Thursday, February 9, 2012

What do we need to be a church?

Most clergy have had a conversation that goes something like this.

"So, what do you do?"

"I'm a minister. Of a church."

"Oh, how interesting. Personally, I need a church to find God. I can worship God just as well on the golf course."

Most of us ministers are too polite to say anything in response to this kind of lame excuse.

But it does raise the question: Just what do you need to be a Christian? What do you need to have to be a church?

The problem with the golf course comment is that one thing Christians do need is other Christians. You can have a vague sense of spirituality on your own, but Christianity is a really communal kind of faith. We live out our Christian faith in the company of other Christians from whom we learn, and with whom we live and grow. That's why the New Testament compares the church to a body with many members. Christians need community.

But beyond that, and faith in Jesus, what do we need in order to be considered a church? If you are over a certain age and grew up in the church, you might say, "A building," "A minister," perhaps "A choir," or "A pulpit."

But in this "post-Christian" age, when the church is no longer at the centre of society, many -- maybe most -- of the things we once thought were essential, that you couldn't have a church if you didn't have them, are becoming less and less important.

When the Christian church started, and within a few years spread throughout the ancient world, it didn't have any of these things. There were no buildings, other than people's houses. There were no ministers, in the sense of specially educated professionals who led the church. There were no choirs, or hymn books or pulpits.

And just like they didn't need these things back then, people are discovering that we don't need them now. And all over Canada, the United States and Europe -- but especially in the areas of the world where Christianity is exploding in new growth, like China, Africa and Latin America -- communities of Christians are forming that have very few of the trappings that many of us grew up thinking you couldn't have a church without.

The fact is, it's getting harder and harder to maintain the infrastructure of the church that existed even fifty years ago. The cost of keeping a building and paying a full-time minister is getting to be prohibitive. For that reason, churches are beginning to close.

The deeper reason behind why it's getting harder, though, is that spiritually hungry people are no longer finding nourishment in many of the things that churches think they have to do if they're going to be a church -- putting on a Sunday worship service, paying somebody to visit you in the hospital, conducting weddings and funerals, or having space to hold all kinds of mid-week groups and activities.

Spiritually hungry people are searching for communities that will connect them with God and give meaning to their lives, and teach them how to make a difference in a hurting a broken world.

So, what do we need to have if we're going to do that? What's essential? And what can we get along without?

I'd appreciate comments on these questions. And I'll address them further in future posts.

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