Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What is Church?

It's been an extraordinarily long time since my last post... I wonder if I remember how to do it? I can only apologise for my absence in the blogging world, I've been trying very hard to concentrate on a piece of work that I'm doing for my NAM (Newly Accredited Minister) studies. In fact, the only reason I'm allowing myself and brief repartee to write this post now, is that I'm going to write about my essay.

You see, I'm stuck. I didn't give myself the most specific topic in the world, but I had in mind the specific area I wanted to write about. So I've been trying to answer the question "What is Church?"
Broadly, that doesn't seem like too difficult a question to answer; I can hear you all now saying things like "Church is the people of God", or "Church is the sacred act of worship", or "Church is that really dull place that my Grandma used to take me". And the truth is, none of you would be wrong. But that's not quite what I'm getting at.

When we walk into the sacred space, we each come with our own set of expectations. And despite what we may think, these expectations don’t differ a great deal from person to person; very often they are simply degrees of the same thing. Some may feel more comfortable with an hour long expository sermon, for example, while others prefer a discussion approach, while still others are looking for something more interactive, kinaesthetic experience. On the surface these seem like different expectations, but in reality, all of these are expecting some form of teaching. Similarly, it is important for some to spend the first forty minutes of a service singing worship songs, led by a group of talented musicians in order to get ‘lost in worship’, whereas others require the robust theology found in the hymns of old, and others still find their peace in singing the great Psalms. All have an expectation of sung worship. Again, some enter the sacred space with a desire to speak the words that are familiar to them, to follow a liturgy that is well used and well known, while others expect to be led in extempore prayer, drawing on the emotions that have been built up in the preceding song, and others find the church service to be a place where the silence pervades, and their conversation with God can be personal and self-governed.

Now I suppose why it is that we have come to expect these things from "Church" is by the by (or at least the work of another section of this essay). The question I seek to answer is what, of this very long list of things that we have come to expect from church the world over, is actually non-negotiable. By which I mean, what are the things that we cannot throw away, we cannot strip back, without losing the very essence of “Church”. In some sense we live in a culture today in which all things are up for grabs. Generation ‘Y’ is a seeking generation, experimental, questioning, technological, sceptical and politically disillusioned. I'm not totally convinced that they are looking for the kind of structure that "Church" in this rigid form offers. I don't have any answers for this, and to be honest, I don't believe that there's just going to be some model that we can all copy which will rectify the problem once and for all. But I get the feeling that if we want to connect with Generation Y, it's going to be important to think like them (which is somewhat easier for me, being a part of that generation myself), and we're going to have to do church in a way that works with some of those attributes.

At EBC we recently opened a Craft Cafe. A bunch of us (some Christian, some not) get together, enjoy some home-cooked food (thanks to my good friend Tracy, who is a much better cook than I), have a chat over a brew, and get creative. Most of us are addicted to pinterest, so we usually just experiment with things we've seen on there. And we talk. We talk about all sorts of things; the news, our health (several of us suffer from depression, bi-polar and other mental health issues), our families, our neighbours, and very often we talk about where God fits into all of that mess. We don't sing, we don't pray, and we don't read the bible. But I can't shake the feeling that on a Friday afternoon, we're doing church. So far, though, no one agrees with me. At best it has been described as a stepping stone to church, like an Alpha course, to get people interested in coming to church. Except (and I probably shouldn't admit this), I don't really aim to get them to come on Sundays, because what we have at that cafe each Friday... works. It's relevant, and interesting, and fluid. 

Could it be that this is as much an expression of Church as St Paul's Cathedral, or St Aloysius Oratory, or Bloomsbury Baptist Church, or Spring Harvest? If the answer is yes, then it would seem that pretty much everything is up for grabs, and what gets the label "church" is much less obvious than we first would have imagined. If the answer is no, then I can't help but feel that the "Missing Generation" are going to be permanently AWOL.


  1. You're really touching on something that defines a difference in the generations here. I used to rib our friend, the illustrious Phil Durrant, that people come to Church for three main reasons: comfort in or from the world, acceptance by others, and hope for the future.
    It seems that the attitude was, in times gone by, that while you could receive these things from On High out of the goodness of God's grace, out of sheer decency you should still offer some form of penance, some sort of display of humbleness and praise. "The Lord (via the Church) gives me hope, comfort, acceptance. I show my respect and gratitude by dressing up, performing rituals, getting on my knees, learning an instrument, making a sculpture, sacrificing my comfort."
    Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of something for nothing, and to many of them the more rigid practices are a form of respect and reverence.
    Now look more at this generation. God is still God, but He seems more approachable nowadays. Jesus is portrayed not so much as a Lord as he is a friend. And I think with this gentler intermediary people feel their relationship with God is more reciprocal. "You are my friend and you love me. In return, I love you." To what seems like many of the younger generation, this is a fair trade. It's mutual love. My friends, my loved ones do not expect me to only talk to them from my knees. They don't expect me to dress up in my suit and tie when I come over to visit. Why should Jesus?
    Anyway, I could be way off the mark but maybe Church could be the time you reciprocate your relationship based on what you think is a fair trade.

    1. I think this is helpful, Brandon. I hadn't thought about looking in at the differences between how God is viewed. Perhaps there is something about the transcendence vs the imminence of God which has an effect on how we answer the question?

  2. I get very nervous when people suggest that things are stepping stones to church, because this suggests that we know what church is. It implies that church is a fixed entity that people have to join if they are to be 'proper' Christians. And yet the craft cafe you talk about is a place where people engage in a lot of stuff that Jesus spent a lot of his time doing - hanging out with all kinds of people, eating and drinking, talking about life. The only thing he added was the call to 'follow me'.

    It's that last bit that we seem to think means that people must come to church defined as a gathering of people trying to be disciples where we learn about Jesus, sing about him, pray to him and help one another do all those things. But can't that be happening while we're hanging out, eating and drinking and talking about life?

    We follow our messy church with messy talk that is an agenda-free conversation around coffee and pastries that is sometimes about discipleship and sometimes about shopping and always about what interests the people in the group. It isn't a stepping stone to the form of 'church' that is happening elsewhere in our building (you know, the one with hymns and liturgy, sermons and stuff); it is the thing itself, the place where people are discovering stuff about Jesus and what it means to follow him - and who knows (and hopefully), starting to follow him.

    That's probably not ecclesiologically sound; but it seems to be the place where I find Jesus hanging out with me and my friends. So isn't that church?

  3. Oh, and I'm definitely not generation Y!!

  4. It's good that it's possible to actually talk through these what may seem to be rather basic questions. I expect that in the past (and even today) some in the church may have been somewhat concerned to think that christians, even ministers were asking the question 'what is church?' Isn't it a given that we know the answer to that?

    The common answers that I still hear are that at best church is 'the people' and at worst it is 'a building with pews and a steeple'.

    As I read your post I was drawn back to a sermon that I did a few weeks back called 'what is the church?'

    As usual when finding myself stuck I decided to look at the Greek word.

    'Ekklesia' apparently had meaning before the coming of Christianity as 'a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly'

    One literal translation of the word is to be 'called out'.

    I like this image of us being 'called out ones'.

    So when we are church it is because we have been 'called out' by God together to his gathering.

    Perhaps the most important aspect of church is therefore that it is a gathering which has been initiated by God calling people out.

    Perhaps it is God's intention that the exact nature of a gathering is not necessarily clear so that we might ask him the question 'Could what I am experiencing in this gathering be called church?'

    'Is this gathering of people something that God has started through the activity of his Spirit and might he be using it to draw us into a closer spiritual encounter with him?'

  5. Thanks for getting this one out there Rowena, it's drawing a few half-baked disjointed thoughts from me. Here's some thinking out loud...

    If I come up with an essential list of activities it feels to me that I'm trying to define the boundary (bounded set) of where the edge of church is and the rest of everything begins and that feels like 'them' and 'me' thinking of who is in and who is out. I wonder if behind that lies my unhealthy quest for certainty and the conceptual idolatry that entices me down that road. I wonder if what also lies behind that is my desire to form an institution to be Lord of (I'm a Baptist Minister btw). Yes I am called out but incarnation is all about me being sent in.

    I'm wanting to try and discipline myself to leave those things and the boundary blurred and try to focus on Jesus, his mission and kingdom and to tentatively sketch out the centre to walk towards (centered set). Then I can talk about my response to this centre and how I can travel towards it with anyone who can help me and I them. And it might work well for join in with His mission by practicing shalom living. But not to want to give up up church but rather leave it to be the beautiful 'accident' of the other things we are concentrating on...

    On another track is it helpfully to parallel the question 'What is church?" with 'What is human?' I'm feeling my disabled child is not less than human and also that church is church in all it's brokenness because it is in God and pull the conversation away from ethics to grace and relationship with the origin of church which is God herself.

    Another disjointed thread... in the discussions around the Futures Process there has been much talk about our knackered Baptist identity and I sense a gently growing affirmation that the foundational or perhaps primary unit for Baptists is the local church. But if we keep on down that road (and I think we've already gone way too far) then we end up in deep water by assuming that every local congregation, mission project, church plant, or 'constituted local baptist church centralised bank account, charity thingy' 'is standalone church. That feels like telling each finger, or elbow or thumb it needs to grow up and be an entire body. Perhaps all these bits, charities, buildings, constituted groups, mission teams, covenanting people, and missional activists would be enlivened by giving up using the label church to describe their bit in a standalone way or freed from not being able to use the label 'church' for their bit? For a few decades we could reserve the label 'Church' for the one body of Jesus and understand they we are simply 'of the Church'?

  6. I believe that wherever followers of Jesus meet it could be described as church. I remember when I lived in Wales ( now in Canada) a coffee time where people would come to chat was very much Church and it was not to attend a Worship Service. We met with each other and God and there were those there who did not attend any other activity but they were aware of meeting with God in that time!
    This helped me understand that there was a wider picture of what Church is! What a blessing to realise this!
    Awareness of "God with us" makes the difference.
    When I think back I guess I have found Church in many different places away from formal identifiable buildings!

  7. I don't ask that question anymore because for me THE question to ask at any point both as an individual or when gathered in community is 'is this growing the Kingdom of God?'. That's my sole focus and from there you can use anything to help achieve that. 'Church' helps that but what it never should be is the focus of our attentions, the Kingdom should be. You are then set free to create with God.

  8. Rowena, great to read that you are thinking about this and especially that you are aware there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (That there might be some non-negotiables). I often get the impression that many people think the church is our idea rather than God's. It concerns me that most of what I've read and heard on this subject makes little or no reference to any biblical, theological or historical foundation. Let's enjoy the journey and not forget the road signs God has given us.

  9. I asked this same question, 'what is church' on a facebook group 'the church without walls' that I joined recently. I wonder if when churches started to pull up walls and began meeting in buildings that were named churches without it started to loose its eccklesia and its sense of being 'called out' (see Ben's comment). Anything that builds the Kingdom of God, such as your cafe, has to be good. As a fellow newly accredited minister I guess my question would be 'what is a Baptist church?' It doesn't help you with your essay though - it probably adds another couple of thousand words on what makes us Baptist! (I always write far too many words.) Enjoy your writing.

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