The Church Has Left the Building

The Church Has Left the Building

Last year I spoke at a missional church conference in Southern California. The guy who spoke before me asked every one of these missional pastors do a simple exercise.

“Turn to the person sitting next to you,” he said, “and tell them the names of your neighbors on every side of your house (or apartment) and share one story about their lives.”

The room went abuzz.

After a few minutes the speaker called the audience back and asked: “How many of you could share the names and stories of each of your neighbors on every side of your house?” No one raised their hands.

The speaker asked how many could share the names and stories of a few of their neighbors. Only about three people in an audience of about 200 raised their hands. This was a missional conference.

What does it mean to be “missional”? Loads of books, conferences, networks, and church programs have been developed to address this question. I like to think that at the very least being missional requires befriending one’s neighbors. But even that seems a far stretch in today’s world. We need a book and website to promote that idea.

And I mean that. We really do need these kinds of prompts. I was one of the silent ones in the audience when he asked how many of my neighbors I know.

I moved into my apartment in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., three years ago. I moved in with dreams of engaging in the community life of my building. I dreamed of starting a garden out in front of the building. I dreamed of baking cookies and taking them around to my neighbors to introduce myself. I dreamed of having them over for dinner or lunch.

But, very quickly, I fell into the rut of the daily grind, work, chill out with work or church friends, sleep, work, travel to be with family, sleep, work, rest, sleep. There was no time for any of my dreams.

But, when I was brutally honest with myself, I had to admit the primary thing holding me back was fear — fear of the unknown. Fear of being hacked to pieces in my apartment by a crazy neighbor. Fear of being overwhelmed by a needy neighbor. Fear that my cookies would be rejected because the neighbors would fear that I’d laced them with cyanide. Fear that I couldn’t do this on my own.

It wasn’t always this way for me. I was on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship for 10 years. The first four were spent in the dorms of UCLA building missional communities (before the term was popular). As a community, the students served their neighbors in practical ways. They vacuumed their neighbors dorm rooms, took out their trash, led game nights on dorm floors, you name it. We did it.

But the most impactful moment of missional community I ever experienced in that time was when a black woman was kicked down the stairs in the middle of the campus, called a n----r, and told “We don’t want you here.”

The Intervarsity community was extremely multiethnic and had a process in place to work through incidents and biases at work in the life of its community that might ignite interethnic conflict.

By processing the incident internally, students had the opportunity to see and confront their own apathy toward the incident. Intervarsity students of color were able to share how that apathy betrayed a rift in their friendships with white and Asian-American students. (Asian-American students made up the demographic majority of the Intervarsity community.) Students engaged each other, faced their own hearts, and repented of their apathy.

The very next day, the Intervarsity community kicked into high gear. They joined a march through the campus led by the Black Student Union and La Raza, and other ethnic groups. Intervarsity was the only Christian group in the march! They knew about the march because students of Intervarsity had joined these groups and served within them for years.

A multiethnic core of Intervarsity friends camped out in the UCLA president’s office until he granted them a meeting. When he did, they asked him: “What is your plan to deal with racism and protect our friends on our campus?” It turned out that he didn’t have a plan, but he welcomed their input and partnership.

All of this flowed out of a paradigm shift that occurred within our campus fellowship over the previous years. In the past, we had considered our spiritual realm of responsibility to be our fellowship, but we began to realize our parish (the whole campus) is our spiritual community. We were not the only people with spiritual lives on the campus. We were not the only ones Jesus wanted to engage on the campus. We were not the only ones Jesus wanted to reach with his love on the campus. We had realized were holding back Jesus’ love from the vast majority of students on campus. So our paradigm shifted.

Rather than vacuuming rooms to get people into our fellowship. We joined campus organizations, worked in the dorms, and stood in solidarity with the most vulnerable students on campus.

What would this kind of missional engagement look like for local churches?

Perhaps it would mean a shift from “The church has left the building Sundays” to “The church doesn’t own a building at all.” The church engages the people in the community. The church ministers there. The church engages there. The church stands in solidarity with the struggles of the vulnerable there. The church not only gets to know the names and stories of their actual neighbors, but seeks ways to partner with them in their (and their communities’) struggles.

One extremely practical way for the church to leave the building right now would be to begin to engage the issues of racial inequity highlighted by the incidents surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown. That incident happened in Ferguson, Mo., but has clarified the pain of African-Americans (particularly black men) whose humanity is questioned and disregarded by our society’s power structures every day. What would it look like for churches to build friendships within black communities, to sit with families who weep for lost loved ones, to stand with communities who dare to use their voices to declare their humanity in the face of those who deny it, and to leverage their power in partnership with communities of color whose cries for justice often go unanswered?

I love the model of the Acts church. We often focus on the fact that they met and broke bread and sang songs, served, and shared resources in the temple. But we must remember the temple was not a church building. They didn’t have a church building. They had house gatherings. The temple was their mission field. The temple was the seat of power that had just manipulated the Roman Empire to crucify Jesus. It was full of people suffering the oppression of the Roman Empire. It was full of sheep without a shepherd. And in the days of Pentecost it was full of people from every nation who were hungry to know God. The practice of “church” took place without a building.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.

Image: Federico Rostagno /


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