'The medium is the message' is the now famous statement of Marshall McLuhan - media & communication guru. At it's core, the statement asserts that it is not just the content encapsulated within a given medium; but the medium itself that carries a message into the society in which it is published. Over time these mediums subtlety transform the way we think & cause cultural shifts even within well established traditions. The church is not immune form McLuhan's observation it would seem...
It's Sunday morning, you drop the kids off, grab a coffee & take your seat; 3 rows from the back on the right hand side of the church - the worship leader leads to congregation in song - the pastor gives a theologically tight, slightly amusing three point sermon - there is a 'response' time with some more music led worship - perhaps some prayer ministry - you refill your coffee - collect the kids - smile and have some nice conversation with friends & acquaintances - you go home!
Now, I'm hoping your Sunday mornings aren't quite so pedestrian, but I'm guessing the above seems in some way familiar. We could probably also add a similar snapshot of a mid-week small group & an evening of courses such as 'Alpha' or 'Finding Freedom in Christ'. Various activities that happen as standard in the life of the western Church. Various programmes - and here is where we need to be careful!
When the life of the church is dominated by programmes the message we teach is that the life of the church is about programmes - seems quite obvious when you say it like that eh? Now, it's not that these programmes are bad or wrong or can't be incredibly helpful as a tool for building the kingdom of God. Paul instructs the church in Corinth that there needs to be order during the times they gather, some sort of programme (1 Cor 14). If you read Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy or Numbers you'll find plenty of God ordained programmes that are to take place in the tabernacle. Alongside these programmes or laws however you will find a plethora of laws about everyday life - how to manage finances, how to deal with mould, how to settle arguments & what to do with your poo! There were even festivals instituted which were designed to take place in the home, in the midst of daily life.
These laws for life were all given by God to enable the nation of Israel to live well in the land that he was leading them to; living well because of a covenant relationship with him & fulfilling the very first commandment - to be fruitful (Gen 1:22). The good life modelled by Israel, living in the presence of God, would then serve as a model to the rest of the earth.
The apostle Paul talks about the Church as being grafted in to Israel (Romans 9-11) - that is to share in the same calling - to be fruitful - made fully possible again through Jesus who modelled life in all its fullness, then died & rose again so that we could live in that same fullness (John 10:10), everything that we were intended to be.
Here is the crux of the matter - a programme, no matter how theologically on the money, how shiny and beautiful & how geared toward teaching about living the kingdom of God, can really teach me how to do so! A programme is a programme, it is not life! The medium needed to teach me how to live well, how to live out the kingdom, is life! If the medium is the message then the medium to teach life, is life!
Growing up in the church, I had access to great youth events, engaging teaching series & well lit, tightly arranged music led worship. Growing up in the church gave me a solid foundation from which I could put together good youth events, teach scripture in an engaging manner & know when was appropriate to play a drum fill. What church did not really equip me for is life; school, friendships, romance, managing money, engaging with people of different world-views in a meaningful way and all the rest. What I was in need of was a number of older people around me who loved Jesus & gave me access to their life in order to see them live out kingdom principles in their everyday life - my life needed the medium of their life for the content of the kingdom of God to be able to best shape my life. I have come to realise that this is also what people who don't know Jesus need from my life in order to have an up close encounter with Him. When a believer who carries the power & love of Jesus gets vulnerable & lets people close, that is when lives are changed. This is much more powerful than rocking up in a community, holding a hyped up outdoor worship service and giving a sermon with an alter call can ever be (and believe me I have seen this done over & over - but why wouldn't it be - if it's been the medium it will become the message). This is what we're talking about when we use the word disciple - a learner - a follower - someone who can mimic their teacher & then become the teacher for others.
It's this kind of learning, this model of life, which is commanded in the Old Testament:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-8)
And it is this we see paralleled in the life of Jesus as he invites disciples to follow him:
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means teacher), "where are you staying?" "Come," He replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where He was staying, and spent that day with Him. It was about the tenth hour. (John 1:28-29)
Notice how much programme is commanded, how many sermons from a stage? None! This is day in day out discipleship. Life lived together, vulnerable, costly & yet transformational. Living in such a tight knit, exposed manner is not easy - just like raising kids in a nuclear family, its a constant sacrifice & yet a constant joy. In fact, when we decide to live like this, it recalibrates us to focus on the importance and primacy of the nuclear family and parents as the primary disciplers of their own children; not kids workers or youth leaders. Wouldn't it be beautiful if every parent were able to echo the Apostle Paul with integrity and say 'imitate me just as I imitate Christ'. In saying this, please don't imagine that I am saying parents are the only disciplers of their children; far from it! The Hebrew model of family life was much broader than our individualistic post-modern ghettos of isolation. Mum, dad, kids, aunt, uncle, cousin, next door neighbours all lived in close proximity and all were responsible for one and other & for discipleship, there was even provision made for integrating the refugee into this model of family & society (see Lev 19:34 for one example). In the church, all are responsible for raising the next generation & providing models that can be imitated.
Now, all this being said - here is something super important - not to be missed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Sunday sermons, worship extravaganzas, the Alpha course, or weekly 2 hour small groups; but each of these MUST sit within the wider context of day in day out discipleship! When situated within this wider context these punctuations in the week function in a more healthy and wholesome way. Sunday's become a place to celebrate all The Lord has been doing in life of our communities, sharing stories of the kingdom transforming lives and situations. Courses become helpful as a focussed time for the various offices of the church to be used in equipping the whole body so that it built up into Christlike maturity & operating in the gifts and displaying the fruit of the spirit. Kids and youth workers are released from being simply event organisers. They become recognised as specialists who understand the developmental stages of a child maturing into an adult & can invest in those particular age groups, whilst also equipping the whole body to better do this. This all then flows back out into our daily lives, being discipled and making disciples as we go through life learning how to live it well, to be fruitful, to usher in the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.
When people encounter the Gospel of the Kingdom through the medium of our lives, it becomes so much more easy for them to live the Gospel of the Kingdom in their lives. There isn't really another way to do it!