Monday, 2 January 2012

definitions on a postcard: 'church'

I've been thinking about the word 'church' for quite some time now.
What is it?
How do we define it?
And how does the way in which we define it impact the way we are,
who we are,
what we do,
where we do it,
why we do it?

Do we too often recite the old familiar mantra: 'the church is not a building, it is the people who are church' but get too easily weighed down by the demands of bricks and mortar?  Heating bills, insurance to pay, ongoing maintenance, roof repairs....
Do we meet together to worship God, or come and pay homage to an impressive building?  Yes, this last question is pure rhetoric; it is not quite as black and white as this.
Is church about structure that goes beyond a physical building?
A structure involving a whole raft of whizz-bang programs and events, often trying to continue even as resources of people, time, skills, money, are depleted?
There's so much baggage with the word 'church' - the demands of upkeep, administration, organisation - occupy our minds and hearts to the point that we get into the way of thinking that church is about all this peripheral 'stuff'.
It's not.
We sometimes get so caught up in this peripheral business: doing SWOT analysis, creating fundraising targets, putting the need for efficiency before all else, striving to be hip and relevant... whilst quietly feeling like we've not done enough, failed to achieve, have somehow missed the point, have tried and been found sadly wanting.
I wonder how we find a way to better fine-tune and clarify what we mean when we say 'church'?
A way that will help us not to confuse structures created to assist the work of the church and the demands of bricks and mortar, and of obligations towards our ecclesiastical framework, from what is actually the church... us?
I suspect, if we can, not only will be less weighed down and exhausted, we might have a little more time for God, and others.

This is just a rather simplistic starter for ten.  More pondering to come....


Stephen said...

A CofS Minister in 1606 speaking on the importance of the church-building:
It were heere requisite once to define what kinde of house a Kirk is... Bethel the domicile of God, must be first an Ecclesie or Kirk, a tabernacle for the congregations repare, that is, of such competent capacity as may easily containe the particular flock. Next that it be for bewtie a Basilick or temple, fit for contemplation of Gods promised presence there. Matt. xviij xx. which bewty (although it must keepe bounds of christian simplicity, yet) no warrand will allow emulation in houses humane, according to the Centuries conscience Matt. 8.8. whose roofe he acknowledged (with himselfe) vnworthy to receiue the Lord. For as Dauid disdained to dwell in a palice of Cedar while the Lords Arke remaned in tents. 2. Sam 7. so Salomons palice (how princely so euer) yet was it magnificently exceeded by the house he builded to God.

Nick Brindley said...

Hi Nikki - I like "People of God" and "Body of Christ" as "definitions" of the Church. I also think that we would do well to study the story of Israel in the Old Testament as a guide to what God expects of the People of God. We are God's people by being the body of Christ and as such we have a mission within God's mission. This is truth in the idea of the "mission shaped church". Each part of the Church has its mission, its vocation, its task within the mission of the Church catholic. The detailed shape of each part then needs to be determined from a discernment of its vocation. That of the CofS is to represent the national church idea in Scotland and hence the requirement for a parish system and so on. It also probably means that buildings need to loom large for it, to give physical expression to its presence throughout the nation (this said from mostly outside the Kirk).

spotthegerbil said...

The church building sits in the
Middle of the parish and welcomes all regardless of
class where we can reflect while being
social because when we
club together we can be stronger.

If we demolished the big buildings, rented portacabins, could we do the important stuff without worrying about the bricks and mortar? Or wuold you want to be seen in the portacabin church?

Nik said...

Ah... but how do we get away from thinking of the building as 'the church', Spot? That is the thang wot I am in the beginnings of wanting to tease out a wee bit.

Mrs Gerbil said...

Okay, wasn't sure how to approach this, but here goes.

Like Nick, I like the "body of Christ" image. Jesus has no hands but our hands. In our lives and works, where ever we are we are church, if we are being (or at least trying to be) God's people. In doing so, we can do our little bit to bring about God's kingdom in those acts.

From recent conversations I would say the following about church:

It is not a numbers game. Does it really matter if there are only 12 regular worshippers? Does there need to be a certain numbeer before it beomes "church". (Matt 18:20 implies 2 minimum). I know of some who, given half a chance, would shut churches with small, devoted, failthful congregations. I don't agree with them.

As part of community building, I'd like to think those in the church have others who will support and encourage them when needed, but the help is given with an open heart, in the knowledge it may never be reciprocated.

It's where people are and serving the needs they have in those places. So, if it has a very successful community centre working on a body, mind, soul program which gives self-asteem to the most vulerable in the community, it doesn't matter if there are no more people coming to church on a Sunday morning.

Unfortunately, as Nick has pointed out, the physical building does help have a focus for the community and, if done right, can be a centre for sending Christians out to be with others where they are in the communities in which they live and work.

Sorry for being a bit long. It's a hard thing to define as its got a lot to do with love, faith and grace which are, themselves, hard to define.

spotthegerbil said...

"I'm going to the Church"

How many times do people say

"The church came to me?"

We need to be a bit more active in identifying need in the communities in which we serve, and get ourselves to the situation where the church as a body of people rolls up its sleeves and gets stuck in. And I know there are churches and ministries that do just that.

We're doing ourselves no favours by expecting people to come to us, as quite often, the things we do for the community still rely on people coming into our buildings.

In some way we've done everything possible to be a closed shop or exclusive club.

Perhaps if we did a SWOT analysis, not of ourselves, but of the communities we live in, we would be able to work as a catalyst in the community, to enable people both churchy and not churchy to see off the threats to community.

In communities where the post office has shut, should the church be at the centre of the community by offering postal services? What about operating a bank or credit union? Dare I even suggest that the church opens the village pub?

Alison said...

I'm a fond repeater of the "the church isn't the building, its the people" mantra. But one of Eugene Peterson's books (Practicing Ressurection, I think) has some interesting points about the church being THESE people in THIS place at THIS time, and maybe even in THIS building, that gives an interesting incarnational perspective to the question. (I've summarized it badly, its worth a read.)

I'm not sure if you were starting fresh in Scotland whether you'd invent the system of buildings that the Kirk has inherited (especially not the gothic monstrosities that were built during the my-church-is-better-than-yours tit for tat war in the 19th centuary - I was a member of the congregational board in such a church, the maintenance was horrendous). But since you've got them, using them rather than demolishing them seems to make sense.

(Now in a baptist church in France where we worship in a former industrial building that the congregation rebuilt to create a church building.)