The sanctuary of our church is located just a block from the downtown fire station, so the worship experience often has to continue while fire engines pass with sirens blaring. The vehicles and their occupants are on their way to fires, car accidents, or other emergencies. Those of us who worship there on a regular basis have gotten used to it, but our failure to take notice may not be a good thing. Perhaps we should be more aware of the interruption and learn a lesson about nurturing interaction with the world outside our doors.
In A New Harmony: TheSpirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul, John Philip Newell explains, “One of the great features of the early Christian mission in the Celtic world was that it knew very little of worshipping in enclosed spaces.” When Roman Christianity brought its great edifices with four strong stone walls and intricate roof designs, these became the “holy spaces” where believers gathered. Newell points out,
“Thus the impression was created that those who gathered inside the walls were somehow more holy than those who did not, and that the time of gathering and the place of gathering were somehow more sacred than all time and all space.”
I don’t think we can argue with scholars who explain that the Greek word ecclesia (or ekklesia) was used in translations of the Old Testament to mean “assembly” and in the New Testament to mean “called out” ones. In the New Testament, it became a common way to describe a local body of believers who drew apart from the larger community for worship and fellowship. But perhaps we should also remember that as Jesus comforted his disciples in the upper room, he recognized that they were “in the world” (John 17)—this was their natural habitat--and he prayed for their strength and witness there. Jesus recognized the challenges and opportunities beyond the walls of that room. This was the realm that called for witness.
The Acts of the Apostles gives many examples of Christians living out their faith and sharing Christ in marketplaces, streets, and the Temple court as well as assembling in homes. Their faith was part of their lives, and they carried it wherever they went.
Certainly we need times to withdraw for worship, prayer, and encouragement. The church house provides a convenient place for that to happen, but the “real action” is outside the doors. It is the place where we pray, witness, and worship each day. The “world” is where we recognize and witness to God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all of life and creation. The sirens remind us of the mission field beyond our doors.