can't believe I'm about to open a column talking about Elvis Presley, but that's exactly what I'm doing to do. My foray into this foreign territory is inspired by a popular phrase that was often employed by public announcers who tried to get rabid Elvis fans to exit the venues after his concerts. Fans would linger in hopes of catching a glimpse of Elvis, and even the faint possibility that he might do an encore performance.
Al Dvorin, a concert announcer of the Elvis era, resorted to what is now a "pop culture" phrase in an effort to encourage Presley's fans to exit: "Elvis has left the building!"
I got to thinking about that phrase as it relates to our church. What if all our congregations just got up and "left the building?" What a day that would be, as real ministry happens outside of our church structures. That's where the people are--and that's where Jesus is.
A New Look at Church
I'm becoming increasingly skeptical about the value of putting huge dollars into church structures. Don't get me wrong; there is nothing inherently ungodly about having a nicely appointed building for worship. The challenge comes when we sink millions of dollars into these structures, then pull up the bridge behind us. This is antithetical to everything that Jesus calls the church to be.
You will recall that the Lord talked about our being the light of the world, the city on a hill that cannot be hidden, and salt that infuses everything it touches. He's talking about an intentional high-impact ministry from the church--the people of God. And that can't happen while the church is in teh building. It's in the highways and byways that Jesus spoke of where we find people who need to know Him. But again, that can't happen when most of the church is still lounging in the building.
I picked up the Washington Post a few Sundays ago and was immediately captivated by an article titled "Southern Baptists Struggle to Maintain Flock." Now, the Post usually runs these types of stories in its Religion section that comes out in the Saturday paper. But there it was on page A2 in the massively distributed Sunday paper.
It seems that the Southern Baptist Convention, which, by the way, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, is very much concerned with the drop .... membership and baptisms in their churches. The article reported "the number of people baptized in Southern Baptist churches fell for the third straight year last year to the lowest level in 20 years."
Unfortunately, what is happening among Southern Baptists mirrors the reality of our own sector of the body of Christ in the United States. One reason, I surmise, for this drop is the fact that most churches have "cocooned" themselves behind closed doors, while the greater world outside sees those on the "inside" as having nothing to do with thier lives. The net effect is we've gotten comfortable having not contact with them, and they don't miss what they've never had.
There's no doubt that it's time for the church to "leave the building." We have to find ways to intersect people's lives at "junctures" that make a difference. What that is for your church, you have to decide. But I do know this: If our churches are indeed the "cities set on a hill that cannot be hidden," then we'd better start acting like it sooner rather than later.
The Good News
There are "fired up" Adventist churches all over the country that are doing incredible "works" for Christ! They are repositioning themselves to move into the streets, neighborhoods, office buildings, stores, and anywhere else people gather, all in an effort to be the church--for real. They are putting their dollars where it is making a difference. They are not necessarily waiting for their pastor or church leaders to give the marching orders, but as disciples of Christ, they are hitting the streets going to their friends and family--intersecting people's lives at their point of need.
The church has left the building!
Fredrick A. Russell is senior pastor of the Miracle Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in Baltimore, Maryland.