What is Church? (Part 3)

Alright, I’ve already tossed out my thoughts on what church is for, so now I’ll take a stab at defining what church is:

Church is the gathered community of God who, through the Spirit, practice the way of Jesus.

That’s who we are, and that’s what we do. We are the gathered community of God. We gather by and through the Spirit, and we do so in order to practice the way of Jesus. I think that’s all the definition we need. I think the fruits of what happens when we do this are manifold, and sure, we can go on and on about that if we want. But that’s the simplest definition that covers all I find necessary.

Here’s what I think church isn’t:

1) A special place where God lives. The idea that God is only or even primarily in church is just…ugh, it’s very problematic guys. Church is not where God is. God is everywhere. And if you want to respond that yes God is everywhere but sometimes there are these spaces in which we experience/see/know more of God, and one of those places is church, that’s fine by me. I agree there’s a degree of concentration. Well- let me qualify that. I agree we experience a degree of concentration, where some places seem more God-alive than others. I’m not altogether sure that’s the fullest reality happening. I can’t be sure of that. The more I grow, the more I see God in places I didn’t before. The mystics seem to understand this best- they find amazing revelations of the presence of God in even the smallest things, even the most broken things.

I’m also not sure we always experience that concentration in church. So if the point of church is to experience that and some weeks we don’t, then we’ve just backed ourselves into an unnecessary corner. The point of church is not, as I just wrote about, to have some experience of God. It is to practice being Christian, which means sometimes you feel the presence of God and sometimes you don’t but either way you keep doing it. This whole business about church being the place where we have to make sure God “shows up” is misguided. First of all, shows up? Like God isn’t already there? Problem. Second of all, you think you can make God show up? Problem. Third, you think the point of church is coercing God to do something? Problem.

Church is not the genie bottle in which God lives. You don’t have to go to church so that a priest says some magic words that let God out of the bottle. You cannot, by your worship or your prayer of invocation coerce God out of the bottle as if God is some kind of temperamental drama queen.

We go to church to practice being Christian and when we practice being Christian we get better and better about seeing that God is everywhere. When we experience God, it’s either because God is just there and that’s just that, or because we have practiced being Christian in such a way that we actually cultivated our ability to see God. Either way, church isn’t where God lives, or the place where we make God show up for us. It sure isn’t the only place to find God.

If we explain where God “is” using creedal language (ie. the traditionally agreed-upon language of the Church), we don’t say God is in the Church. We say that God is seated on the throne of heaven. That isn’t an actual location, like if you look up with superhuman vision you are going to see a gold throne with a Being sitting on it. It is a way of describing the reality God occupies in the world, which is one of authority. It is a posture, not a geographical position.

2) The people of God. Okay, this one is tricky, because I think this is both true and untrue at the same time. (And yes, that’s possible. It happens all the time.) Yes, church is the people of God. No, church is not ALL the people of God. You know who all the people of God are? Every person ever. All the people, across all time. Do you mean Hitler was a person of God, Danielle? Yes, yes I do. Even Hitler (OMG why is this always the litmus test.) He was a person of God because all people are made in God’s image. That’s an indelible, undeniable reality in my book. It cannot be erased, even when we do terrible, terrible things that look like anything BUT God. Our evil cannot outdo God’s image upon us.

If the church is unique in any way as the people of God, it is through baptism, in which we enter into a symbol of dying and being raised to live with Christ. We are different because we have chosen discipleship, while others have not. That makes us different, sets us apart. It’s the reason we are going to church to practice being Christian while others are not. So yes, church is the people of God. But we must always say that with the qualification that all people are God’s people. Or else our gospel is too small, our redemption ideas too weak, our hope too limited. God will be all in all, you guys. That’s the end game of this story. It includes all people. It includes all CREATION.

3) Where two or more are gathered in God’s name. I actually thought about this as my definition at first, but then I realized this is a metaphysical statement and not an organizational one. I think the purpose of this verse is not a description of what the church is but a promise of God’s faithfulness to be present. I think that’s bigger than church. And therefore I don’t think we should equate it with church and limit its meaning.

4) The Bride of Christ. Okay, you should know that Scripture doesn’t actually say that. Nowhere does it say that. The Ephesians 5 passage describes marital love as metaphorically similar to Christ’s love for the church, but the church is not actually called the bride. And when Paul uses the metaphor of the church in Corinth being espoused to Christ, it’s his way of calling them to spiritual fidelity- being faithful to Christ and therefore not to other gods. I think we can say we are Christ’s beloved, we can say Christ loves us with deep fidelity, and say all we need about this metaphor. Also, good luck trying to use this to argue that it includes only those who go to church every week, or even people who belong to a local church, because that will require some serious textual gymnastics. Hold metaphors as metaphors, guys.

5) The hope of the world. I think the Church can be hope for the world. I think just as often we aren’t. I’d rather say the hope of the world is Jesus. I think the Spirit is the hope of the world. I think the Spirit working in her people brings hope to the world. I think people who are aligned with their best selves can bring hope into the world. I think the local church’s goal should be to provide, represent, reach for hope in the world. I don’t think it’s wise for us to equate ourselves with it.

So then, if Church is the gathered community of God who, through the Spirit, practice the way of Jesus, where does church happen? What can we count as church by this definition?

Well, admittedly, I have a very low ecclesiology (or, if you look at it another way, I have a very high one!). I am not a stickler about these things. I think it’s valid to count anything and everything that consists of some people being/doing something together that is an act of the Jesus way. Sitting up with people in a hospital? Church. Discussing current events and world problems and the role of faith in addressing them at a pub? Church. Creating art that expresses through image what cannot be said in words, and sharing that with people? Church. Sitting silently alongside those who are grieving? Church.

You can “be” church and “do” church in many, many, many ways. I think we should count them all. To put it more forcefully, I think we have far more to lose by NOT counting them than we do by counting them. Seriously- what bad thing happens if we say church is more than one thing? It doesn’t delegitimize a weekly worship gathering. It doesn’t even necessarily decentralize it. But if we say church is only this one specific thing, I think we’ve just made our faith unnecessarily smaller than it needed to be and less holistic, too.

If you are thinking about disagreeing with me, maybe just consider this one thing: If you were to read through the gospels and mark every moment you think counts as church, how many marks would you have? Would you only count the times Jesus was in the synagogue? Would you seriously leave out the Last Supper, or the Sermon on the Mount? Would you not count when Jesus was having dinner at Mary and Martha’s house talking about life and spiritual things?

That being said, I do think there’s something distinct and important and necessary about the definition of church which means specifically the weekly gathering of God’s people to practice being Christian all together at the same time. I think that’s essential for faith, for growth. Jesus did go to synagogue. He was raised in the tradition.

There are two specific things I can think of that we get in a weekly worship gathering that do not naturally happen in regular life:

1) When you go to church, you are around more people also practicing being Christian at one time than you would be under most any other circumstance. (I realize this happens at church camp, or a conference or something; those aren’t technically “regular life” either. I mean everyday life.) This forces you to practice being Christian with people you may not always be hanging out with, which is in itself a form of practicing being a Christian. And it’s a very necessary one. The intention of choosing to be together for the purpose of church is valuable. It’s great to be surprised by church happening in unexpected places. It’s great and necessary for church (ie practicing with other people) to happen as a natural rhythm of life and not be confined to one block of time on Sunday. But it also makes sense to set with intention a time when you say “This is when I practice with these people.” A weekly worship gathering is the easiest and most consistent way to do that, admittedly.

2) Obviously, we don’t normally go around sticking ashes on each other’s foreheads or anointing each other outside of an actual worship gathering. We don’t usually say or sing things in unison together for the sole purpose of forming ourselves into better Christians. We can talk about God most anyplace, or pray together, or even share communion (unless you’re in a tradition where you need someone official to do that for you, which is a soapbox for another day). My point is, there are some weird things we do that aren’t just going to come up by themselves outside of church. They are valuable parts of the Christian tradition that have been passed on through generations because they are formative and helpful, so probably we should do some of them.


SO. A few final thoughts about where we go in this conversation:

  • Is there a way we can find the space to honor/acknowledge/appreciate/celebrate the faith practices and traditions of those who follow Jesus differently than we do?
  • Can we broaden what we count as church just “this” much and still be ok? I think we can.
  • Can we not judge people’s faith lives based solely on church attendance? I think we can. Let’s acknowledge that church attendance is hardly the only (or correct) measuring tool by which to gauge someone’s faith maturity.
  •  How can we support and encourage and foster and help create communities of faith for people who, for whatever reason, do not find it easy to make spiritual meaning of their lives in traditional worship contexts? If you are one of those people, if you could create a community of faith that did make sense to you, that did help you practice being Christian, what would it look like? We’ve often said at Journey that we are who comes. We change every time someone new gets connected. So what we do in liturgy or in song or in conversation or in practice is based on what the gathered community finds meaningful, and that changes based on who’s there. It’s changed a lot over the years, and will continue to do so, I’m sure. We say: if you’re new, and you don’t see something happening or being practiced that you find meaningful or helpful, talk with other people about it and see if there’s some energy there. And if there is, get it started! We are here to make meaning together. I think lots of churches would be open to this. I think lots of pastors would love for someone to come up and say they’d like to create something meaningful. Complaining about church is hitting the easy button. Doing something about it is a great thing- and something that could benefit more than just you!
  • If you are currently someone who is not “going to church,” may I just point out that sometimes, in my pastoral experience, this may mean you were raised in a denomination that doesn’t make sense to you even when Jesus does, and there are so many other denominations and traditions within Christianity that may be a great fit? There may be another church within your own denomination that would be a good fit. If you think this may be true of you and you don’t know where to start, email me. It is my absolute favorite thing to help people find a spiritually meaningful community.
  • I have friends all over the country who are doing interesting nontraditional communities and you may be near one of them and you may find just what you are looking for. If you want to practice with other people, there are all kinds of ways to make that happen, and I’d love to help you in any way possible. New experiments are popping up all the time, and they are all very very different from one another. CASE IN POINT: Just this morning, on my Twitter feed, I learned through Shauna Niequist that her husband Aaron (who I’ve yet to meet but who will be with us at Faith Forward doing some music and liturgy) is starting a new community of faith in the Chicago area called, GET THIS GUYS, The Practice. The Practice! I am psyched about this. I tell you what, that Spirit is up to something. She is taking us places. So- if you’re in Chicago, this is a great place to go make spiritual meaning with people.
  • This is not, I repeat, not a competition. There is room for all the kinds of worship. In fact, we are the better for it. Let’s keep the traditional and let’s make new traditions. This is how we got the Catholic Church. This is how we got the Eastern Orthodox church. This is how Protestantism happened. This is where the emerging church has come from. The new traditions don’t supplant the old ones, as Phyllis Tickle has pointed out. They just add to it. If we spent our energy collaborating with one another, supporting one another, learning from one another, we’d all be the better for it. God is bigger than all of our traditions combined. We’ve got room to play, people.




1 Comment

  1. I have found these statements in an Anglican report helpful on the nature and character of Church: ‘Any theology of the church must ultimately be rooted in the being and acts of God: the church is first and foremost the people of God, brought into being by God, bound to God for the glory of God’… ‘The Trinity is the first community and by it all community is defined, particularly the community of the church’ (p.13)… ‘The Church has been described as a ‘pattern’, ‘icon’, or ‘echo’ of the Trinity’ (p.16). (Eucharistic Presidency: A Theological Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod, 1997, Church House Publishing)

    This seems to elevate Church to more than a ‘soul gym’, maybe a sacrament?

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