I miss going to church on Sunday.
Our church has decided to not meet during COVID-19. We are taking what we consider to be the safe, love your neighbor approach. Other churches have chosen a middle ground approach: modified meetings in public. Others have chosen to simply meet. Surrounding the challenges and variations of Sunday gatherings of believers is an underlying and necessary conversation: What is the Church?
The Church is not a building
I spent 30 years preaching that the church is not a building , the church is people.
Both of those messages fell on “agreeably-deaf” ears. We all shook our heads in agreement, then summarily ignored the message as we left the building. We agreed with the message, but the underlying false assumption was never abandoned. We retained the idea that the church is a building.
It makes sense that we wouldn’t abandon the idea that the church is a building. When we examine the budgets of churches what we find is that the vast majority of our money is spent on buildings and staff, what I call “pastors and pews.” It defies the definition of the church that we preach: The church is not a building.
Our money declares, the church is a building and the pastors role is key (and the pastor’s role primarily is expressed within the walls of the building). Our treasure investment shapes our definition of church – no matter what we say inside the church.
This value is being played out now as we struggle with being restricted from our building. Our feelings resist, we feel we are not the church if we don’t visit the building. This feeling is not one that is to be nurtured, during this time we need to reenvision our sense of the church. We need to return to the original blueprint, and that blueprint didn’t include a building.
It is a perfect expression of the fundamental difference between stated and actual values. Our stated values are that we believe in the Great Commission and the task of disciple-making in the field which is the world. Our actual value is that we believe that worship and teaching are the primary, essential, and oftentimes only activities of the church.
The Church is not a place we go
I spent 30 years preaching that the church is not something we go to, the church is something that is sent out.
Now, with shelter at home orders, the essential activities as we deem necessary are at risk. We cannot meet and sing and hug and fellowship, and it looks like that might be extended. Our inadequate definition of the church is causing us anxiety. This anxiety causes us to ask the wrong questions and insist on the wrong actions.
The fundamental question facing churches in this time is not how/when will we resume church services. The fundamental question facing churches in this time is how do we function outside our formerly narrow definition of the church?
The truth is that we either do things differently, or we should abandon our church buildings for good.
COVID-19 is an apocalypse for the US Church. It is a rare evaluation moment that has pulled back the curtain to reveal that we have not been doing our job. We should figure it out.
The Church is people, mobilized
The primary metaphor for the church is a body. The body is not one person, but many people who make up the one body. The anti-metaphor for the church is a building. Paul uses both these metaphors in the book of Corinthians. He says, you are the body of Christ. He says, you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The church is not a physical building. It is many people called to imitate Christ. It is fascinating that we only have scant evidence of Jesus being in the temple/synagogue. He makes a brief appearance in Luke 4, and generally when we see him in one of those pre-church-building buildings, he is making trouble or being kicked out.
The Church is an expanded expression of Incarnation
When we think of ourselves, our bodies, we can think of them in two categories: Our inner self; our outer self.
My inner self has to do with my own person. It has to do with self-care. It has to do with my mental, emotional, intellectual parts. I am to love God with my heart, mind, and soul.
My outer self has to do with my own person’s expression to others. It has to do with my relationships and my offerings to others. From the wealth of my inner person I am able to serve and love others. I am to love God with my …strength which might also be defined as loving my neighbor.
The church mirrors this on a corporate level.
We have an inner self as the church which is encapsulated in the activities of worship, teaching, sacrament, spiritual discipleship/development.
We have an outer self which is expressed in obedience to the Royal Law and the Great Commission. We love our neighbor as we love our self, we tell others that God is for them and loves them and available to them. We do that best when we are there for them, love them, and are available to them.
Our scorecard as the church as a whole has been entirely focused on the inner self. I can say this with confidence because I know what our church budgets are focused on. Examine any church budget and you will see that we spend upwards of 90% of our money on caring for ourselves. Our buildings, staff, expenditures go to maintaining our campus related activities which are by definition self-care. It’s that treasure and heart verse.
That is why we are so displaced and uncomfortable right now. We are like a virgin groom on his wedding night. We don’t quite know how to do it. The church is floundering in expressing itself today because we don’t know how to be Jesus to the world outside our church walls. We have created a false world where we hide from our true calling. And most frightening is that it reveals that we really don’t want to do the other part of our Christianity. We don’t want the outer self-expression because it isn’t pretty. We have to extend a hand to the homeless, the orphan, the elderly, the other and that is difficult, uncomfortable, demanding.
This is a sacred moment for the church. We would never had have to face our weakness so dramatically without this apocalypse, this unveiling of our neglectful weakness. Since we have invested so much in self-care over decades of church expression, we could easily endure a season where we forsake a focus on the self to jump into the work of the cross on the highways and byways. Missionaries do this work all the time. Missionaries rarely have the luxury of a 1,000 seat sanctuary with an orchestra/choir/worship team and top notch preacher encouraging their soul every week. They are working from a store of energy that they have built up in preparation for service. You have that same source of strength.