What is church for?

A very good friend and I were having an in depth discussion last night based around the (somewhat ambiguous) question “what is church for?

The pastor of our church had been asked this question and had answered the following:

It’s easier to love God, love each other and love the world in a group, than on our own.
Our shared life helps us to:
– worship God & pray;
– provoke each other to love & good deeds; 
– serve one another including those of us who are poor or suffering;
– work together on behalf of each other & those outside the church
Our church community should be the most attractive thing of all to non-members.
All of these things are partially true for an individual Christian – but only have the possibility of real fruition if we share our lives together.

So, this got us talking. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the above statements, but then I’m not sure if this is the sort of question where you get a ‘right’ answer that you are fully happy with… What is church for?!? What is church? Where does the Christian stop and the church begin? How does our ideal for church relate to the institutions we see around us? 

For my friend, it was the wrong question. The issues and imperfections of the institutions we see round about us mean that we can’t ask this in terms of ‘church’, because surely that is a loaded term that will always draw out the “what should our institution act like?” mindset. For him the root of what we should be is based on individual transformation. As Bonhoeffer said:

“…the Christian life is the participation in the encounter of Christ with the world

Which is totally right, but for me still falls short.

Yes, we have to base our questioning of “what we should be” on a strong understanding of “who we should be”. We should talk in the terms of discipleship and spiritual formation. But even if our understanding of spiritual formation is a more corporate one, there is still a need to move beyond what are inherently individualistic expressions.

I, as an individual Christian, am called to “participate in the encounter of Christ with the world”. But we, not I, are called to be the body of Christ. This is a corporate undertaking, a calling that cannot be fulfilled by individuals, no matter how godly they may be.

Jesus said to His disciples that they (corporately) would be known by how they loved each other. Paul said that “you (plural) are the body of Christ” and “your body (both plural) is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. These are famous quotes that we all know, but do we really take on board the genuinely corporate and cooperative understanding behind them? Or how incredibly challenging they are?

We are the body of Christ. Not the image of the body of Christ, but Christ’s actual body. When we speak to someone on the street it is not just us, it is Jesus; when we feed the poor it is Jesus reaching out and feeding them, not us. When our words or actions towards the world are hostile then the world receives a hostile Christ, because all they see of Him is us.

This is not something we can embody as individuals, because not one of us could live up to the challenge. Where my non-Christian friends know only me as a Christian… well what distorted image of Jesus they must get. It is very deliberate that we are called to be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, to be church together. Because together we can reveal the love Jesus talked about, together the collective image should burn brighter than the messes of our individual lives…

What is church for?
Church is called to be the body, the hands and feet and face, of Jesus. Not to participate in the encounter of Christ with the world, but to be the encounter of Christ with the world. It is to enact the Mission of God, bring in the Kingdom of God; to reveal God to the world. How should the world know Jesus? They should see Him in our shared life together.

***

Of course, my friend has a point; you can’t talk about church without getting bogged down in institutions at some point. And one thing that is very clear is quite how much of a mess our institutions can be (and what a bad image of Christ they can project).

Let me be clear; there never will be a perfect institution. We can’t pack up our churches, move and create some new, perfect church that will truly be the body of Christ. As individuals we are all ‘cracked eikons’, broken vases, dim reflections of the Glory of God. Our institutions are automatically more fractured than the individuals that make them, too often reflecting human greed, pride and avarice as much as the image of God. The institution cannot be the answer; but that doesn’t mean we can reduce our search to the individual out of despair for the future of the corporate.

Tertullian said:

wherever three are gathered, that is church”.

Visible church; invisible church; true church: that’s not where it’s at. Church is the fellowship of believers, the gathering of individuals Christians around a common goal. It may be nothing so organised as three friends praying in a room, seeking to love and inspire each other and to keep each other accountable. As long as it is plugged in to a greater awareness, a sense of ‘church’ as the body of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, then we’re getting there…

***

You may have guessed, from reading the above, that this is still something I’m bashing out. There will be many more conversations like the one last night, with lots of different friends. This is an internal dialogue of mine that I’m now expanding to as many people as possible, because I really want to get to an answer. It may be, as my friend last night suggested, the result of reading too many emerging church blogs, but it’s a path I’ve gone too far down now.

I hope this post has stirred your thoughts, even as it is helping me work through mine.
Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “What is church for?

  1. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on in this post. The purpose and nature of the church are issues that have not been settled in the history of the Church. There have been many attempts. Yet, the question remains. You are correct, there will not be a perfect church this side of the return of Christ, yet what we have is the church. With all it’s faults, imperfections and problems.
    But, in a real sense that simply is a reflection of all those who compose the body of Christ, remember that Jesus at the last supper with Judas, Peter and Thomas, all of whom would deny him or betray him. Yet, he embraced them, loved them, and welcomed them into his fellowship.
    A few traits of the church that are essential, at least in my opinion, would be a commitment to Christ, and to a group of believers (that we will worship together regularly, that we will receive discipline and give discipline, that we will enter into meaningful and deep relationships, that we will share our faith within and without of the body). and to prayer and worship.

    peace,
    Kevin

  2. I am in the midst of “bashing” this out as well, writing a ThM thesis of which an important part is a rubric by which one can evaluate an ecclesiology. My focus has been the four marks in the AD 381 Nicene creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Over and over, the various authors have mentioned the difference between what the church is and what the church ought to be. Over and over they have stuck to the four marks, saying that this is what we are, even though our physical form often does not come close. Over and over, the we-ness has been declared over the I-ness. As an American Christian, the journey from I-ness to we-ness has been (and is) difficult. So much of my language is individual. Still, the New Testament makes it quite clear that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a member of his Body, the church.

    And, I, I am still on the journey to we-ness, learning how to journey together.

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