As a follow up to the previous post, which was itself a response to all the hoopla around Donald Miller being honest about how he doesn’t attend weekly worship, here’s the question: what’s the point of going to church? What do you do it for? Why does it exist?
I mentioned that there are two questions that are happening here at once: 1) what is church? 2) what is church for?
I’m actually going to answer the second question first. Because I’m not sure it isn’t actually the first question. Like a good practical theologian, I think it makes sense to start with what the practical, actual lived purpose of something is and use THAT to define the thing itself.
So. What is church for?
I can only think of one reason to go to church.
You go to church to practice being a Christian so you can become a better Christian.
Good Lord, I can hear my reformed and my high sacramental friends freaking out from here about that second part. Give me a second. I will qualify my statement. I also think WAY more can fit into that definition than you might think at first glance. But there: I’ve shown you my cards. I think that’s what church is for. I think it’s a little bit weird and definitely not very beneficial when church doesn’t do that. (Sadly, I worry a little bit late at night when I am contemplating ecclesiology and the future of the world on my pillow that this is more often that we would like to think. Which: insomnia. Also: remember the Spirit is up to amazing things and breathe.)
Look, if you have gone to church your whole life, and you don’t think you’ve grown as a person of faith, you don’t think you’ve somehow become better at some basic Christian practices (not all of them, but dear heavens just one here or there), you don’t think being alongside other people has helped you, then let me give you some unsolicited advice: you need to find somewhere else to go to church. You need to look at all of your spiritual disciplines or lack thereof and decide to do something about it. That, or you just don’t go to church enough. You can’t go every now and again and expect to see results greater than your input. You do actually have to GO, and practice some things. But if you are doing that in some sort of regular fashion, and you haven’t grown, there is some kind of problem.
Nobody goes to the gym 4 times a week for years on end without getting any result of any kind. You may not look like some insanely toned person, but that is hardly the point. You have better heart health. You have good circulation. You sleep well at night. You’ve gotten SOMETHING for your efforts, is what I’m saying.
Church is practice. It is defined, specified, laser-like practice in what it means to be a Christian. It is the gym, you guys. It’s the soul gym. It is cardio and strength training and flexibility. Prayer, engaging Scripture, communion, asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness, entering into the wisdom of your faith tradition, singing songs that pull you into a broader sense of reality, sitting next to someone with whom you disagree but with whom you practice loving for as long as the two of you sit there, all of THIS is soul exercise. Church is where we go to practice being Christians. And we practice being Christians so that we a) stay Christians and b) get better at it. In churchy language this is what you call discipleship.
Church is for practicing with people in ways that we cannot possibly practice alone. You can’t do communion alone. You can’t ask forgiveness or receive forgiveness alone. You can’t figure out how to serve the world together to make a difference alone. Also, church makes sure you haven’t gotten too comfortable with your own ideas about God because you have to go there and experience a bunch of other people’s ideas, too. Sometimes theirs are better, and then you’re the better for listening. You can stand for peace and justice alone, but it works a whole lot better when a bunch of us do it together and put some pressure on the systems of the world that are doing otherwise.
A word of love for my reformed friends: I will also say that going to church means practicing living into a kind of grace that can never be purchased or earned, a kind of love that is so big as to be beyond comprehension much less deserved. It means experiencing a God who is who God is, despite who we try to make of God. Accepting grace takes practice.
A word of love for my sacramental friends: Going to church means practicing living into the deepest mysteries of faith, and in fact the deepest mysteries of LIFE. It means participating in communion which cannot be summed up into words. It means anointing yourself with water or oil, crossing yourself, kneeling, praying in unison in a language you may not understand, smelling incense, all because these things are like icons, like portals into the world of the sacred, and we must practice entering into those spaces even as we cannot possibly describe them or explain them. Practicing them here helps us see the sacred everywhere.
See? Lots can fit in there. If you think the definition is too small, it’s possible your definition of being a Christian may be too small.
If you are cool with that definition and would like to take this even a step further, then I can put it even less dogmatically. To put it into an even broader container, church is the practice of making spiritual meaning of our lives. We ask, “Where do we find meaning? What practices make sense of the sacred in our lives?” And then we do those things, on purpose, to cultivate our souls. Nobody makes spiritual meaning just to look at it, like it’s in a display case. We make spiritual meaning to live it. We create communities of faith around these ways we make spiritual meaning. When those things tend to align with what we call, in the broadest sense, orthodox Christianity, then we call that a church.
I left out some basic things people say church is for, on purpose. Because I don’t find them necessary. A Danielle Theological Rule of Thumb: Say Only What Is Necessary. For example:
1) The purpose of the Church is to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The first part is also called practicing being a Christian, because Christians proclaim the gospel. I just think the word “proclaim” has become far too intellectualized and if we say “practice being Christian” we’ve got a much more holistic thing happening, which is truer to what proclaiming the gospel probably means. As for the second part about making disciples, practicing our faith purposefully is the way we do that. One last thing about this one: I worry that the people who say this ad nauseam tend to live in an us/them dichotomy (We are the church! We are here to reach the world!) that I find very problematic. I think when we put too much emphasis on the Church over and/or against the world, we start veering into dangerous territory. Sure, our practices and our way of life will be at odds with all kinds of things. That happens naturally. But when there’s a need to SAY it all the time, I think there’s a power dynamic going on that keeps us as the church from being aware of our own possibility of wrongdoing (which hinders us from a central practice of being Christian), and it also assumes that God is far less active in the world than I believe to be true.
2) The purpose of the Church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. I don’t disagree with you if what you mean by Church is the People Who Follow Jesus, but if you have a lot of people who are practicing regularly and getting better at being Christians, then… see? Happens naturally. Not necessary to say. And if we don’t say it, we save ourselves from sounding like self-righteous asses. Bonus. Because you know what? We aren’t the only ones capable of bearing witness. (THANK GOD.)
3) The purpose of the Church is to usher in God’s coming Kingdom/Reign. This is very similar to #2, but instead of bearing witness we are “ushering it in” which is a little more forceful a way to put it. First, it’s a theological nightmare if we don’t say this: You know who’s ushering in the Kingdom? Jesus. Also, the Holy Spirit. Just so we’re clear about that. Second: you know how we as people usher in God’s way of doing life? We practice it. We practice it and then because of that practice we do it through the whole of our lives and people think WOW you do not have to use violence against violence and WOW you can forgive instead of avenge and WOW justice instead of oppression and WOW unconditional love. And that’s when God’s way of life becomes more present among us.
4) The purpose of the Church is to hand down the faith to the next generation. You know who does the best job of raising up faithful kids? Faithful people who practice and who teach their kids to practice. Faithful people who are good at making spiritual meaning because they have done it a lot.
So there’s my definition for you, and my reason for not including other definitions. I’d love your thoughts and pushbacks. I’m probably missing some glaringly large statements people say about what church is for. If so, feel free to remind me of them in the comments and I’ll respond.
Next up, I’ll toss out some thoughts on the question “What is church?” (You can probably guess my answer already though, no?!)