What is church? Is it the worship event? The celebration of the sacraments? The preaching of a profound and wise sermon? Is it the people who gather on Sunday morning at 10 or 11 am?
John Alexander has noted that it is an accident of language that in English we use the same word for the building as we do for the community which inhabits it. This linguistic quirk helps explain how we can say that we are going to church while also saying that we are the church. Because of this verbal conflation, it is often a short-hand convenience for us to think of “church” as what happens during a specific, carefully-planned hour on a Sunday morning. In other words, the announcements, the hymns, the passing of the peace, the words of confession, the prayers, preaching—all of it—is what most people think of when they hear the word “church.”
And more and more people—of all ages—want less and less to do with that.
As a church planter I’ve had opportunity to experiment with alternative forms of church. We’ve held worship services and gatherings in a historic bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC, in a former insane asylum in Northern Michigan, on the beach, in living rooms, in a yoga studio, and yes, even in church buildings.
What I’ve found is that people enjoy the rhythm of regular gatherings, but they don’t come to church primarily for the sermon or the songs, and certainly not for the offering. They come, in my experience, for two things: community and transformation.
By community, I mean relationships. Connection. Finding a place to be welcome, known, accepted, and loved. A place where one discovers gifts and finds a new way to use them. In a time when it is easier and easier to isolate ourselves to our own private dwellings and online spaces, people are hungering for face-to-face relationships. They are longing for meaningful friendships that encourage and inspire them.
A reason many have left church is because they’ve experienced communities where they are not welcome: they have too many tattoos, or don’t have a steady job, or are single, or gay—in other words—they are made to feel that they don’t fit. I preached at a church recently where a transgendered person shared that she had nearly killed herself before finding that particular community, because she had never been accepted in a church community before. We celebrated her presence among us, while also mourning her prior experiences.
An activity that has been personally meaningful for me has been that of Pub Theology—gathering with friends and strangers at a local bar for conversations on life and faith. Here there is no barrier of belief or moral behavior. All are welcome, whether believer or doubter, worshiper or skeptic, Hindu or Christian, gay or straight, single or married, black or white. And here the goal is not converting, but conversing. I’ve enjoyed many a conversation—and relationship—with area atheists, Buddhists, spiritual-but-not-religious folks and others who often are not necessarily interested in “church,” but are longing for relationships in a setting of dialogue, conversation, welcome and safety. Many would look at such a gathering, where there is no preaching and no prayers, and wonder if this has anything at all to do with church. If relationships are forming, and conversation is centering on life and faith and meaning and values—I think it has everything to do with church.
The second thing I think people are looking for in a community of faith is transformation. By transformation, I mean change and growth. Personal growth. Communal change. Justice. People long to work with others for the common good. When churches simply focus on an individualized theology of personal salvation or have an excessive focus on the afterlife, more and more people—especially millenials—respond with a “so what?” shrug. If a church community isn’t invested in its own city and the neighborhood(s) its members belong to, some wonder why it even exists.
A number of communities will find it necessary to provide theological grounding for a focus on justice and transformation of this sort. The Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood is said to have observed that “the historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” The man from Nazareth’s opening sermon in Luke noted that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed. If those are the things that God cares about, our church communities would do well to care about those things as well. And it might well be that spending regular time serving and eating meals with hungry people will help you learn more about Jesus than a good sermon.
Another way for church communities to begin to tap into this hunger for social change and communal transformation is to invite area leaders to speak and share what they are doing and what local needs and issues are. Those who have been working for safe neighborhoods, local housing efforts, and area justice issues are going to help spark ideas for a church community to begin to think about how the gospel message of good news for the poor might relate to people in their own town. You might also have sermons based on the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, or small groups that study activists in the history of the church, as well as groups that gather regularly to serve in local areas of need.
Church can come in many different forms. It may include a traditional building, it may not own a lick of property. It may have traditional worship services, it may have atypical gatherings in settings not often thought of as sacred. But most importantly, when someone asks, “What is church?” I’d like to think that it at least includes a community of meaningful relationships working for the common good.