what is church?

I have been thinking about the church. What is the embodied church? At what point does a gathering of humans constitute ‘church’? How do we know when we are in church? on a bus? at a pub? in a building with a steeple? in a school? at lunch with colleagues? Which of these constitues the gathered church? Is it only when the believing few are focused on a ‘service’ or ‘ceremony’? Or is it bigger than that??? Looking down the blog at the pix, which of the instances constitues being in church? What think ye? Why do you think such?

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8 responses to “what is church?

  1. Liz

    The Anglican in me wants to suggest that church is where Christians congregate for fellowship, meeting God in the sacraments and in one another.

    The liberation theologian in me wants to suggest that church is found in the face and presence of “the other” or “the least of these” where God meets us and reminds us that the Body of Christ (aka The Church) does not look as we might expect or prefer.

  2. Heady questions, these. Do we go to church or are we the church? I think the answer is a resounding yes. But as a Gen-X’er I do have an aversion to the institutional church, for most of the usual generational reasons; but as a follower of Jesus I can’t seem to manage to throw that baby out with the bathwater! The sense of history and grounding that the institutional church provides is quite powerful – perhaps even necessary.

    Which reminds me of part of an interview with Eugene Peterson that really struck me a while back:

    “In church last Sunday, there was a couple in front of us with two bratty kids. Two pews behind us there was another couple with their two bratty kids making a lot of noise. This is mostly an older congregation. So these people are set in their ways. Their kids have been gone a long time. And so it wasn’t a very nice service; it was just not very good worship. But afterwards I saw half a dozen of these elderly people come up and put their arms around the mother, touch the kids, sympathize with her. They could have been irritated.

    Now why do people go to a church like that when they can go to a church that has a nursery, is air conditioned, and all the rest? Well, because they’re Lutherans. They don’t mind being miserable! Norwegian Lutherans!

    And this same church recently welcomed a young woman with a baby and a three-year-old boy. The children were baptized a few weeks ago. But there was no man with her. She’s never married; each of the kids has a different father. She shows up at church and wants her children baptized. She’s a Christian and wants to follow in the Christian way. So a couple from the church acted as godparents. Now there are three or four couples in the church who every Sunday try to get together with her.

    Now, where is the “joy” in that church? These are dour Norwegians! But there’s a lot of joy. There’s an abundant life going, but it’s not abundant in the way a non-Christian would think. I think there’s a lot more going on in churches like this; they’re just totally anticultural. They’re full of joy and faithfulness and obedience and care. But you sure wouldn’t know it by reading the literature of church growth, would you?

    Q: But many Christians would look at this church and say it’s dead, merely an institutional expression of the faith.

    What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church, because there’s sin in the church. But there’s no other place to be a Christian except the church. There’s sin in the local bank. There’s sin in the grocery stores. I really don’t understand this naïve criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it.

    Frederick von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.

    So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy, and narcissism.

    In my writing, I hope to recover a sense of the reality of congregation—what it is. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit. Why are we always idealizing what the Holy Spirit doesn’t idealize? There’s no idealization of the church in the Bible—none. We’ve got two thousand years of history now. Why are we so dumb?”

    The whole interview (a good read) can be found here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=34310

    I look forward to seeing the comments on these questions you ask. How we answer these questions as a “church” will greatly affect or dys-affect (‘dys’ as in ‘dys’-functional) the “church” of the future…

    • Thank you. I agree, especially, with your conclusion. The Church must look around and be the church. And in that, she must hear Paul: “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”

  3. Liz

    Well, that is the question, is it not?
    My pneumatological inclination is to say Yes, as I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in the world (within those that acknowledge and those that don’t), and I believe Jesus Christ stands in the gap (in some mysterious way–the Judge judged in our place, which gives us no justification for our own judgment, as Barth would say). It also seems that the exhortation to serve “the least of these” makes no mention of their belief (or lack thereof), so I suspect loving/listening to/learning from them are all components of seeing the face of God in the other.

    Are you gonna offer a Reformed or Baptist corrective to my semi-universalist leaning?

    Peace be with you throughout the Lenten season.

    • I rekon that I am no longer Reformed, while having reformed tendencies, I am still baptistic theologically as well but I need not correct the statement… Because Jesus did not limit blessing to his followers and while Paul certainly limits the universal, invisable, catholic church to those “in Christ” we are called to impact the world. And as one of my students pointed out today in a discussion of Rom 12, Eph 4 and 1 Cro 12, local churches are certainly blessing (and are often blessed by) those within its walls who are not “in Christ”, she pointed out that Lewis would say (in the chapter “Let’s Pretend” in Mere) that by being with us they may catch (my addition now) the “Good Infection.” I overdo the thinking of Jack, don’t I?

  4. what a Thread…. WOW.
    I thought church is where cheap coffee is… 🙂

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