re-defining “church”

kathyescobar church stuff, faith shifts 35 Comments

blog redefining churchit was nice to have a little blog break, and when i get a little space and time i always end up back at some of the same questions-about-life like  “why do i still care so much about ‘church’“?  “why do i pour my heart & soul out every week for anyone to see?” “what in the $$^!&!*! am i doing with my life?”  “God, are you sure?”

many of you know that i have a very different definition of “church” than many.  i do not consider church a worship service or a building or a structure.   to me, church is:  people gathered together in some way, shape or form to learn & practice the ways of Jesus & pass on love, hope, mercy, justice, and healing in a broken, weird world.

like so many other christian words, the word “church” has a lot of heavy baggage with it these days.  so much got added to it over the centuries, but the original word, ekklesia, was centered on assembling together, congregating in some way, shape or form, and focused on our called-out-ness.  it had nothing to do with a building or a service or a structure. it was about being the church, not going to church.  

it’s my experience that many of us think that church means going to something official once a week in a building called church or being attached to something official–and because of that definition many people i know these days no longer go to church.  in fact, it feels like things have radically tilted in the circles that i am in and far more people don’t “go to church” than do.  the saddest part to me isn’t that they don’t go anymore. i completely respect the reasons; there comes a time in many of our spiritual experiences where we outgrow so many of the systems that we’ve once been part of.

the part that makes me sad, though, is that as a culture how little we value alternative forms of church–and not just unique worship services.

there are an awful lot of ways to grow, be challenged, and practice loving God, others, ourselves.  in fact, God’s awfully creative like that–showing up in all kinds of unexpected, ordinary, wild, beautiful places that have nothing to do with organized religion.

yeah, small dinner parties are church.
time with dear friends laughing & eating & sharing life is church.
online connections where we gather hope & are challenged is church.
intense theology conversations at the pub is church.
sharing burdens with colleagues at work is church.
offering cups of cold water to thirsty friends on the street is church.
recovery meetings are church.
neighborhood potlucks are church.
regular worship services are church (as long as you talk to someone, ha ha).

a whole long list of ways that people gather & find hope & share love are church.

to me, the only for-sure ingredient of “church” is people–beautiful, weird, flawed human beings,  some how, some way, gathering with other people, in the midst of the reality of God, giving & receiving love and hope.

we can worship by ourselves, connect with God by ourselves, do all kinds of things by ourselves.

but i don’t think we can do church by ourselves.

it’s why i’m a nut-case for relationship.  there are so many things Jesus calls us to that we can’t learn alone.  and we can’t learn them only through studying more, hearing more, absorbing more.  the only way we can learn them is through practicing them more. 

practicing humility.
practicing presence.
practicing grace & mercy.
practicing listening.
practicing giving.
practicing receiving.
practicing friendship.
practicing love.

to me, that’s the litmus test for “church”–are they relationships, gatherings, groups, places, spaces that help us practice these things?

i love what my friend jim henderson says in his recent post church and me – “i think i graduated from church.”  i don’t think we ever graduate from being with people, or loving God, but we can outgrew the need to go to a church service every week.

for me, i am still dedicated to this little nutty pocket of love called the refuge and privileged to be part.  it’s where i can practice things that need practicing.  intention is really important to me, and i love to be challenged & engage with God-stuff & people on a regular basis.  it is good for my soul.  but it’s also far from much of what i’d experienced in structured churches. in so many ways, it’s my dream of what could be (even though dreams are much prettier when they are just dreams!).  it’s messy, challenging, weird, inspiring, hard, and beautiful.   i do sincerely wish there were more containers for folks on the fringes of life & faith.

but it is just one form.

there are so many others, and that’s the beautiful part about the kingdom of God.

i know so many people who are living out their faith in ways beyond the confines of all-they-used-to-know.   they haven’t “given up the habit of meeting together” (hebrews 10:25); their meeting together just looks different.

they are still finding ways to be with others.  they are still finding ways to grow.  they are still finding ways to seek God & hope & change despite the obstacles.   they care deeply about the poor & marginalized and act on their beliefs in all kinds of lovely, tangible waysthey are learning the ways of love. 

church just doesn’t look like what it used to look like.

yeah, i hope we can keep re-defining church. 

we might find that a lot less people have actually left it.