As we leave behind the lazy, hazy days of summer, as we return to a busier time in the life and work of our church, it might be a good time to consider the question, “What, exactly is the church?” I will, humbly, offer some thoughts in answering this question.
I remember a little song that goes:
The church is not a building
The church is not a steeple
The church is not a resting place
The church is a people.
So often people identify the church as the building in which people meet for worship. Others think of ‘church’ as a place where certain rites and traditions are preserved and upheld for generations, and even centuries. And some understand ‘church’ as a homogenous community concerned for its members’ spiritual well being. But ‘church’ is not these things, or not just these things.
The word ‘church’ in the Bible comes from the Greek word ecclesia, which means a called out company or assembly. It is a people called out of the world, into a gathered community, on Sunday morning or other times set aside for worship, so as to be in the world in a certain way the rest of the week.
I’ve heard it said that the church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of non-members. There is truth to that statement. In the Bible the church is described as the ‘body of Christ’. The people who make up the ‘church’, are to be the hands, feet, mind, voice, spirit of Christ in the world. The ‘church’ is made up of people who follow Jesus Christ and seek to follow his example and his teachings in their relationship to one another and in their dealings with the world.
The church is a worshipping community, a community whose members care for one another, and a people who seek to live out the Way of Christ – the way of love, peace, and justice.
The ‘church’ is an institution with a major purpose that of fulfilling in practical ways the great commandments: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind AND to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. The United Church of Canada is not a ‘creedal’ church – that is, we do not adhere strictly to statements of belief, to doctrinal statements that set out certain understandings of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the Church, etc. Statements of belief are succinct summaries of faith or guidelines for faithful living. Within the United Church of Canada, these are dynamic statements, not static; that is, they change over time. Since the inception of the United Church in 1925, the Church has had four statements of belief to guide its life and work.
To my mind, the church exists within the context of historical time, geographical place, as well as cultural, social, and political realities and is ever adapting to, critical of, and challenged by these factors of time, place, and external realities. As United Church members, we struggle to discern what it is God desires us to be in and for the world. We engage the world with love, to be sure, but also we see the world with a critical eye, looking through the lens of the ways and example of Jesus.
Let me offer for your consideration, as we think about the meaning and purpose of ‘church’, excerpts from two of the United Church of Canada’s Statements of Belief. Firstly, the ‘New Creed’:
…We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen
our judge and our hope…..
And from the most recent Statement of Belief – “A Song of Faith” (2006)
….We sing of a church seeking to continue the story of Jesus
by embodying Christ’s presence to the world.
We are called together by Christ as a community of broken but hopeful
believers, loving what he loved, living what he taught, striving to be
faithful servants of God in our time and place. ….
The church has not always lived up to its vision.
It requires the Spirit to reorient it,
helping it to live an emerging faith while honouring tradition,
challenging it to live by grace rather than entitlement,
for we are called to be a blessing to the earth.
We sing of God’s good news lived out, a church with purpose:
faith nurtured and hearts comforted,
gifts shared for the good of all,
resistance to the forces that exploit and marginalize
fierce love in the face of violence,
human dignity defended,
members of a community held and inspired by God,
corrected and comforted,
instrument of the loving Spirit of Christ,
You and I are the church. We are the church together. God calls us to be the church. By God’s grace we will live out our high calling as the church, the body of Christ, caring for one another, and serving our neighbours, lovingly, near and far.