Do We Really Need “Church”?

When I was a kid, my family was part of what I would consider a fairly traditional Quaker church. We attended for a couple of hours every Sunday morning. On a typical Sunday, there would be about 200 of us in the sanctuary (that was our word for the room where we held worship). We participated in a service (that is what we called the morning’s liturgy), which consisted of prayers, hymns, instrumental music, a sermon, and – most crucially – a period of silent waiting worship during which time the Lord could speak through anybody.

If you had asked seven-year-old Micah, What is the church? I might have replied something like, The church is the place we go on Sunday mornings to worship God. If I had done a good job of learning my Sunday school lessons, I might have also said, The church is the people who gather on Sunday mornings to worship God. (The church as people, not buildings, is very important to Friends.)

Still, even if I had learned to distinguish between the church and the building, it hardly broke the connection between church and Sunday morning gathering. I could hardly have imagined what the church would be like if we were not able to gather together in large numbers. What would we be without our liturgy of song and silence; our Sunday school; our potlucks in the fellowship hall? Church without Sunday morning was unthinkable.

In recent years, I have been helping to develop a new Quaker community in Washington, DC. When we first started, I conceived of it basically in the same terms as my childhood faith community. For me, the church was the gathering of people – if not on Sunday morning, at least at a set, regular time. It was the gathering that was crucial, for it was here that worship happened. It was here that we were most likely to meet Jesus Christ together, alive and present in our midst.

Over the past several years, however, I have been exposed to a different way of thinking about the church altogether. The Quaker community taught me to think in terms of a people to be gathered by the risen Jesus, but my experience has consistently been one not of being gathered, but of being scattered, sent out into the world to make disciples to Jesus.

There is great contrast between these two visions. One calls for inviting, the other for going. One sees the church as a beacon, the other as a searchlight. One calls us to grow larger, the other to be broken down smaller. One is in the Temple, the other is from house to house.

Both of these visions are valid. We need the gathered community, and we need the scattered fellowships of sent ones who make disciples. We need large and small, intimacy and friendship, challenge and consolation. We need the kind of traditional congregations that I grew up in, the whole body together. But we also need scrappy little fellowships meeting from house to house and making disciples one by one.

In our mission to DC, we have no large congregation; no big worship or building. We just meet from house to house, reaching out in our personal networks and embracing the invitation to become more fully friends of Jesus. Is this enough? Is it possible to live into our mission as a community of disciples in the absence of a larger gathering of believers? Or is the Holy Spirit calling us to help gather this larger congregation that we presently lack?

What is your experience? Are you part of a traditional, Sunday-morning style congregation? Whether your attendance is 30 or 3,000, what are the benefits of being part of a larger local community? Are there disadvantages? What do you see as the right relationship between Sunday morning and the work week, the sanctuary and the street? How can we embrace Jesus’ invitation to go into all the world and make disciples, even as we gather together as congregations?

Something Is Shaking Loose – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #65

Dear friends,

I’ve been getting around this summer. I’ve done almost as much traveling in the last few months as I had in the whole year before that. So far this summer, I’ve taken multiple trips to Detroit, Indiana and Philadelphia. Reconnecting with my friends and fellow workers throughout the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, I’ve felt more plugged into the life of the whole body. As I grow in my role as a released minister with our geographically dispersed fellowship, I am both blessed and challenged by the work of nurturing our fledgling communities and ministries.

Friends of Jesus Fellowship is in a state of flux right now. It feels like all of our workers in all of our local and virtual sites are feeling something similar. Something is shaking loose. There is a new direction emerging, but it’s still not clear exactly where we’re headed. This can feel scary; we’ve invested so much work into the communities as we know them today. But we are also feeling a sense of divine accompaniment, trusting that Christ Jesus is walking with us, guiding us even when we can’t see the way in front of us. We would invite your prayers for our collective sense of clarity as a fellowship, and for the Holy Spirit to enliven and guide each of our local communities.

Here in Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area, we’re experimenting with a variety of ways of being community together. Through cookouts, worship, service projects and spiritual exploration through art, we’ve tried a lot of different ways of engaging with God together. It’s still not totally clear what things will look like for us in the fall, but we have a sense of being scattered across our urban region. Christ is inviting us to re-focus on the simple, patient work of making disciples. Beyond all strategies and programs, this work of transformation and growth is our primary calling.

Even as Friends of Jesus is experiencing a sense of creative mystery, I’ve personally been experiencing a lot of growth in my understanding of the work I’m called to. A part of that has been in my professional life as Web & Communications Specialist for Friends United Meeting. This summer, I’ve been spending a lot more time out at the North American FUM office in Indiana, which has helped to deepen my sense of purpose and connection with this international association of Quakers.

I’m growing in my understanding that there is vitally important work for me to do as part of the FUM communications team, and I’m looking forward to the months ahead as we undertake a comprehensive campaign to strengthen the organization. Together, I believe that we can energize, equip and connect Friends across the planet, and – near and dear to my heart – here in our North American context.

Here are some ways that you can be praying in the coming month:

  • That God would energize and inspire Friends of Jesus – DC Metro Area to take risks and find companions in the way as we seek to make disciples in our local context.
  • That the Friends of Jesus Fellowship as a whole would feel Christ’s power and seek his guidance in becoming the beautiful bride that he is calling us to be. Let the Holy Spirit raise up new disciple-makers in each of our communities, teaching us to embody and share the good news.
  • That Friends United Meeting would be strengthened, both as an organization and as a worldwide body of dozens of yearly meetings from California to Cuba, Nairobi to New York. May God provide the funds, the staff, and above all the spiritual grounding that Friends United Meeting needs to fulfill its mission: energizing, equipping and connecting fellowships in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • That I would find the support and encouragement I need to sustain the work that God has called me to. May my family of prayer supporters, financial backers and ministry partners continue to grow through the unmistakable power of Jesus.

Thank you for your ongoing prayers, encouragement and love.

Grace and peace in the Lord Jesus,

Micah

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Sacrificing Isaac

[God said to Abraham], “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2

I have a hard time imagining what Abraham must have felt when God told him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. The biblical text simply says that he responded with obedience, taking Isaac to the mountains and offering him up to the Lord. But between those terse lines of Torah dwells all the depth of human emotion that accompany the loss of that which is most dear in life. Left unspoken is the dreadful courage it must have taken to say under such circumstances, thy will be done.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is an archetype of total surrender to God. Isaac meant the world to Abraham. He represented God’s past faithfulness: his solemn promise to be with Abraham and make his family a great nation. Isaac was the future: the bearer of the promise, the father of generations to come.

Perhaps most important of all, this young boy was infinitely precious in that present moment. Abraham loved Isaac as only a father can love his son. When Abraham said yes to God, he said no to all his hopes, dreams and loves. He gave up everything for the sake of obedience.

We know now, of course, that God did not ultimately require Abraham to offer up his son as a burnt offering on the mountainside. But Abraham had no idea. He chose to be obedient, expecting that it really would mean the loss of Isaac. If God hadn’t stayed his hand, he would have gone through with it.

What is the purpose of this story? Why is this gut-wrenching incident so central to the faith of billions? What is the lesson here?

This story is meant to be shocking. Why in the world would God ask a father to kill his own child? It simply blows my mind that God would even request such a thing. Yet even as I find myself bewildered by the horror of the story, I am invited to imagine myself in Abraham’s place. What are those things that seem impossible to surrender to God? Where am I holding back? Who or what is my Isaac?