Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
Toward a Church That’s All About “Going”
Bishop’s Bible Study on Matthew 28:16-20
Based on a message Bp. Wohlrabe delivered at a Joint Lenten Service
Sponsored by the ELCA Congregations of Fergus Falls
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Matthew 28:16-20
Coming to Church
I grew up in a church that was all about “coming.”[i] Whatever kind of question or longing or concern you might have could be addressed if you would simply come—come to church. Church was a place where you came to learn about Jesus, where you came to get close to God and your fellow Christians, where you came for the “straight scoop” about all the big religious questions, where you came to be nourished with God’s Word and Sacraments so that you could face all the ups and downs of life.
This church of my youth—which was all about “coming”, coming to church, coming to God—this church worked best for those who were already part of it. In fact, we regularly thought of this church as our church, a church that sturdy, no-nonsense German Lutherans-- “our kind of people”--had built and sustained.
It’s not that others weren’t welcome. Far from it! Among many other good things we were doing—we were a church that engaged in “mission work,” especially in far-off parts of the world where folks very different from us hadn’t yet heard of Jesus. We sent brave missionaries to those exotic places so that they could invite people to come—to come to Jesus, to come to faith, to come to church. We gave some of our money so that churches could be started in those far-flung corners of the world so that Christians would have some place to come, too.
Closer to home, we honestly weren’t aware that we might have near-neighbors who didn’t know about Jesus. In my little town in southern Minnesota everyone came to a church (or so we thought). If newcomers showed up in town they certainly were welcome to come to our church. We even left the doors to the church building unlocked on Sunday mornings. If they really wanted to come to our church, no one would stop them. Shoot! We might even make space for them in one of the pews that weren’t already taken by some of our long-time, faithful church members.
I grew up in a church that was all about “coming,” and perhaps you did, too. I am thankful for this church of my youth. It’s where faith was planted and nurtured in my life. I’m glad I came to church as a boy; it’s become a habit I haven’t yet broken.
I grew up in a church that was all about “coming.”
Going As Church
Today, I am growing into a church that is all about “going.” This “going” church feels a lot messier than the church I grew up in. Things aren’t all buttoned up and nailed down. There is more movement in this “going” church….it’s a much more mobile and portable and (at times) chaotic than the church I grew up in.
This “going” church isn’t so much a place as it is a movement. Hard to capture it in a snapshot—the church I’m growing into is best imagined in moving pictures, testimonies, interviews with real live people…because this “going” church is a people more than it is a place. And these people are going somewhere, somewhere where Jesus already has gone, somewhere where God is leading them to go.
This church of today is less defined by what happens in just one place. It is more about how the people who gather together every week are scattered into the mission field that is all around them. Ideally, this church is aimed at those who AREN’T already part of it!
The church into which I am growing is a going church that continually sends people like me into the world to carry Christ and to be Christ wherever life takes us. “Mission” isn’t one of many extra-curricular activities of the church. No--“mission” is the flaming center of this church.
Today’s “going” church doesn’t just leave the door unlocked on Sunday mornings, in the hope that some stranger will happen by and enter. Today’s “going” church goes to, intentionally seeks folks who haven’t yet heard the gospel in a believable way. Through words and deeds and simply by “being” the Body of Christ in the world, this church goes to whomever Christ is beckoning us, whether that person is a near-neighbor or someone who lives far away.
Many of us grew up in a church that was all about “coming.” But we’re growing into a church that is all about “going.”
And we believe that this isn’t just a fad that will be popular for a while before it fades away. We believe that this is actually a return to the church God always intended us to be.
Jesus’ First Word
Because after his resurrection, the Risen and Living Lord Jesus’ first word was: “Go!” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Be and bring forth a church that will be all about going.
And this isn’t just a demand Jesus lays on us. It is an energizing invitation to be about what Jesus himself has always been about.
We are growing into a church that’s all about going because we belong to a God who is all about going.
The God we meet in the Bible is a traveling God, don’t you know? Not enthroned, aloof, out of touch—
God is always on the go throughout the scriptures. God walks with our first parents in the Garden. God accompanies Abraham and Sarah to a land he would show them. God escapes Egypt with Moses and the Hebrew slaves. God leads Joshua into the promised land. God sojourns with prophets, priests and kings.
And when the moment was right God went into the world—intimately, personally—in the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Jesus, who had no place to rest his weary head, was always on the go, forever gathering up a people who would be on the go with him. Jesus was always moving—healing diseases, casting out devils, throwing parties for sinners, confronting opponents, recklessly proclaiming God’s rule over all things, marching into the palaces of worldly power, trudging to the Cross, entering the grave, and on Easter morning getting up and going once again.
Our Lord Jesus calls us to be a going church, not to be something he is not, but to fall in step with him, the Going One, who is always going ahead of us, piecing back together the whole creation, aligning heaven and earth, beckoning us forward into God’s future.
I recently saw a great bumper sticker that read: “Don’t look back. You aren’t going that way!”
If Jesus drove a car, that could have been his bumper sticker.
Now at first blush, this sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it!? We’re not a bunch of sticks-in-the mud. We’re a church that’s all about going.
Tempted to Turn Back
But chew on that a while, and questions will start to pop up. It’s not easy, after all, to take a church and put wheels under it….to take a comfortable, settled people and make them mobile, send them out, have them go where Jesus is going.
For centuries, you see, we’ve been trying to get the church put together, nailed down, grounded, stable, secure. And now we’re supposed to pry all that loose and have the church “go mobile?” Really, now??
This “church on the go” sounds messy and downright scary. Because if Jesus bids us go where he has gone…to move where Jesus wants us to be….we could find ourselves in a heap of trouble.
Recently I read a new book entitled Simply Jesus. The author, N.T. Wright, declared that “the story of 'how Jesus became king'…across the world [as related to us in the Book of Acts]...is anything but the smooth, triumphant process of a conquering worldly monarch, obliterating the opposition by the normal military methods. The methods of kingdom work are in accordance with the message of Jesus as king: that is, they involve suffering, misunderstanding, violence, execution, and in the final spectacular scene [at the end of the Book of Acts]...shipwreck." (pp. 200-201).
Ponder that long enough, and we might get cold feet. We might retreat behind the walls of our well-insured church buildings. We might prefer being a church that’s all about “coming,” being at the center, getting folks to come to us and adopt our ways and be just like us.
We might look back and think about where we’ve been and say: “Let’s just try to be that kind of a church again—all buttoned up, nailed down, safe and secure.”
But remember that bumper sticker on the back of Jesus’ car: “Don’t look back. You aren’t going that way.”
For if it’s Jesus we’re following….our noses will always be pointed toward his future, toward God’s tomorrow, toward which our Lord Jesus, in the power of his resurrection said this word first: “Go! Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.
For reflection and discussion:
1. Was the church of your youth primarily a “coming” church or a “going” church? Or was it both?
2. Where is your church on the “coming” and “going” continuum right now?
3. What energizes you about becoming more of a “going” church? What concerns you about making this transition?
4. Where and to whom is God calling your congregation to go TODAY?
This is the fourth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question: “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?” These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.