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.