As far back as I can remember, I knew God wanted me to be a preacher. “Preacher” was synonymous with “Pastor,” but we were never that formal at Route 1, Zolfo Springs, FL. I knew what I was supposed to be, but I did not know where.
We lived in suburban Lemon Grove (urban Lemon Grove had Graham’s Store; suburban Lemon Grove meant you could not see another house from your porch). We attended church seven miles away in Popash, a country crossroads that used to have a school, but now just had a church and a country store that kept going out of business. I’m not sure why, but in my five-year-old mind, I decided Lemon Grove needed a church.
I knew Popash needed a church, because there were apparently a lot of sinners there. The preacher at New Hope Church talked about them constantly. Sinners apparently stayed home from church on Sunday nights watching “Bonanza,” went to dances, drove up to the County Line (it would be years before I understood “The County Line” did not refer to a political boundary but a liquor store), and snuck over to the theater in Sebring to watch non-wholesome, non-Disney movies.
I didn’t understand all that the preacher at New Hope talked about, but I was aware of sin in Lemon Grove. My brother Steve was the source of most the sin I knew about. In reality, he was simply performing “big brother” duty. But he was mean to me, bossing me around, telling me I was adopted, and generally being annoying. Having a church in Lemon Grove meant I could preach to my brother and label his sins for all the world to condemn.
We owned a piece of land on the dirt road that met our house. It was covered with palmettos, tall pines, and blackjack oaks. I decided that was the perfect place to build my church.
I announced this to my mother, my sister, and my brother. I left out the part about being able to preach hell and fire (“damnation” sounded too much like a cuss word and I was afraid I’d get my mouth washed out with soap). They smiled indulgently. My mother said something like “You’d better start gathering bricks now.”
At age five, I started collecting bricks. There were always a few to be uncovered down at the barn. Once, I took one from my Aunt Mildred’s flower bed. I got a whipping and was told never to take something that didn’t belong to me. Bricks were harder to come by in those days.
I wasn’t sure how many bricks I needed; I could only count to a hundred. One day I tried to count the bricks on the building at New Hope and I ran out of numbers before I ran out of bricks. Building my own church was going to be a lot harder than I thought.
Of course, I never built my own church building. But for years, we referred to that twenty acres as “the land where Clay is going to build his church.” Even when I went off to college, the land was still uncleared. Finally, economic reality set in. Pop cleared the land and set an orange grove there (any old-timer will tell you blackjack oaks and palmettos make for a fine orange grove).
Somewhere along the way a different idea began to take hold in my soul. Church wasn’t a building. I learned church was people. You could have a church without a building, but you couldn’t have a church without people.
Then I learned that definition was incomplete as well. Church wasn’t just a group of people. Church was supposed to be a group of people gathered to do something for Jesus. Church is a movement.
I’ve sat in meeting after meeting and heard people say, “Church is a business.” Wrong. Businesses exist to serve owners. Churches exist to change the world with Good News. If a church doesn’t make Jesus its focus, it loses its power. It becomes an institution, centered on maintaining the building and keeping everyone happy.
About a hundred churches close each week in North America. My hunch is somewhere along the way, folks forgot church is a movement. Church is a group of people who share the adventure of following Jesus and telling the Good News of God’s love as they follow him. The building is just a tool to help the movement.
How do you make sure your church is a movement? It starts with you. Do you want the church to focus on you? Or do you want the church to focus on Jesus? Your answer either makes the church a pile of bricks and sticks, or makes it a movement that has the power to change the world. Your choice.