Vacuum Cleaner Church

 on March 28, 2024

I’m sure you’ve experienced it as have I: “Oh, could you help out with this committee?” “Can you do a reading this Sunday?” “Why don’t you join this small group?” “Isn’t it your turn to make the coffee?” I remember a friend joking that there was only one night a week when she was at home, and her husband was worried that she’d give that one up in order to be “at the church” too. It wasn’t a particularly funny joke. This is vacuum cleaner church.

The trouble is that it is all too easy to measure people’s spiritual maturity by the amount of time they spend inside the four walls of the church building, or in church-related activities. They’re the people we value most, the people we trust with yet more responsibilities, and the people we reward.

What is the church?

What is wrong with this picture? It assumes a very distorted understanding of “the church.” What is church? Church is the community of those who have responded to God’s call to “repent and believe” through faith and baptism. They are those who have committed themselves to learning from Jesus the ways of the kingdom. They make up what I like to call the trade school in which Jesus trains his apprentices.

If this is the heart of church, then how does it work? I find it helpful to think of the church as operating in two modes, the “gathered mode” when we come together for worship and teaching, and the “scattered mode” the rest of the week, when we live our lives in the places God has called us—home, work, or leisure. The trade school of Jesus takes the form of a co-op program with a small classroom component—that’s church—and a larger on-the-job component— called life.

The trouble is that churches usually value the gathered mode more than the scattered mode, the classroom more than the fieldwork.

The need for missional leadership

The decline of Christendom over the past fifty years has led to a fresh realization of what the church is meant to be. The church is not there just to meet people’s “spiritual needs,” or to provide a “spiritual dimension” to a materialistic life, or to provide “good values” to our children—though any or all of those may happen. We are primarily a community of Jesus’s disciples in the transformation of the world—a “missional” community, to use current language.
But all too often we are still stuck in Christendom mode. Our instinct is still to suck people into innumerable activities—all of them worthwhile, of course—within the church community,and all too often inside the church building, instead of seeing church events as equipping Christians for their apprenticeship work in “the world.”

Rather than honoring those of us who spend all our time “in church,” perhaps we should worry. How will we ever mature as apprentices of Jesus that way? How will we have time to fulfill our mission in the world? Of course, some people are required—and gifted—to maintain existing church structures. After all, we do need those structures to equip and sustain us for mission. But my hunch is not as many people, and not as often.

Maybe some of us who are in “gathered mode” too much of the time need to be pushed out of the nest so we can learn to fly— for our own good and the good of God’s mission. The opposite is also worth considering. We sometimes worry about those who only show up on Sundays, and resist serving on church committees. We might even question their commitment: are they really serious about membership in this church? But it may be that if we scratched the surface of those people’s lives, we would find that they are too involved with loving their neighbours to serve on yet another church committee.

Sending out, not sucking in

Years ago, I had a friend in Ottawa who started literally dozens of Bible study groups in different government departments. Among other effects of their work, over the years they saw about a hundred people become Christians through their witness. My friend’s church—it happened to be Baptist—said, “Look we would love to have you as one of our elders, but this work you are doing across the city is your mission, and putting you on a church committee would just be a waste of your gifts. So we will pray for you and support you in any way we can.” What a beautiful response! Then, after some years, my friend moved to a job on the other side of the country. The man who had acted as Vice-President of the movement was asked to take over the leadership. His response? “I would love to do that, but I’m much too busy in my church. Thanks, but no thanks.” Not surprisingly, the ministry declined in size and effectiveness.

Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. But for the salt to do its work, it needs to be sprinkled liberally where it is most needed. We need to beware the piles of salt on the side of the plate. Or, to change the image, Christians are rather like manure: spread thinly, they do a great job. But gather too many of them together for too long, and they begin to smell pretty bad.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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