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Defining Church

March 20, 2009

This post is from Chrissy Wright, and I think she offers a serious counter to how people often think about the church.

Being a pastor’s wife and ministry leader in my own right, I have the honor of hearing what many people expect from church. Sometimes its in the midst of a “break up” talk in which they tell me why they’re leaving our church; most of the time its just folks sharing their dreams and hopes for whatever church/faith community they’re a part of. Many of their hopes are heart-breakingly beautiful, some are just selfish. One thing I’ve learned absolutely, there is no one answer.

People have so many different ideas of what church is supposed to look like, feel like, provide them with that it leaves me, sometimes, a little disillusioned. 

Now, I know the classic argument for this: “That’s why we have so many denominations! So everyone can find a place that’s right for them.” And certainly, this is true. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t wish that we all had at least a generally consistent view of what basic functions the church ought to have. If we want different music, preaching style, or cultural vibe, so be it. But shouldn’t the core of the church, of all churches, be consistent, and known to all its people?

I say all its people because I’m concerned that the average “church-goer” has lost sight, lacks knowledge of what it is they’re “going to” and why. I’m concerned that the yard-stick they/we use to measure a church might be the wrong one altogether.

Here’s an off-the-cuff list of the top church-judgement phrases I hear from average people and why they concern me:

1) “Getting Fed”: Either “I’m not” or “I am.” I first learned this term in Bible college and I just loved it. There’s a certain matter-of-fact smugness about it that suited me at age 18. Shortly thereafter, however, I started to wonder about it’s legitimacy. Where, in the Bible, does it say to gather together in community, plop down, and passively open your mouth so that the sanctioned “teacher” can stuff all kinds of spiritual morsels down your throat? I don’t see it. This is, flat out, the consumerism of our culture seeping into our expectations of church.

2) “The Holy Spirit Wasn’t There (or was)”: Or another version, “The Holy Spirit COULDN’T work there!” What? Last time I checked, the Holy Spirit is God of the Universe. This sort of implies that He is everywhere and can do anything. Certainly, in a situation where there is real sin and corruption, I imagine the Holy Spirit would choose to make Himself scarce, so to speak, as a sign of said darkness. But usually that is not how I hear this used. Usually what people mean is that the music wasn’t festive/deep/good/sad enough for them to connect emotionally. Or, if they were really honest, folks might just say, “I’m just not feelin’ it.”

3) “They teach the Word.”: This is another one that is often said with simplistic smugness, and therefore, another one that I LOVED in my youth. Now, certainly, there are churches that have all but completely abandoned the teachings of scripture and have gone their own way. We should all avoid that, absolutely. But again, this phrase is rarely used in contrast to full-on liberal churches. Usually, it’s just used to compare to other Bible-believing, Christ-adoring churches who may not, say, go verse-by-verse every Sunday. As if that was the only, or even best way to tell God’s huge amazing story.

So here are the top three phrases I hear out and about, sometimes in relation to my church, sometimes others, and they leave me with a real sense of bemusement. Not that all of these people are off-base or crazy, but rather that after hearing all of their voices I, too, become uncertain of what church ought to be. If “getting fed” shouldn’t be our primary motivation, what should?

Here’s my list:

1) An opportunity to practice (long-term) love, loyalty, humility, service, kindness, unselfishness, etc. within a consistent community of believers. The goal is not to get fed but to feed. This can’t exist if people jump churches every six months or even 5 years. Most of these traits, the Holy Spirit qualities, come only with longsuffering commitment to a body of believers.

2) A place to use the gifts God has given me to actively minister to others and a place to network with other believers on how to actively minister to the world around me.

3) A place where truth and grace is spoken, both from the “pulpit” and amongst the “pews.” Maybe its not always perfect, sharp, clean but it is sincere and honest and Holy Spirit-driven. (This is listed 3rd because although it is very, very, very important, it is often treated as if it was the ONLY important thing).

4) A place where I am safe to learn, to ask questions, safe to struggle. A place where I can encourage those who are struggling, accept others where they’re at and be accepted right where I’m at. 

And here’s why I like my list better. ;) Because it is not consumer based, it is relationally based. Because it’s not based on what I get, but what I can give, how I can interact. If church should be any one thing, it should be a community. In that community, if we learn to love each other honestly, to bear each other’s burdens humbly, to follow Jesus together, really together, then the Church might just have a chance to be one of the other things it was always meant to be–A light to the world!

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