Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40; John 1:29-42
Today I want to ask question “What is the Church?”
Please close your eyes for a moment, and with your eyes closed I want you to visualise the Church of the Ascension.
Take a few moments to form a mental image…
How many of you imagined the building?
I think most people, most of the time, I’d asked to imagine a ‘church’ will imagine the building. Which is fair enough – this building has “the Church of the Ascension” written on the front of it. Our logo is an image of the front of the building.
Google’s Dictionary defines “Church” as “a building used for public Christian worship.”
And offers the synonyms: “house of God, the Lord’s house, house of prayer; kirk.”
It’s only the second definition that gets to the nitty gritty: “a particular Christian organization [sic.] with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.”
The building is not what the church is.
The Church is you and me.
The word “Church” (or in the original Greek, “ecclesia”) is an interesting word, it was deliberately chosen by the first Christians who could have called their places of worship “temples” like the pagans or “synagogues” like their Jewish forbears, but instead chose “ecclesia” translated “church.” “Ecclesia” is used 115 times in the New Testament, but only two or three times is it usually translated as “Church” because the word simply means a gathering of people or an assembly.
The Church is the people, not the place where they gather.
We are the church. Without us it’s just a building (an interesting & historic building, but just a building nonetheless).
In the same way that your family (if you live with one or more other people) is not the house or flat you live in. Your home may be very important to you, but your house is not your family….
Our building is important, it is a sign to our neighbourhood that we are here, and it is a great resource for our community, but it is not the Church. The church is us.
What does it mean to be the church?
I wonder what we think we are doing when we come together as a church?
What secular activity is it most like? What is a good metaphor for coming together to be the Church.
For some services (a Choral Evensong springs to mind) a service can bear a lot of resemblance to a concert. We listen to a sermon and we pray, but we spend most of the time sitting and listening to music.
But this is not what we are about – for several reasons. If worship is like a concert, it makes us passive receivers. It means that Worship is something other people do (the choir and clergy); the congregation’s role is just the audience. The congregation are an audience to be entertained.
If we look for a better metaphor, I have heard church described as a time to “recharge our spiritual batteries.” …This places church as something like a “battery charger,” or perhaps a “spiritual health spa” where our favourite hymns are a pedicure and the prayers an exfoliating body scrub…?
This is a better metaphor than a concert because we are changed by the process, we are not simply entertained, we are healthier, feel better and maybe look better (I’ve never actually been in a spa, so it’s possible I’m talking nonsense !)
However, the idea of the church as a spa still has the problem that the religion is “done to us” by the professionals. The experts do their work and the customers lay back and enjoy it.
I attended a lecture last year that said the best metaphor for the church was a gym – St. Ignatius described his system of prayer as “Spiritual Exercises” – so perhaps Church is best described as a “Soul Gym.”
Unlike a concert or spa, everyone actively participates in the gym; it makes us fitter and better able to do things (like climb stairs and run for the bus). There are trained experts around to help, but everyone works at their own level and does their own exercise.
Perhaps like going to the gym we may not jump up with excitement at the idea of a trip to church, but hopefully, like the gym we feel better for going, and the cumulative effect of regularly attending gym or church is improvement in our physical or spiritual health. The more often you go and the more seriously you take it the more marked the results.
(It is also worth mentioning that if every church member paid like people pay at the gym (by a standing order that comes out of your account wether you attend once a year or seven times a week) all of our financial concerns would be over!)
I like the gym metaphor, but it is also flawed. At the gym everyone is doing their own thing. Everyone may be in the same room, but they are all pursuing their own aims.
The problem of all these metaphors is that they place the congregation in the place of “consumers” of one sort or another. In the church we are not “consumers” of religion. We are “citizens” of the Kingdom of God. We are the Body of Christ.
If we were consumers we have religion done to us. We pay the clergy to do our religion for us, and then buy whatever slice or flavour is to our taste.
As citizens of the Kingdom, as the body of Christ, as people who are the church we don’t just consume faith, we live it out in our lives
We gather as a church in order to be sent out again to change the world and proclaim the Kingdom.
So church may share some superficial similarities with a concert or spa or gym, but none of them do justice to what we are about. To my mind the best metaphor for the church is a family meal.
Like family meals it is wonderful – it’s fantastic to share time with people who matter to us. But it is also a challenge, some of the children may be noisy at inappropriate times and uncle Jim’s sense of humour is alarmingly unreconstructed. But we are family, children of the same Heavenly Father.
But we have a responsibility for each other in church.
If there is someone new next to us looking lost with the handfuls of service sheets and hymn books, if we are consumers it’s none of our business, but if we are the church we have a responsibility to help them out and guide them through…
If we are consumers if we run out run out of service sheets the only thing that matters is that we get our own sheet, as citizens we must share with our neighbours…
If we were consumers we would see tea and coffee after the church as an experience similar to a quick visit to Starbucks. (With cheaper coffee.) If we are consumers all that matters is our coffee and our conversations with our friends, but if we are citizens we need to look out for folks who are on their own or looking left out.
I have heard from people who started coming to church because of the wonderful welcome they had at the door. I have, also, recently received an email from a potential new member who decided not to come back because they felt someone was rude to them because they weren’t looking at them directly during the Peace!
How we behave to each other really matters.
We are the church, and the church will thrive or decline according to how we act.
If the church is going to grow their is no outreach programme or activity that could even come close to “word of mouth” from all of us. Evangelical churches have run all sorts of studies on what makes churches grow: door-to-door evangelism? Billy-Graeme-style rallies? singing in market squares? giving out pamphlets…? and every single study I have read comes to the same conclusion: the congregation telling their friends, neighbours and families about the church, and inviting them along is by miles the most effective means of growth.
If we are consumers then church growth has nothing to do with us – we just attend to buy a fresh slice of religious observance. However, if we are citizens then we all have to play our part in building the church.
I think every Church service should end with the famous words of St Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.