Blog - Supporting Believers

How One Pastor Changed His Thinking about the Church

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hands that work well require a fit body. In a similar way, believers who work well need a healthy church. The other day, I dusted off a book I had read years ago, one that drove home that point. The book, How I Changed My Thinking About the Church, was published in 1972. It’s author, Richard C. Halverson, served as Pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, MD, from 1958 to 1981, and as Chaplain of the United States Senate from 1981 to 1994.

About a year and a half into his first pastorate, Halvorsen noticed how little the 14 churches in his town were affecting their community of 6,000 people. This led him to a "ministry of listening.” As he describes it, "I devoted several days a week simply to moving from office to office, shop to shop and out on the oil leases and large farms . . . just being visible and available.”

As a pastor, he had felt two burdens: (1) more bodies, larger budget, bigger building, and (2) reaching the community for Christ. "The real pressure,” he says, "was building the institution. After all, this was the way to ‘succeed’ as a pastor. So the outreach was to enlarge the institution. It was impossible to escape this pressure because this was my way of thinking about the church . . . .”

In Chapter 9, "The Scattered Church,” Halverson describes his new way of thinking about the church. "Most of the week the church is not at the address where she worships; she is scattered all over the community, in hundreds of homes, schools, offices and markets, etc.” Jesus offered two picture-words for the church—salt and seed—each of which works only as it is scattered.

Halverson admits most believers don’t see the church this way. "They have probably been taught to think that only as they do something in and for the church establishment are they doing the work of the church; only as they do something ‘religious’ are they really serving Him. . . . So they go through life suffering low-grade frustration because they are unable to serve Christ ‘full-time’ as their pastor or the missionary or the evangelist does.”

As his thinking about the church changed, Halverson saw the difference between church work and the work of the church. "The real work of the church is what is done between Sundays when the church is scattered all over the metropolitan area where it is located—in homes, in schools, in offices, on construction jobs, in market places. This is the work of the church and it requires every single member.” By contrast, Halverson estimates it may take only 10 percent of the members to run the church establishment. Why has the church become so irrelevant today? Because too many believers have been so consumed by church work that they have little or nothing left for the work of the church.

In his new way of thinking, Halverson came to see that, "The program of our church is everything all the members are doing between Sundays. The church keeps house, goes to school, teaches, practices law, medicine and dentistry, runs business and industry, farms, works on construction jobs, researches in many fields, sits on school boards, city councils, county councils, state legislatures and congress.”

Given this new way of understanding the work of the church, what is the role of the pastor and the programs of the gathered church? "The responsibility of the pastor is to equip every member to do the work of the church wherever he is between Sundays.” That sounds familiar—perhaps even echoes Eph. 4:11-12. "All the programs within the church are for the purpose of enabling the church to do the work of the ministry between Sundays when she is invisible as a congregation.”

"Every member ought to be engaged in full-time service for Jesus Christ.”

Halverson’s book appeared nearly 40 years ago. To what degree has his message changed the way churches today think about themselves?

Comments (3)

Don Bubna (12/23/2010 3:22:27 PM)
Halverson has affected me deeply over the years. I first heard him at the U.S. Congress on Evangelism in 1969.
Your own writings are so needed today. I am grateful.
henry paasonen (12/24/2010 1:21:01 AM)
Thank you so much, Larry. What a good reminder of the salt and seed dynamics of the biblical church. You put it so well: "The way we see 'church' shapes the way we see daily work". It's the vision thing. It's how we see. It's the clear lense we use to see clear. What we then see is a crystal clear and compelling mission, but also an awesome and amazing mystery, "the church" of Jesus Christ. Trained as an engineer, I am prepared to see the church as a four-wheel drive automobile with a powerful internal combustion engine purring along on high octane fuel. Rolls great. But, now so often, I sense and see that the church, however I may picture it, even with biblical terms such as "salt" and "seed", is a utter mystery, at least for me. The question, what is the church in the world, is a "good question". We all tend to answer the "church" question by the "church member" question or answer. Or, we go for some systems analysis question and answer. To a signficant extent, the issue deals with how we relate the "one" with the "many". It appears to be the central issue of Philosophy, certainly over the Enlightenment. However, in Theology, it invariably returns to the "one" and "many" in the Trinity of God -- and how the essential dynamic of the Church is imago Dei. This line of thinking may seem to take us far afield from the so clear and compelling vision of Richard Halverson. Not at all. The imago Dei is the heart issue of the church in the world. Therefore, we may also touch a trinitarian mystery in the church, as in Ephesians 2: The body of the Son, the household of the Father, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Now we can perhaps see how the local church dynamics acts in the world also in trinitarian ways: Salt. Seed. Sauna. No kidding. &;lt;smile&;gt;
David Rupert (12/27/2010 7:28:32 AM)
I like Halverson too. And yes, the work of the church isnt in the walls of the church. It's hard for "institutionalized" pastors to break out of that mold. Their job is to empower us to take church to the streets, to our workplaces and beyond.

Love the post
David, www.RedLetterBelievers.com

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