July 2, 2018

What does "church" look like?

Written by  Jason Rissler

I was recently asked, "What does church planting look like?" I have been privileged to be part of two church planting efforts, one in Ohio Mennonite Conference and one in LMC: a fellowship of Anabaptist churches.

As I reflected on the question of church planting, my mind drifted to a much more fundamental question: What should the church look like?

We were a group of young adults, alumni of the YES program, living and reaching out in our Harrisburg neighborhood. We started a weekly Bible study. We read the Bible together, we prayed together, and we ate together. We laughed and cried together.

We extended an invitation to others to be part of our community. One evening, I heard a neighbor say to her grandson as they prepared to come to the Bible study, "Let's go to church!" I thought to myself, "This is not church — it's just a Bible study."

Shortly after that, we launched a church plant. We continued with the weekly Bible studies. There was a single mom who came. She was growing in relationship with God, surrounded by caring and supportive believers, and seeking to share what she was experiencing with others. I was happy for her growth. I remember, however, the frustration I felt because she wouldn't "come to church," meaning the Sunday morning worship service at 10:00 a.m.

But then I began to ask, "Why can't THIS be the church? Why can't the church meet on a Thursday afternoon in someone's home?"

Now, nearly 20 years later, I look back on those moments as transformative in the way I look at the church.

Religious leaders tried to trap Jesus by asking him which was the greatest of all the commandments. Jesus, in essence, said to keep it simple: love God and love people. Then, as Jesus was leaving the earth, he commissioned his disciples to make other disciples: people who love and follow God and love people.

For me, this is the heartbeat of our work as Christ's followers, and I believe it is the heartbeat of the church. Like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, we can make things too complicated. We can bring a lot of baggage to the church and to the work God calls us to do.

Let's give ourselves permission to see the church differently. Let's not define the church by a building, by an organization, or by a Sunday morning meeting. Let's not limit the work of the church to credentialed leaders with seminary degrees. And let's not make ourselves dependent on budgets we struggle to reach.

Rather, let's see the church as a people growing in relationship with God through Christ, a people in caring and supportive relationships, and a people sharing this to the ends of the earth. This can hold true whether we are in a 200-year-old church that looks traditional, or in a newly forming church that is meeting in a home, a café, or the park.
I have three large oak trees in my yard. These beautiful trees won't last forever. However, more oak trees will take their place and continue to thrive. That's because oak trees keep dropping acorns, allowing new saplings to sprout. If I were to let these saplings grow, before long I would have more than three oak trees in my yard.

I see this as a picture of the church. The church will continue to thrive. New life springs forth around us. May we allow God to breath in us His dreams and heart. May we bless and affirm the new expressions of the church around us. Let's give space to the work that God is doing in our midst.

Jason Rissler served on multiple short-term EMM assignments in Puerto Rico, Kenya, Nepal, and the U.S. He also served on a six-year EMM assignment as a church planter in Harrisburg, Pa., from 2000-2006. Jason, his wife Heather, and their four children currently live in Strasburg, Ohio, where Jason serves as pastor of St. John United Church of Christ. His hobbies include spending time with his family, participating in his children's many activities, sports, and being outdoors.

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