Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Does It Mean to be "A Church?"

More than once I have told people only half jokingly that after 32 years as a pastor and two graduate degrees, I don't understand church. The roles and purposes of church have changed significantly over the last generation and there isn't a consensus as to what the new roles and purposes are. For some, church is a hospital we visit to find healing and strength to go back into the world. For some, it is a place to build social networks. For some it is a place to find spiritually inspiring entertainment. For some it is a base from which to launch various kinds of mission programs. For some it is a series of programs competing with kids soccer, men's therapy group, and women's drum circle. For many, it is completely irrelevant to daily life. Many of those who do attend church do so with the primary question being one of added value, "what value does this experience add to my life?" This question is even more important in a time when virtually all of the roles of the church can be fulfilled in some other way.

Let me share two illustrations that underscore my question, "what does it mean to be a church?" First... some years back I was attending a meeting and met a pastor from a Presbyterian church in Manhattan. As we talked I asked the pastor question - "How many do you have in worship?" It is a convenient metric and it says something even if I'm not sure what. She answered, "30." I was a pastor of a downtown church and the time and knew all of the struggles to keep one of those institutions going and all of the surrounding needs. Her congregation didn't have Sunday school or a youth program. If it were not for a significant endowment, it would have closed years prior. Then, she added, "but we have about 5000 people come through our building each week for 12 step meetings, feeding programs, neighborhood classes, etc. etc. etc." Almost none were "members" and likely a significant proportion would not have called themselves Christian. Almost all received services of one sort or another, consuming resources rather than giving them to the institution. What does it mean to be a church?

And watch this video which I first saw on my friend Bob Cornwall's blog.

Can you be a church in cyberspace? Can our need for human connection be met online and does that have anything to do with being "church?" What do our human networks have to do with our connectedness to the holy?

I have a couple of thoughts. I do not believe that a person can be a follower of Jesus alone. I truly believe it takes a community of accountability and challenge and support for us to follow Jesus. I believe that ministry/service/mission is not enough on its own to quality as a church. They are necessary traits, but there must also be activities that contribute to nurture and there must be experiences that lead to the holy, mystical experiences, for a group of people to be a church. Can it happen online? I'm not sure. I think for me, it has to have skin on it... but I don't know whether that is a more general rule. Does it require a traditional institutional expression? I pretty sure it doesn't, but I think some ind of organizational structure might be required just to make it happen.

So for you, what does it mean to be church? Does the UU church in Second Life qualify? Or even the Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.


Wendy said...

Hi Roy - I have one quick question regarding the woman with the 30/5000 equation (and I think you have experience with this at Emmanuel Albany as well...) I now serve one of those tiny congregations inside of an enormous church building in the heart of the city which I hope to fill with nonstop ministry action. Experience tells me that very few of the folks who utilize the building during the week will ever "join" the church, or even attend Sunday morning services. So, is there a new funding paradigm - outside of the old pledging membership model - that helps sustain these kind of ministry centers? Do such places just become landlords with a building full of renters? Or are there creative alternatives?

moore said...

Roy, this very thing has been on my mind for the last few years. I find myself asking, "what is a 'sustainable' church?". And as soon as the question is in my mind, I think, "Jesus never worried about 'sustainable church'!"
A week ago I was talking to someone at one of Michael's Sunday recitals. This fellow is Russian Orthodox. He asked how many people were in our church. I told him about 150 (but less than 100 are members). He said, "Imagine what this place was like when it was full! There would have been so many more!" I said, "it is full." Not with people, but with ministry. Honestly, I don't know how we are doing so much with so few people.
Of course ministry & mission are not sufficient--there has to be spiritual support & enrichment. But I've come to a place where I think mission is what should be driving us. As a community we will sustain our missions by supporting each other emotionally and providing space and time to connect with God and each other, even if it is just a few of us.
I also think that one of our missions as a downtown church is to help make urban life sustainable. Hence...concerts, aerobics classes,music lessons, food pantry,and on and on. We have a unique role to play in sustainable living on this planet.
How do we pay for it? As Wendy suggests, we need to think creatively about this. The answers do not come easily, and hard choices have to be made. The church is changing; the church must change.

Salome Ellen said...

I'm not sure about being "a" church in cyberspace, but "the" church can function there. I have a prayer/accountability partner (for a specific issue in our lives)online who I have never met in person. But she and I know more about each other's family and daily goings-on than I do about most of the people I see "in church" -- and I sing in the choir, and we see each other twice a week...

roy said...

Wendy, the other issue your comments raise have to do with stewardship of resources... these properties that were built to be used an hour or two a week and that only for the "members."

Funding does require creativity. I think renters are a piece of the pie... especially if you can see the renters as extending or reinforcing the ministry/mission of the church. More and more I think churches need to build endowments for ministry, encouraging folk to make bequests to that end. Finding other ways to raise funds - concerts, lectures, whatever... might also help with the needs. Unfortunately, churches that are doing what they're supposed to be doing will always be on the edge.

Kathy, mission is central to who we must be, but we must be different than social service agencies. Ans worship/formation is central to who we are but we must never become focused only on the needs/desires of the official members. Balance is the key... and in times of financial stress, it is difficult to maintain.

Ellen, certainly the virtual world has opened new possibilities for relating (which raises another question regarding bricks & mortar churches) soI think you're right that "the" Church is clearly present there... but I'm still not sure if "a" church can exist only or primarily there. Does it have to have skin on it?

Dave Miller said...

Great questions Roy.

For me the cyber option can do churchy things, but can it be the church without real world "skin" on it? That I am not sure.

I know for sure that simply being about what you call "ministry/service/mission" does not make you the church.

Like us at AIL, it means you are doing her work and thus helping fulfill part of the definition of church but leaving out the gathered together part.

Just my dos centavos...