Church Is Bigger Than the Church

Why ministry doesn't begin and end with the pulpit.

For the last 35 years, one of the most anthemic phrases around my church is this one: “The Church is the hope of the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Almighty God is actively healing and redeeming the entire world and is doing it primarily through human beings who are willing to offer themselves to this movement. But I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend that, in my opinion, twists this truth.

In the wake of a handful of well-known pastors leaving their churches (Francis Chan, Rob Bell, etc.) to pursue other missions, there has been some grumbling and criticism from those who stay. One influential pastor said it like this: “The local church has been, and always will be, the PRIMARY tool for God’s will in the world. Other ministries are important but secondary.”

But when I heard it, I wondered, how is the local church defined?

If we were to say of the local church, “The primary tool for God’s will in the world is when God’s followers humbly submit themselves to His dream for humanity and to each other in the power of His Spirit,” then I completely agree.

But if our idea of the local church means, “The primary tool for God’s will in the world is any 501(c)(3) organization that calls itself a church, and anything outside of its walls is important but secondary,” then I absolutely disagree.

When church leaders are believed to have the most important job in the universe and everyone else is secondary, that is religion at its worst.

You can be God’s hands and feet as you teach middle school math.

You can be part of God’s movement of grace while wearing your blue Best Buy shirt. 

You can help heal the world as you bag groceries.

The same can be said for those who are employed by a church.

But the inverse can also be true. You can hide from God as you wait tables, and you can hide from God while preaching sermons. Scripture reminds us that “people look upon the outside appearance, but God looks at the heart.”

Pastors or church workers (like myself), it is important to continue to pour out your heart and life for the community—but not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought. And for those who don’t work at a church, it is just as important to continue to pour out your heart and life for the community, to take the calling to ministry very seriously. The world desperately needs each one of us.

Church of the people

God has invited every person to join His work of redemption—whether they’re wearing a clerical collar or an orange construction vest.

How can the Church help foster this reality? What kind of church trains and launches people into the ministry of their everyday lives? What kind of church trains and retains people to receive the ministry of the Church? This is obviously a huge question.

I am way more compelled by a church of the people than a church for the people.

This is not to say that one is completely right and the other is completely wrong, but I’m becoming increasingly captured by the idea of “the priesthood of all believers”—Church as a movement rather than an institution, and a Church created by the people rather than consumed by the people.

In a church for the people, worship means: Come hear our most gifted artists provide a worship experience that will inspire and bless you. When it’s done, you’ll want to give them a round of applause and thank God for giving such great gifts.

In a church of the people, worship becomes: Prayerful, intentional space that empowers the people to co-create a worship experience—both as individuals and as a body, both at home and when together. The church helps people connect with God and each other, and then gets out of the way.

In a church for the people, evangelism means: Bring your friend to church to hear the pastor explain the truth to them. It exports evangelism to the expert and often reduces the sweeping story of God to presented information.

In a church of the people, evangelism becomes: Training up disciples and launching them out to serve the world and share their story—and helping foster a community so alive and beautiful that people can’t wait to join.

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In a church for the people, mission means: Give your money to the church so it can take care of the poor. You write a check, and they’ll take it from there.

But in a church of the people, mission declares: No one knows the poor in your town better than you. Let us help you serve them. And if you don’t know the poor in your town, following Jesus means you’ll need to make some changes. Please let us help you humbly engage, learn from and serve the poor in your town.

Obviously, these are exaggerated examples for clarity. Most churches I’ve been a part of are both of and for the people but tend to lean one way or the other. It is my personal hope that every faith community will inch a bit more in the church of the people direction—developing and unleashing the supernatural potential of every woman, man and child.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Aaron Niequist is a worship leader at Willow Creek, a songwriter and the curator of “A New Liturgy,” a collection of modern liturgical worship experiences. Learn more at




Matt commented…

Sorry to get technical, but the primary tool for God’s will in the world is Christ, not the church. I agree with the premise of the article. However, things tend to get skewed in a bad direction when we think it's all about what we do and how we go about it. It's all about Christ and how God does His divine work through us whether we are working in conjunction with an organized group or not.
A pastor of a large church was bemoaning the fact that the congregation wasn't doing as many good works as others were. He thought that since the good works didn't go through the church, they didn't exist. In fact, members were giving cars to needy friends and helping in many other ways that weren't organized by or visible to the his church. Christ is doing his work through individual believers and sometimes they happen to gather and do that work together. After all, a church is just a gathering of believers, whatever that may look like, mega to micro.
The Church, or the bride of Christ, is spiritual (and spiritually organized in ways we cannot see) in nature, not organizational (although there is nothing wrong with being organized). When we insist on working out the “right” and “wrong” way to do church, we get distracted and easily become proud of the "better" way we do things. That is a dangerous path, no doubt. Instead let's just focus on Christ, and as a result what He wants to do through us and get out of God's way. Things just tend to work better that way in a Kingdom sense, although they often aren't measurable or “organized.”

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