What if Your Church Vanished?

The following article, What if your Church Vanished?, was published in my local paper, The News Herald, on April 27.

Taryn Hutchison color headshot

Taryn Hutchison, author of “We Wait You,” is a writing instructor at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Writing Center.

Hundreds of churches are sprinkled across Burke County’s towns and tucked away in its back roads. With all sizes and denominations, there’s something for everyone who’s interested.

My church is about to break ground on a long-awaited building. In preparation, we’ve been discussing what our church is all about.

A question on a book cover caught my eye recently. “If your church vanished, would your community weep? Would anyone notice?”

Would people care if your church closed its doors? 

Even if your church doesn’t have a succinct, catchy mission statement, it still has a purpose for being. Everything your church does, and how it does it, reflects that purpose.

Many churches cite building up the body as their reason for existence. They list priorities like teaching, worship, fellowship and serving one another.

They quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

They hope people will see how they love each other, thereby attracting them to Christ. But sometimes members don’t know very many people outside their church. Who’s going to see that love?

A church with only an inward focus speaks to part, not all, of what it means to be a Christ-follower.

Other churches focus outside themselves. Their mission is to reach the lost. They talk about community outreach or global missions, or both.

They start where they live, in their local community. From there, their mission field branches out in ever-widening circles, like a pebble thrown into a pond, to the uttermost corners of the earth.

They claim Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But sometimes members resent their own growth being overlooked. The teaching may be so geared to new people that their own itch isn’t scratched.

My question is: why choose between inward or outward focus? We’re called to do both, to build up our members and reach our communities.

The book with the question that grabbed my attention, “The Externally Focused Church,” is written by my friend Eric Swanson. In it, he claims that the church doesn’t need to decide between proclaiming truth and engaging in social action. It’s possible to serve your community without compromising the gospel message.

“The church is called to be separate in lifestyle, but never to be isolated from the people it seeks to influence,” Swanson writes. “Salt, light, and leaven don’t work very well from a distance.”

Service to the community can be a form of worship as you pray together, trusting God for something big. Bonding and growth happen when you work shoulder to shoulder with each other.

By loving your neighbors in practical ways, community service becomes part of your DNA. Bridges and relationships are built when you go to them without expecting them to come to you. You might find common ground in surprising places.

Feeding hungry children, helping needy single moms, or serving widows becomes an end in itself. Jesus claimed that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him (Matthew 25:40).

If you give with the motive of hoping to receive — either new members for your church or a sense of fulfillment — your gift arrives tied with strings.

Yet, you probably will draw people, not only to your church, but to Christ. They will be people who care if your church vanishes.

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