Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What Is the Church?

This is my Minister's Corner article from last Saturday's Shawnee News Star, October 24, 2015

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.”
                                     John 15:4-5, the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, ©1989.

            What is the Church? I’ve been pondering this question of late. I can offer a scripture-based answer. The Church is the body of Christ in the world. The Church gives feet to the love of God in Jesus. However, others have proposed that my question can also be answered in more secular terms; the Church is a gathering of like-minded individuals; a voluntary association that can be joined – or left.

            It’s not difficult to claim that the first answer is the correct one. I suspect that most folks reading this article, regardless of denomination, would agree that the Church is meant to proclaim the gospel of good news, and do the work of Jesus in the world. That is the answer. That is what scripture tells us. So bam, there ya go. There is no problem here. There is no question to ponder. The Church is Christ’s body in the world. Wrap up your article, Amy, and let’s move on.

            Yet I cannot seem to move on. It isn’t that I don’t agree with the scriptural answer to my question. I do, wholeheartedly. But my question about the Church’s identity remains. Why? Why do I have this feeling of dis-ease when it comes to this question? I suspect that it is because many church-going folks (I’m at the front of this line) proclaim the first answer but we live the second one.

            The Church is a gathering of like-minded individuals; a voluntary association that can be joined and un-joined. Why are we members of the churches we attend? Why are we affiliated with one denomination versus another? What keeps us going to our churches? What makes us leave? I’m sure the answers are many and varied. I’m a (fill-in-the-blank with your chosen denomination) because this is the church I grew up in. I used to be one denomination but when I moved, I couldn’t find a church in my own denomination that I liked, so I joined this one. I grew up in one church, but when I got married, I joined my spouse’s church. I’d like to go to that other church down the street, but they don’t have any programs for kids, so I attend this other church instead. I’m a member at this church because I like the preaching, music, people, etc. I’m not a member at that church because I don’t like the preaching, music, people, etc.

            I could probably go on and on with the list of reasons for church membership, but I think you get my point. Some of you may be saying, “Amy, your examples are about different denominations, church in the lowercase. But your question is about the Church with a capital C. Sure, our denominations are different, but we are all members of the Church.” Yet, whether it is the Church or the church, our words say one thing and our behavior says another. Are we joiners of a church, a gathering of like-minded individuals? Or are we the Church?

            Is a church something we join or is it something that we are? That is the heart of the question I have been asking. Yet, I think that I’m going the wrong way regardless of the direction I choose. Because implied in both answers is the mindset that all of it is in our hands. We are the church. We are the Church.  It is what we do, what we say, what we control. But Jesus told his disciples, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” Apart from me – that is the ultimate answer. The Church and the church are not about us. They are about God in Christ, the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Good News. We do not make the Church. We are made the Church. It is not about us. It is about God. It is about the Vine. Yes, we are the branches. As branches trying to be faithful, we stretch our tendrils outward into a world that is longing for life. But the branches do not grow apart from the Vine. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. We do not make the church or the Church, God does. We are called to follow. Thanks be to God.

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