The 2010 BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico covered the front pages for months. We worried: how will we shut it off? How will we clean it up? What went largely unnoticed was the small article, hidden in the back pages of the newspaper months later—the story of a naturally occurring bacteria which sucked up 200,000 tons of that BP oil.
In the world, oil spills make headlines. It could be said that there are oil spills taking place across our country and planet—distrust among people, oppression of the powerless, the wealthy capitalizing on the poor, abuse of the environment, division, war, terrorism, unrest. These crises are very real and they’re easy to talk about because we can name and measure them. They’re done by actual politicians, companies, nations. Their results can be studied.
But God has built “bacteria” into the world to suck up “oil spills.” The power of art is always at work: a crisis does not stop a song rising up in the heart of a musician, in fact, it may prompt it. The power of the family is ever-present: global unrest does not stop a mother from embracing her child, in fact, it may make her want to do it all the more. And I believe that there is another, undervalued, almost immeasurable force that works like bacteria in an oil spill: the Church.
The Church as Bacteria
Every Thursday morning I meet with a group of 6 women in the basement of our church. We gather in the nursery so that moms can let their preschoolers play, affording them the luxury of a few uninterrupted sentences. At some point in the morning, someone is changing a diaper, someone is nursing or someone is cleaning up a spilled cup of Cheerios (or all three at once).
And at the same time, someone is asking, “How can I make friends with my new neighbors?” or “How can I respond to my kids/boss/in-laws in a way that reflects Jesus?” or “How can we respond to what we’re reading in the news?” We laugh and cry and pray and leave there with a better sense of what it means to live like Jesus in our neighborhoods and homes. No one writes headlines about the things that happen in a church basement. But we’re gobbling up the oil spill, one little bacteria at a time. But God has built 'bacteria' into the world to suck up 'oil spills': The Church. Click To Tweet
The Roman empire would have made front page news. Its political, economic, military power was unsurpassed. The people of power could be named, the walled cities could be measured, the riches could be weighed, the centurions could be numbered. But where is that empire now? Meanwhile, the early church was virtually invisible. It’s hard to measure a rag tag bunch of misfits, meeting in homes, eating and praying and serving their neighbors together.
And yet this seemingly insignificant thing has outlived that immense empire. We long to have institutions, power, measurable effects—to be able to name the leader, see the building, count the resources, show the outcomes—but perhaps our organic nature is part of the church’s truly transformative, unstoppable power?
How the Church Flourishes
“Organic” has become a catchword in recent years, to describe new (old?) ways of doing church. In some settings it’s code for “unprofessional” or “disorganized.” But organic things certainly have structure and bear fruit—it just seems mysterious to us because we can’t always predict or control it. In addition to the word “organic,” I’ve been using the word “relational.” This whole Jesus movement began without head-quarters, a corporate structure, even a business plan. Jesus' movement began without head-quarters, corporate structure or business plan. Click To Tweet
And yet it not only survived, it has flourished (and continues to) through war, persecution even conflict among believers. Any way it has survived and flourished is connected to any way it’s not housed in a big, bulky institution. The Christian movement has survived because of where it exists—in human hearts—in the relationship between God and human, between one human and another.
It requires no institution for God to do his work in a willing heart. And it requires no institution for us to connect with those around us. Instead, this Spirit of the living God looks for every chance to move, flourishes where there is opportunity, redirects where there is not. And everywhere that Spirit fills becomes our beautiful Ecclesia, dancing on unhindered, welcoming, nourishing, healing.
Jesus said the Kingdom was like yeast. He promised his way was small, almost undetectable but working powerfully in every place, in a million tiny ways that come together to make a huge difference. He promised his Kingdom would not overthrow empires but bring a deeper, less measurable but more transcendent hope—a force which would overcome oppression one heart at a time, heal brokenness one relationship at a time.
You are one small piece of something beautiful and active and powerful. Don’t be overcome by the size of the task at hand. It’s not yours alone. Do your part and trust that our beautiful Church is at work. As it always has been. And always will be.