On Church

Photo: David Butcher, flickr

Following their previous article about history and meaning, Peter Orr and Rory Shiner continue their series on key Christian ideas. Here they introduce the concept of “church” and show why you should get involved in one.


As we saw in our previous post, the modern West struggles to find meaning. Life often seems listless, aimless and disappointing. In the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, we find ourselves asking, “Is that all there is?”

We also struggle to generate community. Life feels disconnected, distant, and lonely. In the words of Queen front man Freddie Mercury, we find ourselves asking, “Can anybody find me somebody to love?”

Of course, we do have Tinder. But Tinder proves the point. We thought we were looking for intimacy. But sixty years into the sexual revolution—and a good decade into letting algorithms find us sexual partners—it turns out we weren’t looking for intimacy. We were looking for community.

But here’s the catch: community requires commitment. We refuse to let go of our freedom. So we end up never having the very thing we need—community.

But here’s the catch: community requires commitment. It requires a decision to forsake a vast range of possible relationships in order to be committed to this set of relationships in particular. And that’s the very thing we struggle to do. Like the monkey holding the banana in the cage, we refuse to let go of the very thing we need to let go of—our freedom. So we end up never having the very thing we need—community.

The Holy Catholic Church

Christians from the very beginning have understood that faith in Jesus involves belonging his people: membership in a community. In the words of the creeds, Christians believe in the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints.

What does it mean to “believe in” the church? The existence of churches is an empirical fact. Believing that there is such a thing as churches isn’t so hard. But believing in the church? What does that mean? Let’s see if we can break it down.

In the creeds, the word “catholic” means something like “universal”, “shared”, “unified-diversity”, “orthodox.” In modern English the word sometimes causes confusion because it can appear to refer to the Roman Catholic church. But any other word we might chose struggles to meet the weight-bearing load of the word ‘catholic’. What’s a word that means “orthodox”, and “unity-in-diversity” and “locally varied”; “Christians across time and space” and “trinitarian”? Better, we think, to use the word which says all that, and then explain what the “all” actually includes.

What does it mean to say the church is “catholic”? It’s easier to grasp by negatives. A church that was not “catholic” would be a sectarian church: fiercely independent, reluctant to acknowledge other churches as genuine, cherishing the notion that what they believe and do is more or less exclusive to them, and taking some delight that (in the words of the Fleetwood Mac song) they have “gone their own way” on some key doctrines.

By contrast, a “catholic” church is a church that cheerfully and joyfully acknowledges that the best things about them are not unique to them. Like the New Testament church in Corinth, these are churches who are glad to recall that they are “together with all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

Church and Churching

In English we speak of “church” and “the church”. If I ask you to meet me at “the church”, you’ll be looking for a building. If I drop the article and ask to meet you “at church”, you’ll be looking for an event at which Christians gather, which may or may not implicate the use of a church building.

The New Testament overwhelmingly uses the word “church” in the second sense. “Church” means gathering.

Why church (gather)?

So why do Christians church? Historically, one might argue, they had no choice. It was the only way they could achieve many important functions. Very few owned a Bible. Many couldn’t read. The only way to hear God’s Word was to get together and listen to it being read. Not many were educated, so they gathered to hear teaching. Not many owned musical instruments, so singing and making music to God was by necessity a group effort. There were no telephones, so sharing prayer-points and knowing each other’s needs required real-time conversation.

Which is all to say they gathered to perform an often folksy and half-baked version of the things your smart phone could do in an instant.

So then, why do Christians still “church”?

We gather simply to be one people. We meet in the flesh, since God gave us bodies. We meet with specific humans because love requires encountering particular people in particular places. We deliberately sacrifice some of our freedom in order to achieve community.

We believe in church. And we believe that what happens in church, when we gather, is almost impossibly brilliant and beautiful:

  • We believe that Christ will be present; that his Spirit will be with us.
  • We believe that that God will speak to us in his Word. We believe that our voices join with angels and archangels in heavenly praise.
  • We believe that we will be participating in the never-ending worship of God that is—right now—being offered in heaven.
  • We believe that our words and songs will please God as they are offered by the Son and through the Spirit.
  • We believe that we strike terror into the hearts of the evil forces—that Satan and his minions will be revealed as cowardly and pathetic before the force of our praises and our declaration of the gospel.

That’s what we believe happens when we gather as a church!

Glorious Misfits

But what will you see if you show up? A bunch of broken, slightly mis-matched people together bashing out a church service that is all too obviously the product of their collective talents and limitations.

  • The music may or may not be to your taste.
  • The preaching may or may not connect with you.
  • There will be a restless toddler challenging your powers of concentration, and his parent’s sanity.
  • You’ll meet a needy, lonely guy who is most likely there because church is his best shot at a friendly interaction in an otherwise socially sparse existence.

As a group of people, we don’t always Instagram well. During the service, you won’t always get All The Feels.

I (Rory) am a pastor. Running a church is kind of my job. And by the grace of God (and if I may say so myself) our church is okay. Most weeks the singing, the preaching (in my humble opinion) and the fellowship are adequate, even decent. And yet, most Sundays, I have to decide to go to church. If my criteria for church attendance was “is this the thing I most want to do right now” I think I’d be clocking in a 2/52 annual attendance record.

It’s the same with running. I never want to go running. I hate running. I prefer burgers. If I ran based on the “this is the thing I most want to do right now” metric, the results would be grim. But I do run. It’s only rarely because at that moment I want to run. I run because I want to have run. I want to be the person who has gone for a run. I want the result of running. And, truth be told, I do actually enjoy it, nine times of out ten, when I’ve overcome my initial resistance.

I run because I want to have run. I want to be the person who has gone for a run. I want the result of running. It’s the same with church.

It’s the same with church. Mostly, I don’t want to go to church. But I want to have gone to church. I want to be the person that church is forming me to be; to be and become the person that that motley crew of people are shaping me into as we both give and receive God’s grace. Once I allow my will to override my feelings, I’m almost always glad I went.

Almost certainly, within travel distance of your home there are a group of Christians who gather each week to perform an imperfect rendition of the common life they believe God has called them to: singing God’s praises; hearing God’s Word; confessing their sins; seeking forgiveness; greet each other—not because they are like each other, but because they follow the same Lord. Local churches are like an amateur local theatre troupe, playing out the script God wrote for them with heart and verve.

If you show up there you’ll be meeting a group of people who have already prayed for you. They will already have asked God to bless you, to reveal himself to you, and to show you the way to salvation. Most likely, these prayers will have been general, rather than specifically naming you. But the chances that you’ve been prayed for by name by a Christian you know are very high. And if you go to a local church, I am certain someone will have said a quiet prayer for you in particular after having met you or seen you there.

The chances that you’ve been prayed for by name by a Christian you know are very high. And if you go to a local church, I am certain someone will have said a quiet prayer for you.

If you commit your life to Jesus, it will begin with prayer. And when you first pray it won’t—if I can put it this way—be the first God’s heard of you. Christians will have got in ahead of you, asking God to hear and answer your prayers. I hope you find that strangely encouraging.

Conclusion

Christianity is a team sport. It is a life we live together. On the one hand Church lifts us up out of the particulars of time, place, ethnicity, and language. It connected us with heaven, with God, and with God’s people across time and space. That is what we mean by “Catholic”.

But, paradoxically, church is also the thing that embeds us in place, that ties us to a particular group of people, in a particular time and space. Churches are formed by shared interest, communion, in the one Lord. It is here that God chiefly provides what we need to keep living for him. And, in doing so, he provides something that modern western life seems so conspicuously unable to deliver—imperfect but real community.

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