in our lives that we push church back into the “discretionary time” of our lives.
What is discretionary time?
This doesn’t work so well in a congregation in which we have a lot of retired persons, but lets say that the average person is working 40 hours per week – and let’s say that you probably need another 50-60 hours each week to maintain your home, family, health, school, etc. You eat, you watch your kids and grandkids play sports, you shower and clean. Add in another 50-56 for sleeping. That takes up 156 of the 168 hours available to any human person during the week.
So, typically the church tries to take those 12-15 hours of “discretionary time” – “free time” if you will – that you have available in the week and we say: let us have that.
We ask you to give up 2-4 hours on a Sunday morning. We try to get you to join small groups and to serve through the church. But at the same time, other volunteer groups are also vying for your time. When all is said and done, you might only put your “church hat” on for 5 hours a week.
But what if we tried to think about what it meant to be a Christian in all of those other hours of our day? What if the main thing about being Christian isn’t how much time we give to the church, but how we seek God in the other 160 hours of our week?
Here is where we find help from the words of Jesus. Because the disciples are struggling with this exact thing. In our gospel reading from today, John notices another person casting out demons in Christ’s name and the disciples tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of them, because he wasn’t healing people on sanctioned “Jesus time”
They are so concerned with the fact that they are the “in-group” that they stopped believing anything good or holy could happen outside of their little band of followers. But Jesus urges them not to stop these good actions. “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me.”
And then comes the line that turns our modern sensibilities upside down. Whoever is not against us is for us.
We tend to think about that in the opposite way. If you aren’t for us – if you aren’t actively supporting what we are doing, then you must be against us. You must be the enemy. It’s how we respond to foreign policy decisions, it’s how we respond to competing business interests. It’s how we think of our time.
If we aren’t in the church, if we aren’t doing something for the church – then we must be doing something against the church. We must have to put our other hat on – the worldly hat – until the time comes when we can get back into that sacred building again.
But that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus says if you aren’t against us, you are for us.
Jesus doesn’t care about what time church is or how many hours you spend in this building any more than Jesus cares about who is included in his little band of disciples. His goal isn’t to build the congregation – it’s to transform the entire world!
And so he’s a lot more interested in the things we are doing with those other 160 hours of our time during the week.
How are you demonstrating your faith during the core time of your life? How can you wear your church hat in those areas? How can we demonstrate our faith in the other spheres of our lives – in our families? In our work? In our schools?
The disciples are troubled because they see people acting outside “the church” – outside of what they believe to be the prescribed boundaries of their community. And Jesus’ response? Go and do likewise… I don’t care if you are in or if you are out… if you follow me, you’ll follow me wherever you are.
Go out into the world and serve me. Serve me as you cook supper for your family. Serve me as you prepare expense reports for your business. Serve me as you take mail to the post office. Serve me as you knit a blanket for a friend. Serve me…. And then come back to this place each week – to this congregation – and find rest and comfort and strength, so that you can go back out there and serve me again.
Can you be a Christian outside of the church? I pray that we all might take up the challenge.