Is the Essence of Church in its People or its Buildings?

Montage of inside and outside of church

There’s an old children’s rhyme which starts “Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” Niall Briggs wonders how the people behind those physical, digital and metaphorical doors are seen in the church of today.

English is a curious language; sometimes helping to convey ideas and sometimes helping to thwart that process. ‘Church’ can often end up in the second category. We easily talk about ‘going to church’, even if we don’t. We’ve invented churchgoers to describe those people who go to church. Yet that’s not how it all started. In the first century CE when the New Testament was written and the Church was coming into being, Greek was the key language and Ekklesia became the term used to describe groups of people following ‘The Way’ – the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. It’s a term borrowed from civic life – gatherings of the community. Those gatherings could happen anywhere that made sense for the people – homes, workplaces or town squares (if that was safe). Specialist buildings for Christians – churches as we would now call them would come much later.

John Wesley and Methodism

It was in part the challenge of how church buildings were being administered in the eighteenth century that came to determine how the early Methodist movement developed. John Wesley realised that many ordinary people were excluded from the Anglican churches of his day. At the request of his friend, George Whitefield, Wesley started preaching outdoors where everyone could come and hear him. Starting with the miners in Kingswood, he eventually travelled a quarter of a million miles on horseback preaching and visiting people all across the country. As people responded to the Good News of Christ, he created small classes for study and fellowship. In the early days of the Methodist movement, Wesley encouraged people to worship and take Holy Communion in their parish church, but Methodists were often unwelcome and started forming societies where they could meet and worship together in larger groups. It is these societies that form the basis of the Methodist churches as we now experience them.

Following Jesus

In the Christian tradition, it’s a certain curiosity about the person and teachings of Jesus that draw us towards and connect us with the Divine. It is a religion of relationship – built on the idea God’s very self is best understood as a Trinity of three ‘persons’: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as understanding that we inherently bear God’s image deep in our being. The call of Jesus – to his original followers and to contemporary ones – is to move beyond the trappings and traps of the structures of religion to be people who are deeply, inherently people of love and relationships – with each other and with the Divine – and to rest and be prompted to action by the joy and peace and good relationships bring. The call to follow Jesus is a call to discover how this paradoxical simplicity might be a route to a greater depth in our lives. And whilst there might be some simplicity at its heart, it’s a lifelong journey of self-discovery, of learning and unlearning. That journey – like may journeys is best done in company – where experiences and discoveries along the way can be shared, discovered and revealed to each other. That shared journey is surely the essence of what it means to be ‘Church’.

From ‘Going to’ to ‘Being’ Church

If the key reason for gathering together as Church is to learn how to follow Jesus – in principle and practice, then we need to ensure our energy and our activities are directed towards that goal. We all have different ways of learning and preferred ways of experiencing the world, so it’s no surprise that when the Church has been at its most vibrant it’s been distinctive and  diverse. In the early years as it spread out across and beyond the Mediterranean to the Methodist revival, people met in small, informal groups as well as larger, more formal gatherings; the community adapted to circumstances of the people who were being curious and starting to join in. The life of Christians hasn’t traditionally been defined by their attendance at an event, but by a lifestyle marked out by a certain approach to life. That approach – based on a belief in the proximity and possibility of a new way of living – what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven, not only offers an image of beauty, but a critique of many of society’s ways of operating. Easily misunderstood, it cost Jesus his life, but revealed something deeper and more profound as his followers became witnesses to his resurrection and advocates for his Way of living and seeing the world. It is in that tradition, of believing that heaven is closer when we act as if it is, that we have to discern what it means to be church in this time and place.

A little bit of ‘fairy dust’

When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, he used parables and metaphors to stimulate people’s imaginations. He talked of small things making a big difference – yeast, seeds, salt and light. In the Message paraphrase, Eugene Peterson translates a section of Matthew’s gospel like this:
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? […] “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. [Matthew 5:13,14 The Message (MSG), altered to British English]
The point is that the fellowship of the followers of Jesus – what we call the Church – is there, not for its own benefit, but to help make the beauty of God’s world – in all of us and around us – more visible, with a little more spark than if the whisper of Jesus hadn’t been heard.

Where does that leave us? Where should it take us?

In many places, ‘church’ has become more about doing that being. And, of course, our being should lead us into doing; action should follow contemplation as Richard Rohr would say. Being is importantly about now; about being present to and in the moment. And the moment that we now find ourselves in is unexpected, challenging and different from many others that we’ve experienced. Many trends in society have accelerated faster than ever – from how we shop to how we keep on touch with each other. We’ve also discovered other things – about the value of our neighbours and neighbourhoods, the pressing need to address the climate challenge and the insidious nature of systemic injustices. We’ve learned that many things we thought unimaginable can be imagined and brought into being. Given what we know and are still learning about this moment, how will we be church in a way that is salt and light to the world of today and not the world of yesterday? Where should our imagination and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit take us now? What are the questions that will help us see the present more clearly? What God-colours and God-flavours have you witnessed recently?
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