This is part three in an emerging series. If you’re just starting here, you’re not up to speed. Context is everything, so I hope you’ll go back and read part one and part two first.  If you have your homework done, feel free to read on…

Also, this is a transitional post, so I’ll be spending most of my time here doing some important background-thinking which will help me to get ready for the next post.

This is a quick survey of three things that seem helpful to me in sorting through all the talk about church. Here they are:

  1. Discussing church along the lines of what churches have.
  2. Discussing church along the lines of what churches do.
  3. Discussing church along the lines of what church actually is.
What churches have…

The whole idea of  having vs. being is a constant human preoccupation. It infects many of our discussions about church too.

  • I have about eight pairs of  jeans
  • I have an iMac computer
  • I have a beard
  • I have about 25 pounds more weight on my body than seems appropriate
  • I have a 1998 dark green Honda Accord
  • I have an X-box
  • I have a B.A. in Organizational Leadership and an M.A. in New Testament

The things I have are a help to me in many ways.  But the things I have, and what/who I am are not the same thing. The power of commercial marketing has fooled all of us into forgetting that.  Marketing tells us that if we don’t have something, we cease to be whole, relevant, or legitimate people.

What about this?

“We have a new building that seats a thousand! We have 800 people. We have three services now. We have a youth ministry, a women’s ministry, and a men’s ministry. We have a famous pastor who has written books. We have missions trips every Summer. We have six associate pastors. We have a homeless outreach program. We have a website. We have a Facebook page. We have a video-streaming page. We have three new campuses in our multi-site initiative.”

Here’s the challenge when talking about church in much of the North American context – and I’ll pass the challenge on to you. How often, when you talk about church (the idea of church) and the church you’re part of in particular, are you talking about what your church has rather than what your church is? Try, for one week, to talk about your church without talking at all about what you have. Try instead to talk about what your church is. If you had to limit yourself to talking about what your church is (or what Church is), what would you focus on?

Let me give you a personal example…

When I was pastoring in California, there was a Naval base about fifteen miles from where our church met (notice I didn’t say “fifteen miles from our church,” because I don’t think of church as a location, and that language is very intentional, irritating as it might be).

Anyway, one Saturday night, I got an email from a young man in the Navy looking for a church. He found our website, sent me an email asking a few questions about the church, and left his phone number. Since I had served in the Navy myself when I was younger, I decided to call him and reach out to him. The first question out of his mouth after we introduced ourselves was, “What do you guys have for people my age?”

My immediate response was, “We have people my age for people your age.” He laughed and asked me if I was serious. I told him that our ministry values were centered on discipling relationships rather than a providing a menu of ministries and programs catering to the needs of every sub-culture within our church. I explained that if that was what he was looking for, he might not like our church.  I said, “You’re 19, in the Navy, and trying to grow in your faith.  I was 19, in the Navy, and trying to grow in my faith 25 years ago. Wouldn’t you rather hang out with me than with a bunch of people your own age who don’t know any more than you – and who have all the same problems you have?” He joined our gathering the next morning, and came to my house for lunch later that day.

This next observation may sting or seem unfair, but I’ll make it anyway because it’s like an elephant in the room from my perspective.  In the city where I currently live, there are around 1,215 churches listed online.  I have done the demographic research on church attendance, and there are about 1 in 4 people going to these 1,215 churches. That means that in a town of about 448,000 people there are 112,000 people going to 1,215 churches. That makes the average size of a congregation in my city about 92 people.  But actually, there are several mega-churches in this city, and several very large churches too, so it’s likely that the smaller churches have a much smaller number of people in their memberships.  What do all of these churches have?  Well, from what I can tell, they have hundreds and hundreds of buildings, costing realistically billions of dollars when you include the land, buildings, utilities, and maintenance. They have hundreds of millions of dollars of income together every year. They have video equipment, websites, schools, parking lots, worship bands, preachers, events, playgrounds, offices, classrooms, and every kind of church activity you can imagine. You could say without too much exaggeration that they form, together, the largest, richest, and most resourced group of people in the entire city. And with these tens of thousands of people in billions of dollars worth of facilities, giving tens or hundreds of millions of dollars every year — one in four people in the city (25%) claims to be part of a church. Another way of looking at it is that 3 out of 4 people in my city do not belong to one of these 1215 churches.

I will bring this up again in the next post, but for now my question for contemplation is…

What could 112,000 Jesus people do to reach a city if their time, resources, and energy was not being spent (to the tune of multiple billions of dollars) maintaining their organizational structures and their things?

I think it’s an honest question for the American Church, and needs a lot of re-thinking (metanoia).

A final question here, then I’ll move on. How does the underground church in China multiply into the millions of disciples in a few short decades without any of the things we have?

If we can get past the knee-jerk tendency to be defensive, I think we’ll see that it’s a fair question, and it speaks to our faithful stewardship (vs. what may be a colossal multi-generational misappropriation) of our collective time, our collective resources, and our collective mission in the American version of Church.

What churches do…

The second thing many of us end up talking about when discussing church is what our church is doing. The same thing happens in personal relationships. Since I’ve been here in Virginia Beach, I have been asked, “So what do you do here in Virginia?” more times than I can count.  I am expected to talk about my job, so I do.

Churches talk about what they do too, and this becomes the way many participants think of church.

I was recently on a church website that introduced the church via “what we do” this way…

“We teach verse-by-verse through the Bible.”

I taught verse-by-verse through the Bible for 12 years, and I have a huge value for that. But it was interesting to me that this was the most important (and the first thing) the website said about the church.

If you go to church on the basis of what a church does, that may attract you. However, this says nothing about whether or not the church’s verse-by-verse biblical conclusions are correct, but that’s fodder for another post.

When I went through church planter’s bootcamp in 2001, we were encouraged to spend about two hours charting a one-year course of our new church’s primary activities so that we could plan them out and have something to do for the first year together.

When would we meet? What would we do with youth, men, women, children, and young adults? What would we do for seniors and missionaries? Would we do a mid-week service, a Sunday school, have home groups, or an age-based discipleship program? Would our music be contemporary or traditional? Would we teach topically or verse-by-verse? Would we buy a building or stay mobile? Would we plant more churches or would we just grow numerically — or perhaps do a  multi-site model?

So much energy was spent focusing on what we would do.

While I was pastoring, I spent a lot of energy on this too — especially as new people would come to the church. And guess what most of them would ask when they’d come? Not – “What do you think church is, at its core?” Nope. Instead, “What does this church do for kids, teens, men, women, young adults, etc.?” These are the questions people ask when they think of church as “doing” and “having” rather than first thinking of church as “being.”

Someone in my family recently had a conversation with a person about their church, and the person went on and on about what their church is doing. I’ve heard these conversations more times than I can count.

  • We’re doing a comedy night. You should come. What does your church do for contextualized outreach?
  • We’re doing a big men’s breakfast. You should come. What does your men’s ministry do?
  • We’re doing a carnival on Easter. You should come. What are you doing for Easter?
  • We’re doing a women’s tea. You should come. What does your women’s ministry do?
  • We’re doing a Christmas play. You should come. What is your church doing for Christmas?
  • We’re doing a concert. You should come. Does your church ever do concerts?
  • We’re doing a clothes-give-away to the homeless. What does your church do for the homeless?

Doing. Doing. Doing.

There was a man who was part of our church for a couple of years who had come from another larger church in our town. He remarked one day, “It was really expensive and time-consuming to go to that church.” Shocked, I asked him what he meant. He said, “There is always an event for something, and you’re always being told during the announcements to sign up, get your tickets, apply online, get ’em while they’re hot, etc. There were comedy nights, roller skating, concerts, camps, simulcasts, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. In addition to tithing, my wife and I figured that if we just attended all of the age/demographic-appropriate events the church had, we would end up spending anywhere from 30-100 dollars a month on tickets. We realized that our lives revolved around doing stuff with the church all the time. It was never-ending and expensive.”

There is no doubt that there are things to do. We have a mission, after all. But that mission flows from something besides a church calendar filled with activities to make us all feel like we’re part of something legitimate and busy doing stuff.  Mission flows from identity and relationship.  And that conviction informs the next section in this post.

What church is…

When I was pastoring, people would ask me, “So what do you do?” I’d tell them, “I pastor a church. It’s called The Oasis.”  The next question was always, “O really? Where is it?” My answer for twelve straight years was always something like…

“Well, that’s a tough question. I think, they’re probably mostly at work right now, though we have a few people who work nights, and quite a number of stay-at-home-moms too. Most of the kids, I assume, are at school. But if you’re wondering where we meet on Sundays, that’s a different question.”

Then I’d smile and wait…

I always got a stunned look, then a smile or a curious chuckle from almost every person when I gave this answer because in our American context, most churches are identified as a building at some address.

I always talked about our location as “the place we meet,” and I always talked about the various buildings we used as “facilities,” and never as “the Church” (such as the default “We’re all meeting at the church at 9 am, then driving from there to the camp-site.”).

I don’t believe, and never will believe (or talk as if I believe) that church is a location. It is people. So, I irritatingly and constantly resist any allusion to church as a building. If someone says, “He’s at the church right now,” I usually say something like, “You mean at the building where the church meets?” If I ask about a location, I ask “What’s the address where you gather?” This is rooted in intentionality and an attempt to preserve my own convictions about what church is (and what it is not).

In the first few months after we started The Oasis, we became much more intentional about how we set up the room we were using for worship. One Sunday morning, one of our families came to our rented facility a bit early, and as they walked in the door, the husband said, “Man, it’s really starting to look like a church in here now!” My immediate response was, “Interestingly, that’s exactly what I was thinking when your family walked into this room. Before you got here, it just felt like a room filled with furniture and sound equipment.”

These two very different perspectives touch on the question, “What is church?” In the original Facebook post that prompted this whole series, I left the following comment in the comment-threads when discussion turned to defining church. Here’s what I wrote (with a bit of outline-editing)…

I am working hard to pare down my own ecclesial definitions (in terms of dynamics) and what I have so far is —

  1. The multi-ethnic (Jew-Gentile) People of God,
  2. intentionally gathered…
  3. around Jesus as Lord,
  4. announcing together the reign of God in Jesus —
  5. and calling the nations (by teaching them) to follow Jesus as the world’s only legitimate King.

This working definition of what church is will provide the outline for the entire next post (or two), so if you want to stay with me as I mine through it, you’ll have to wait for that one.

Charting the course on the ecclesial journey

This exercise of getting back to church is much easier for me now that I am not simultaneously trying to manage and grow the congregation and organization that I started as I work out my ecclesial convictions and practices.

In my own present ecclesial journey, I have purposefully walked away (for an extended season) from everything that has to do with “having” anything, and I have stopped “doing” everything related to church as I know it. I will do this carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully, and relationally until I can re-connect in my heart and mind to exactly what church is (that is, “What does it mean to be church?”).

For me, the journey began with the first step of letting go of everything I had. In my case that even meant intentionally and willingly letting go of my role and relationship to the church I started. And it continues now with the second step of re-thinking about church solely in terms of what church is without thinking of what church has or what a church does.

My own commitment is to strip everything related to having and doing away from my ideas about church, and get to what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. Only after doing that hard work, will I journey back to engaging in church with being as the driving idea.

Here’s what that means in practical terms —

I will not be part of any congregation on the basis of what they have or do not have, and I won’t join groups or leave groups of gathering Christians on the basis of what they do or do not do as my starting place. For me, the starting place for connecting to fellow Jesus-people in anything I’d call church will center on a shared idea about what church is in the first place.  If a group of people being church together don’t agree on that, then things will devolve into thinking about church as having and doing first, instead of being — and I’ve done that for too long. That is part of my past, but it isn’t part of my present, nor will it be part of my future.

And finally — This is part of my own ecclesial journey, and may not need to be part of yours. I am sharing it with you because I want you to know that I am not just thinking about these things, then blogging about them here. I am living them out every day, and processing the whole thing very intentionally.

I invite you to share your own perspectives, questions, input, challenges, or even your own journey in the comment threads below. I would love to interact with you.