How much time do we spend in church? As a clergyperson, I’m not in a good position to answer that. But what about everyone else? How much of our time do we spend actively participating in church? Two hours a week? Four hours a week? Maybe for the most dedicated, no-life-but-the-church people it might be as much as six or seven hours out of a 168-hour week. If the average person gets eight hours a night of sleep, that means we’re spending a maximum of about 6% of our waking time in church. Still, that’s pretty impressive.
So here’s the big deal: if people spend no more than 6% of their time in church, why do preachers like me act as if 95% of what you really need to know and learn is confined to what transpires in the church building? I read today’s gospel lesson from the daily office (Luke 6:39-49) and found Jesus’ words very unsettling:
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.
Hearing the words in church and putting them into practice in the outside world are two very different things, and I wonder how much of my focus is encouraging people to do the latter. If I search down deep in my preaching and teaching style, the answer ashamedly would be, “Not much.” I think many clergypeople like me think that getting people in the door is the real goal of a minister. “If I can get them in, I can fill them with what they need to know.” Really, though, my goal should be turnover—not chasing people away from the congregation but encouraging people to go out and do something. The evidence of that might not ever be seen within the church-house walls.
The question goes beyond the preacher, however, and extends to everyone else. As a church community, where is our focus? Is our identity as “church”—as the body of Christ—centered on what happens inside the building, or are we more concerned about taking what we hear and experience at church out into the world? Where is the gospel lived out? When is the gospel lived out? Is it Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, and the occasional weekday bible study? Or does a life of prayer, study, and reflection sprout into a life of action that has no limits?