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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lavery

church without walls

I’m not a big fan of Christian movies. Most tend to be cheesy and predictable. In the worse cases, they are teeth grindingly embarrassing to sit through. However, there’s one film that always moves me (in a good way) every time I watch it. Most people wouldn’t describe it as a Christian movie, but for me it demonstrates God’s love for the lost more than any ‘Christian’ movie I’ve seen. I’m referring to the Whoopi Goldberg classic, Sister Act.

Just in case you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a lounge singer, Delores, who enters the witness protection programme in the US to escape her mafia boss boyfriend who wants to kill her before she can testify about him in court. The police officer dealing with the case disguises her as a nun and hides her in an inner city convent in a rough neighbourhood of San Francisco. The convent is attached to a large church and is surrounded by high fences. The church itself is clearly struggling and almost always empty during services.

The convent’s mother superior, played by the brilliant Maggie Smith, wants to protect her nuns from the outside world, keeping them cloistered within the convent walls. She encourages prayer for the lost souls outside, but is fearful for the safety and piety of her charges should they come into contact with the dangerous world outside the convent walls.

Before long Delores (Goldberg), a woman of the world, grows tired of being shut away and longs to escape to a local bar. On the night she slips out she’s followed by some of the other nuns and inadvertently leads them into the bar and into contact with local inhabitants. Instead of the nuns being in danger, they have a nice time and their friendly naivety goes down well with the locals. More important, the nuns discover that the world outside of their walls is not as scary as they were led to believe. People outside are far more open and friendly than they had ever imagined.

There is one particular scene that moves me to tears every time I watch it. It’s when some of the nuns pull down the fences surrounding the church buildings and start engaging with the local community. Befriending them, loving them and accepting them. Before long the church services become popular with the locals and the congregation grows.

For me, that scene encapsulates God’s heart for the world more than any Christian movie I’ve sat through. It’s not just the physical barriers that are removed, but the two communities come together and we see God’s love in action. I don’t think the writer of the screenplay is a believer, but he definitely hit on an issue that was perhaps bigger than he realised. That is, getting church out of the building and influencing the world around them. Truly church without walls.

Why does it move me so much? I think it’s because God’s moved by lost people. After all, that’s why he sent his Son Jesus. He came to seek and save the lost – God’s heart beats for the lost. It sounds obvious, but God loves people. He is for people. He sent his one and only Son into the world to demonstrate that love. He didn’t wait for people to come to him.

Jesus came to earth in bodily form and when he began his earthly work he was a man on the move. Luke writes that God ‘anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and . . . he went about doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the devil’ (Acts 10:38 CSB emphasis added). Did you get that? Jesus went about. He didn’t sit in one place waiting for people to find him. He went about doing good.

My change of perspective

Before I came into full time Christian ministry, I had an ordinary job with a big organisation. I loved my job and made some good friends among the people I worked with. My line manager, Mark, a good man, occasionally teased me about my Christian faith, in a good natured and lighthearted way.

A few years after I left the company I heard that Mark had suffered a stroke and wasn’t likely ever to return to work. I rang his home number and spoke to his wife Jenny. She told me he was back from hospital and was quite down. I offered to come and visit and she said he’d love to see me, and it would cheer him up. A few days later I arrived at his front door and Jenny ushered me into the dining room where Mark was sitting at the table. When I saw my old friend I was shocked at how this formerly fit and healthy guy in his late forties was now shuffling towards me like an old man twice his age.

We sat at the table over a cuppa and caught up on each other’s news. His speech and his movement were noticeably slow and within half an hour he apologised and said he needed to lie down to rest.

I said: ‘Before I go, would it be OK if I prayed for you?’ I wasn’t sure how he’d respond, but he said he would appreciate my prayers. I think he assumed I was going to pray for him sometime in the future. But I said I was going to put my hand on his and pray for him right there and then. So I put my hand on top of his and prayed a short prayer:

‘Dear Lord Jesus, please show Mark that you love him. Heal his body and restore him to health. Amen.’ A short simple prayer. With that we got up from the table and walked slowly out of the room towards the front door. Halfway down the hallway Mark suddenly slumped against the wall. Instinctively I reached out to stop him sliding to the floor. I managed to keep him upright. ‘Are you OK?’ I said. He laughed a little. ‘I’ve got a tingling all over my body.’ I asked him if it was a good tingling or a bad tingling? ‘I think it’s a good tingling,’ he replied. So I said: ‘Well, let’s believe that God’s working on healing you right now.’ He laughed and said: ‘OK, let’s believe.’ After saying goodbye to Mark and his wife, I got back in my car and headed home.

A couple of weeks later I heard that he was back at work, so I rang his office to speak to him. ‘Dave,’ he said, ‘I don’t really know what you did, but it’s worked a treat.’

He sounded happy and upbeat. I couldn’t believe the difference in his voice from a few weeks earlier.‘It wasn’t me,’ I said. ‘Jesus did it for you.’ He just said that he was fully recovered and it was miraculous. The story doesn’t end there. The testimony of Mark’s healing led to my being asked to pray for two other former colleagues. Gordon, who I worked with in the same firm, contacted and asked me to pray for him. He said he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good. He was planning on taking early retirement from his job. He was organising a retirement do and invited me to come along.

I arranged to collect Mark and give him a ride to Gordon’s retirement function. I told Mark that I was going to pray for Gordon. I asked him if he would tell Gordon what God had done for him. That way, it would help Gordon believe that God could do the same for him. When we reached the country pub where the function was taking place Gordon greeted us at the door and took us to the bar for a drink. We sat in the function room with around nine others within earshot when Mark began to recount how ill he had been following his stroke. The people at the table were clearly tuning in as Mark described how he had felt a ‘power’ going through him after the prayer and his subsequent miraculous recovery. This was a room apparently full of nonbelievers.

As Mark spoke, everyone at the table listened intently to this testimony of God’s power. As he finished, some asked questions about how this could have happened. I was able to tell them that Jesus was alive, that he loves people and that he never turned away anyone who came to him. Before the end of the evening I was able to pray for Gordon and also a woman who had been listening to Mark’s testimony earlier in the evening. She and her husband had tried for years to have a child without success. She asked if I would pray for her. I told her stories from the Bible where God had answered that specific request and then I prayed for her. Within a year God had answered both of those prayers. Gordon had been given the all clear from his doctor following his cancer diagnosis and had even started a new job. The woman I’d prayed for sent me a photograph of her newborn son!

I’d been a church pastor for a number of years by this point. But this experience of ministering to people in a pub completely altered my understanding of what serving God was about. I felt alive. I felt fulfilled. I realised that this was the way that Jesus lived his life on earth, and it was how he wanted his followers to live theirs.

This whole experience made me re-evaluate how I spent my time as a church leader and it caused me to change the focus of my own ministry. I was tired of preaching to the choir. Tired of spending all my time with other Christians. Where would Jesus be? What would he be doing if he was in my shoes?

God’s mobile house

Jesus went about teaching, preaching and healing. He went to parties and social events in ordinary people’s homes. He loved people. He accepted them and healed them. He gave them the words of life and he transmitted the power of God. He never built a fancy building with a big sign outside. There were no gimmicks or fancy sales techniques to get people through his doors. Wherever Jesus went things happened. People knew that his touch could heal their bodies. When he spoke, he spoke with authority and taught them an alternative to the religious bondage they’d heard from the Pharisees and other teachers of the law. He had the words of life, not death.

Jesus always seemed to be on the move. Before he ascended to heaven he commissioned his disciples to go into all the world and do the same things he himself had been doing (Mark 16:15-18). He’d spent three years demonstrating to his disciples what ministry looked like. Then he told them he was setting them loose to go and do the same.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have church buildings or meet in larger gatherings. What I’m saying is that the church is where Christian believers are meant to be discipled, equipped and sent out to do what Jesus did. Church isn’t just about what happens on a Sunday; it’s also about what happens the other six days as we get back to work, or school or the supermarket. Wherever we encounter the world we are meant to carry the life-changing message and power of the gospel. Jesus said that signs would follow or accompany those who believe (Mark 16:17).

Jesus was just like his Father. We like to call our church buildings ‘God’s house’, but God has never been one for living in buildings. In the Old Testament story of Exodus the Israelites followed a pillar of cloud that was on the move for 40 years. When the pillar stopped, the Israelites erected the tent of meeting and camped around it. When the cloud moved, the tents were packed up and the people followed. God was happy to base his presence in a tent among his people. A tent is a temporary, movable structure. When King David decides to build an elaborate temple in the heart of Jerusalem to replace the tent, God tells him that he never wanted it (2 Samuel 7:6). Stephen, in his address in Acts 7, tells his hearers that God doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 7:48). God is on the move. Paul tells us that we, the church, are the true temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). He lives inside his people. His temple has feet!

In the prophetic picture given by Daniel we see God on some kind of mobile throne with wheels (Daniel 7:9). The prophet Ezekiel sees the same thing and tries his best to describe what he is seeing (Ezekiel 1:18; 10:12). But the major thing we understand is that God isn’t stationary, waiting in a temple. He is on the move.

Over the years I’ve read countless books on church growth and attended numerous seminars and meetings on the subject. Most of what I’ve read and heard has been geared at getting people to come through the doors of a church building rather than getting the church out of the door and into the world. Every church leader or pastor wants their church to grow numerically, but much of their time is spent creating programmes to retain existing members or to attract other Christians to their church. This isn’t what kingdom increase looks like. Church without walls is about moving out in the community with the living message of Jesus Christ.

To the ends of the earth

The day of Pentecost described in Acts 2 was day one of the new covenant community, Christ’s church. It was foretold and promised by Jesus and the prophets. It was the day that Christ came by his Spirit to dwell inside his people.

Everything Jesus did was leading up to this point. The believers had been gathered in an upper room for many days, praying and waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise. Suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind filled the place. Tongues of fire seemed to hover above their heads as the Holy Spirit came and filled each one. And what was the first thing the Holy Spirit did? He got them out of the upper room, down the stairs and out into the streets. That’s right. When they were filled with the Holy Spirit they didn’t stay inside and have a meeting where everyone used their new spiritual gifts. They went out into the street empowered and equipped. They boldly declared God’s praises to everyone within earshot.

Peter, who had previously been fearful and reluctant even to admit he was a disciple of Jesus, stood in the marketplace and boldly preached the gospel to thousands. That same day 3000 were saved and added to the church. The plan was that this one day would cause a ripple from where they were out into the whole world. Prior to that great event Jesus told the disciples that the gospel message was to go from Jerusalem to the region of Judea, then Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit’s coming meant that Jesus was no longer limited to one body. His Holy Spirit now filled a group of believers and empowered, motivated and released them to the nations. This was always God’s great plan – that his children would go and fill the earth.

The church was never meant to be contained in a building. It was always a church without walls. The church is made of people who are containers of the Holy Spirit. They are meant to give away what God has given them. When Jesus commissioned his disciples he promised them that his abiding presence would go with them so they wouldn’t be on their own. His followers would be given power to be his witnesses when the Holy Spirit came on them (Acts 1:5-8). Not just power to speak, but power demonstrated through signs, wonders and miracles (1 Corinthians 2:4). Jesus didn’t just preach and teach; he also went around healing people and setting them free (Acts 10:38).

He said that his disciples were to be the salt of the earth. What did that mean? Salt has a purpose. It’s an agent of change, transforming food and giving flavour to something that’s bland. Salt is meant to be poured out. In the same way we, God’s sons and daughters, are meant to be poured out, giving away what we’ve been given.

We are meant to be changing the world around us, adding the flavour of God into the world and transforming lives. From day one of the church it was a missional community. Scripture says that God ‘added to their number daily’ (Acts 2:47). He didn’t do it separately from the church; he did through the church. These were people whose focus was not on meetings or holy buildings they attended once or twice a week. They were people who lived Christian lives in full view of the world around them and were living witnesses to the life-transforming power of the gospel.

Church leaders today – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) – are given by God to equip people for the work of ministry. People in a church aren’t just an audience for great sermons or our slick worship presentations. They are disciples (learners) who need equipping to do the same works as Jesus. As leaders we are meant to teach them the Word, build up their faith and set them loose to get on with it.

Every generation of believers for hundreds of years has looked at the early church as a pattern to be followed. We have admired their vibrancy, their community and their astonishing growth and asked the question: ‘How can we recapture it?’ How do we as the modern day church regain that way of life and see the results those early believers did? I believe that it is possible. We might not be in a position to change our church, at least not straightaway, but we can certainly change ourselves. We can live like New Testament believers. How is this possible? I believe it comes from knowing who we are in Christ, what we have in Christ and what we can do though his power resident in each of us.

You’re in the ministry

‘All things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18 NKJV).

Lots of Christians go through life wondering: What is my ministry? We think about things we can do in meetings such as worship leading, prophesying or stewarding. However, the one ministry we’ve all been assigned to is the ministry of reconciliation – restoring relationships between people and God.

Paul says we are all ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador represents the government of their home country in a foreign domain. We are citizens of God’s kingdom living as temporary residents on earth (1 Peter 1:17 AMPC). But while we’re here we’re to represent the King of kings in the best way possible. We’re in the business of winning people to him and to his kingdom.

One of my favourite Bible stories is in Acts 3. Peter and John are heading to the temple for prayer when they encounter a crippled beggar by the roadside. The beggar asks them for money and Peter and John stop to speak to him. He looks up, expecting to get something from them. How disappointed the beggar must have been when Peter says: ‘Silver and gold I do not have’! He then goes on to say: ‘But what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ Peter then takes him by the hand and pulls this lame man to his feet. Instantly his feet and ankles become strong and he leaps around praising God. (Acts 3:1-10). I love this story. I picture myself doing the same thing.

Many people think they don’t have what it takes to share the gospel or do the works of Christ, but Peter the apostle writes: ‘His divine power has bestowed on us [absolutely] everything necessary for [a dynamic spiritual] life and godliness, through true and personal knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and excellence‘ (2 Peter 1:3 AMP). In other words, God has equipped us to do the things that Jesus did. If you have the Holy Spirit inside you then you’ve got everything you need. If you believe and start to act on that, you can start to be the church, not just go to church.

A couple of years ago, my friend Tom offered to pray for his grandmother, who suffered with severe arthritis. Tom had been a Christian for only a couple of weeks. His grandmother was not even a believer in Jesus. Who knows, maybe she only agreed to let him pray for her order to humour him? In any case, she was instantly healed, the pain that had been racking her body for years immediately gone. At that early stage in his Christian life Tom didn’t know much. He hadn’t read the Bible from cover to cover or been to theological college. He wasn’t ordained into ‘the ministry’. All he knew was that Jesus had changed his life and he’d read the good news that Jesus healed sick people. So he did what he thought Jesus would have done and laid hands on his grandmother. He didn’t know any better.

Let’s stop disqualifying ourselves. The Holy Spirit was never meant to be contained in church services. His gifts aren’t bestowed on us just for meetings. He empowers us to be his witnesses, to speak his words and freely give away what we’ve freely been given (Matthew 10:8).

He is with you

‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20 HCSB).

One of the main excuses people give for not taking the good news beyond their church building is fear. Fear of being rejected and potentially looking foolish in front of people. Many Christians wrongly assume people don’t want to hear what they have to say. They think that people aren’t interested and that they’ll be rejected if they share their faith.

That simply isn’t true. Everyone has questions about life and its meaning: Is there a God? Is there life after death? Why am I here? Everyone, no matter if they’re rich or poor, faces the same challenges in life, whether in their health or family or some other area. Jesus said that, to those who are dying, we’re the fragrance of life (2 Corinthians 2:16).

People fail to remember that Jesus promised to be with us and not leave or forsake us. If you have Christ in you then you have everything you need. Jesus told his disciples that it would be better for them if he went away after his resurrection because then the Holy Spirit could come and indwell them (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit would be with them, he would teach them, he would help and empower them.

Whatever situation you’re facing you need to know that Christ is in you and with you. Our job is to provide the mouth, feet and hands. His job is to provide the words and the power. When we remember he’s with us, fear seems to dissipate.

His love motivates us

‘The love of Christ compels us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14 NKJV).

Let me tell you about something that helped me overcome my fear. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s hospital bedside when it was clear she didn’t have long to live. We talked about her life and she shared some of her most painful memories and regrets. She’d been such an important and influential figure in my life and I loved her deeply.

As far as I knew, she’d never given her life to Christ, although she’d heard the gospel message numerous times over the years. The thought that she would die and I’d never see her again became overwhelming. The horror I felt at the prospect of my beloved grandmother standing before the judgment seat of Christ and facing a lost eternity moved me.

How could I live with myself if I never took the opportunity to share the good news with her and introduce her to Christ? I overcame my fear of what she might say and I shared my faith with her. I then gave her the opportunity to turn to Christ in repentance and faith. What joy I experienced when she confessed her sin and accept Jesus as her Saviour there in the hospital ward. I saw her experience real peace as she lay on her hospital bed.

Here’s the truth: The love I had for my grandmother pales into nothing compared with the love God has for every person. He loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him won’t perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). Our heavenly Father loves each person and doesn’t want anyone to miss out on eternal life (2 Peter 3:9).

It’s that love that he wants to manifest in us. It’s a love that enables us to overcome fear and share the good news of Christ to a lost and dying world. God’s love is a supernatural love, enabling us to love the unlovely and the unlovable. If we are to take the gospel beyond our church walls and into a dying and needy world then we must allow God’s love to reign and rule in our own hearts. Jesus said that the person who has been forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47). When we express our thankfulness for the forgiveness we’ve received and all that he’s done for us, God’s love is released in our hearts towards others. When I look back over my own life and realise I was totally undeserving of God’s love and compassion it causes me to well up with gratitude to him. It gives me compassion for the people I meet who don’t yet know him. I want to see the world through God’s eyes and share his heart for the lost. We see faith ‘working through love’ (Galatians 5:6 HCSB).

Let us change our thinking when it comes to church. Let’s see church gatherings, prayer meetings and Bible studies as opportunities to be equipped and motivated for the work of the ministry. Let’s then take the gospel of Jesus outside the walls of the church building to a dying and needy world. And we need to recognise each of us is called to the ministry of reconciliation and has the same power within us that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11).

After the day of Pentecost when the church was in its infancy, the church grew as the people went out and transformed the world with the message and power of the gospel. God’s church isn’t to be contained in a building. A truly apostolic church is a sent church, a church on the move that is directed and inspired by God himself, as people led by the Holy Spirit do the things that Jesus did. Like those nuns from Sister Act, let’s move out into the community and meet people where they’re at. Then we’ll really be a church without walls.

(Taken from the book "Church Without Walls: Christian life after the pandemic." Edited by Roger Day. Available on Amazon by clicking here.)

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