What do you envision when you hear the word “church”? Maybe it’s something similar to what the missionaries to Australia envisioned years ago as they constructed a beautiful, white-painted building in the middle of the Outback, with a noble steeple reaching up to the skies. For them, the church building represented a concrete sign of progress in reaching the Aboriginal communities of that region with the gospel. With the building complete, they began holding Sunday services at 11 o’clock. After all, a proper place and time of worship was essential as they shared about the God of the Bible who is worthy of praise from all the world’s people groups… right?
Well a few Aborigines starting coming to the church in the Outback but not very many. The missionaries didn’t understand what was missing. Why wouldn’t they come to church? It turns out that context is everything, that “church” in one place isn’t “church” in another, that a proper time and place will vary depending on the culture. In the Outback, the temperatures regularly reach the scorching 100-degree range. Of course the 11 o’clock start time was during the hottest and therefore worst part of the day. The constructed building, though beautiful to the eyes of the missionaries, was no more than a stuffy, stifling, confining structure to the Aboriginal believers. Who would want to go to church under those circumstances?
Then one of the Aboriginal believers had an idea. What did they do? They took church out of the building, into the Outback dessert where no walls would confine. They changed the service time to the time of sunset, when the handiwork of the God being worshiped was unmistakably splashed across the sky. Who wouldn’t want to go to church under those circumstances?
A people movement was sparked among the Aboriginal communities there. The new believers traveled to neighboring communities to share about this God who could be known, not just by the white people but by people like them.
In some places, Christ’s church is an Outback sunset. In all places, Christ’s church is meant to take root in such a way as to indwell indigenous forms of worship and communing with the one true God. When we’re the outsiders, we have so much to discover about the ways God engages with His people, and His people with Him.
For example, we Americans are experts at glorifying our idea of “daily devotions.” I know because it’s always been my standard. As English speakers in a society where personal and individual spirituality takes priority, where written script is part of everyday experience, where we learn to read by no choice of our own, and where we have the luxury of owning multiple copies of the Scriptures as well as a myriad of extra-biblical resources, maybe it is our distinct privilege to hold ourselves to the standard of “personal daily devotions.”
And the standard in societies where any activity that is of significance is done communally, never individually? Where anything that is worth communicating to others is done orally, because printed text fails to capture the nuances of the language? Where learning to read is not an option? Where the only available Scriptures are in a language so foreign that it is painstakingly difficult to read? Well, as I heard it put this past week on France Culture (the French radio station that’s streamed online to the delight of us would-be francophones), “il faut entrer dans la peau des gens” (one must get inside the skin of other people).
That requires getting out of your own skin, out of your own categories, out of your own standards of Christian experience. And if you find yourself in the scorching beauty of the Australian Outback, it may require getting out of the church building.