Church: a place, a people and a purpose

Warsaw church candles

Every Sunday afternoon I cross the Thames, usually over Millennium Bridge and walk into a conference centre. Some weeks I’m away, but I can’t remember the last time I missed a Sunday I could make.

I go to church.

I walk into a crowd of a few hundred people, more than I can ever know, even their names. And yet, it is the place that I am known. There are people who know my fears, who know my doubts, have seen my failings, have heard my anger. And those who’ve seen me kind, watched me excel, encouraged me to grow, pushed me outwards, upwards, and delved into the places I would choose to keep to myself.

Church is home.

It’s not always easy, it’s frequently hard, painful, annoying, boring, it exhibits all those dreadful traits, the ones we have ourselves but expect the church to be above. For the first eighteen months I went to this church I would arrive as the worship team struck the first chords and slip out as the ministry team offered prayer at the front. I was leading a small group for most of this time, I had responsibility, I welcomed people into a place and into a community that I didn’t feel welcomed in.

Some essential caveats to begin with. I know the church is not about buildings. I grew up in a charismatic congregation began by students in the 1970s, and which my parents joined soon after, it met in schools, colleges, graduated to a lecture hall in Southampton University before buying the old Methodist Central Hall in the city centre. We held a church picnic when the purchase was completed, all I remember was playing hide and seek and finding a nook to hide in the huge organ soon to be ripped from its setting.

I also know that churches are not the only places we can worship God. The motivation behind this post is two fold, firstly the series the Church Times are running on the Church of England and secondly Don Miller’s post about not attending a regular church service. I want to affirm in the strongest possible terms the vitality in worshipping God throughout our lives and not just from the pew. Not that I have ever attended a church with pews. Worshipping God through our work, through our leisure, our relationships, our relaxation, is crucial to a relationship with God that is not restricted to defunct and never applicable categories of the sacred and the secular.

A final caveat, I don’t want to defend the church in its entirety, letting go of my critical faculties. Churches have done some dreadful things, things that defile human dignity and repress our personhood. Authority has sometimes been abused, we have taken shepherd and turned it into an excuse for coercion. We have burnt Qu’rans and said it was about truth, we have insulted and called it liberty.

And yet I love it. I love it for its quirks and I love it for its compassion. I love it for the mission we share, I love it for the community that I am a part of. It’s not just that I might miss out on community, because I could find that elsewhere, but the community misses out on me. As an introvert given to self deprecation not as a device for humour but because of uncertainty and insecurity that is a hard thing to believe. It is hard to believe that others would be worse off were I not there.

It’s hard to believe that beyond the tyranny of small talk that grates as we scratch around for something more, we are embracing the something more. In the meaningless and the trivial, in the laughter and the tears, in the songs, and the sermon, in the prayers and the readings, is more than a time of learning.

Because church at its heart is not a school but a people on a mission.

A tale for a different time is why we have so many churches, why there are churches on opposite sides of the road, both with dwindling congregations but committed to their own patch of ecclesiological turf. The path from a time when churches split because they were right and others were wrong to now when we call for unity in one breadth and commit to work together, yet plant churches defined by dividing lines as irrelevant as lines drawn in the sand about to be consumed by the incoming tide.

I’ve gone to church to keep up appearances. I work for a Christian organisation, it wouldn’t do to not go. It wouldn’t do to entertain doubts. It wouldn’t do to show weakness. And yet when we do, when we take the step of saying everything is not as it should be, that there are cracks beneath the recently replastered surface, we throw ourselves on the grace of those who are there for us. The very willingness to say we attend out of rote shows the benefit of the people we commit to worshipping with.

But church is not just about coming to worship. It is not about singing songs. We sing because it works, where else do we lift our voices in praise to a god? And I would choose to sing to my God because he is worthy of all the adoration, all the embarrassment and singing out of tune that I can muster. It is a reminder that we worship him together and we worship him on our own, we worship when others are looking, discerning sincerity from the angle of the arm lifted in praise. And we worship in the quiet, in the studious, in the productive, in the teaching and in the tantrums of toddlers who disrupt any pretence at sanctity in worship services.

I rarely lean when I listen to church sermons. I learn by doing, by reflecting, by writing, tell me something and I will forget, give me something to figure out and I will work out how it works, or I will embrace the mystery of not always getting it. But when I listen to sermons I am reminded, and I hear what others hear, we listen together, we talk together, reflect, apply, reiterate. As Sarah Bessey put it: Because I know Jesus better when I hear about Him from other people who follow Him, too”.

Church is corporate. Too often it is like a business, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that the church is corporate because it is a place where we come together, and sing together, and listen together, and work out what it means together, we pray together, and we go out together. We are a community on mission together. Church is not just a bunch of people enjoying each other’s company on a weekly basis, it is not just a self-help club, not a place where discipleship is interchangeable with life coaching. It is a community on a mission. A people who find their identity radically redefined through Christ committed to making that opportunity available to many more. The church is there for those who are not (to paraphrase William Temple).

If we stay away, if we are above it, if we do not benefit from it, if our learning styles are ill suited, we can maintain a relationship with God, we can be effective witnesses, but we are only ever a part of the whole.

And I wonder if the message that we are communicating to others is that we matter more than everyone else. I don’t think this is about being a sacrificial lamb for everything the worst of church can throw at you, but it is about prioritising the other. In church we worship the Other and we join with others. We leave self at the door.

A relationship with God is great but it is not all we are called to. Our congregations will fail, they will not live up to the hazy picture painted in Acts, we will not always sacrifice, we will not always exercise authority with wisdom and grace. But a church is a place we come to build a relationship with God in the context of a relationship with others.

It is where we come and share in the bread and wine and we drink to remember. It is where we place the shard of pita bread in our mouth, a scant representation for the sacrifice Christ made, in our weakness and inability to do justice to his turning of the tables.

Church can be in homes, it can be in schools, marquees, lecture halls, conference centres, it can be in cathedrals or monasteries. It can be formal and it can be relaxed, liturgical or free form. I can be called a church or it can be called Christians gathering together to help one another grow, worship God and extend God’s kingdom. It can be innovative or traditional. Form does not matter, its function does.

It is a place we come home to. A people we are known with. A purpose we go out with.

*** Coming next: how much should the church change to encourage more people, especially more younger people to come? ***

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