What is church?
I suppose there are thousands of answers to that question. It’s an institution that’s been around for roughly two millennia. There is a bewildering variety of denominations and variations of ecclesiastical communities. Needless to say, every one and their pastor has an opinion. Some hold their views loosely; others adamantly; and still others, vehemently.
Even so, I want to suggest a few things church is not (sort of!). Far from exhaustive, my suggestions merely play off some common misunderstandings of church. Nothing I say here is being said dogmatically.
Before I get into my suggestions, I think it’s important to point out that many reduce church to its ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. It’s a convenient acronym of sorts, if nothing else. But obviously it looks mostly at the surface, the measurables, and the immediate. It misses much, yet reveals much as well.
But what are my suggestions? Here’s my first.
The church is about people not programs.
Most congregations have various regular activities that take place regularly: Bible studies, Sunday School, youth groups, home groups, VBS, etc. The Sunday morning worship service(s) is often viewed as the core or centre of church activity. All good stuff. Mostly.
I remember being in a ministry seminar where the person leading said something to the effect that programs are essentially a reason to get people in the same room.
I like it.
But of course the people getting together in the same space, if the purpose is discipleship, have to have something to do. Hence, programs.
At the same time, programs can outlive their usefulness. Keeping a program running when it’s run out of gas and goals can leave volunteers weary and discouraged. Even though it’s often harder to stop a program than start one, it can sometimes be an act of wisdom and mercy to pull the plug.
The church is about engagement not attendance.
More butts in the pews—it’s what most pastors dream of (and think they’re supposed to) strive towards. In these days of declining churches and struggling congregations, those who’ve attended for years and even decades are no doubt confused and discouraged by the absence of upcoming generations in many a sanctuary.
You can have a full sanctuary with little actual engagement. You can also have a smaller group of people who are more deeply engaged and motivated to grow.
It’s not necessarily about numbers. So without discounting numbers altogether, they can be deceiving. That said, without some people, it’s hard to have church! It’s just as easy to dismiss the importance of trying to engage new people—thereby shirking our evangelistic responsibility—by pointing out the superficiality of ecclesiastical arithmetic.
Some have commented that the numerical decline in churches simply represents the elimination of the “mushy middle,” those who used to attend out of a sense of obligation. Those remaining are the truly committed.
Perhaps. But we still are called to engage others and to be engaged ourselves with intentional spiritual community.
Last, the church is a holy people not a holy place.
Or to put it another, more obvious, way: the church is not the building. We don’t go to church; we are the church.
This almost goes without saying, and much of time I think we (sort of) get it. But our language can betray us. Words matter. Our vocabulary reveals.
We’re being built into a spiritual house, the Scriptures tell us. Brick by brick. All of the building language from the Old Testament is used of people—the gathered family of God—in the New Testament. Peter puts it this way:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.1 Peter 2:4–5
We need one another. There’s a blessed mutuality at work in the church, where each one brings their particular gifts and passions. And God assembles us into a holy place.
And, yes, we still have to meet somewhere. Churches meet in coffee shops, school auditoriums, movie theatres, homes, and, of course, church buildings. Whether it’s better for a group of Christians to rent or lease a space or have one all their own, that’s a matter of legitimate debate.
But there’s no such thing as a holy place apart from a holy people.
So there you are. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. That’s ok. My point is simply to say that at the heart of what the church is are relationships: between us and God, between individual believers, and between believers and their surrounding community.
Indeed, God himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is relationship. It makes sense to me, then, if that’s what the church is all about too.