Spent the day talking about church


Spent the day talking about church. The setting – 2nd day of a 5 day intensive course. Twelve masters students in the class, all serving as Christian public leaders in some capacity.

The day started with a seemingly easy assignment…in a few sentences write your definition of church. Answers included – being the body of Christ or living community. The church’s call to the world was acknowledged, as was the church’s role in shaping both our identity and our actions. Students named the core work of our Lutheran tradition as proclaiming GOD’s Word and administering the sacraments. And at one level, our task for done. The group had done great work. And it was only 30 minutes into an 8 hour day on this subject and they’d offered good stuff.

But, since they’d paid for the class and I had planned various activities and lectures, we decided to continue. Next on the order for the day was ‘opening our imagination.’ We listened to two songs which portrayed very different views of church. Great discussion followed, both naming realities and inviting reflection. Then we moved to our own experiences of church. More diversity surfaced and conversation deepened. Then we wondered what Scripture had to say, what our denomination had to offer, and ended the morning wondering what views of church culture offers. Now, 3 hours later, the earlier definition we offered somehow seemed too simple for the complex world in which we find ourselves.

If you were asked to participate in this exploration, what would you say?

If we scan history we get a really big view of church. And in doing so our view of church gets both bigger and smaller. Here’s what I mean. Some of our current ‘givens’ might not be so necessary. (For example, we had a great conversation about what people thought of the organ in worship when it was first introduced! Or wonder what people thought about using bar tunes as hymns!) And some of our ‘auxiliaries’ might be more essential. (Things like caring for one another and seeing that the needs of our community, internal and external, are attended to.) We might also wonder about things like location and leadership, things like passing on practices across time and learning the Christian story, about how (and when) we connect faith communities and the place our theological commitments have, and we might wonder what it means to faithfully witness to GOD’s love in our time and place. These wonderings have not been easily answered in other eras. Truth is, they probably won’t be in our either. But history does offer some perspective, if we step back far enough.

What do I know? I know my view of church has gotten simpler, and more open to possibilities. I know God loves the world and all humanity. And GOD’s mission of loving the world includes inviting the church, GOD’s people gathered and scattered, into that work. I know that calling includes communities of people located in particular places, a geography if you will. But I also know it includes people or groups sent out, mobile units or people with particular foci or ministries. I know being the church includes some practices, and I’ve come to believe that being church includes a lot of improv. And much of the rest is a mystery. And I’m OK with that.

What about you, what do you know?

We pick this topic up again on Thursday. We left class with our definitions intentionally messy and unresolved. Live with us in the tension. Offer your ideas (I’ll offer them to the class), and I’ll post again on Thursday and let you know how it goes.


9 thoughts on “Spent the day talking about church

  1. Terri,

    I’m in agreement with you; my view of the church has gotten simpler but leaves room for tons of openness. For me, the church is the community with the courage to be vulnerable with in and to the world. I think, if the church is willing to live publically in the world, then it must live into the gospel in such a way that living out to the world and allowing the world into it is a welcome, life-giving thing. Mission is about witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do.

    In the congregations I interviewed with this past weekend (searching for a first call!) I think that was what each of them was longing for, and what each of them was lacking. They’re not visible in the context and communities that surrounds them, and that has happened because rather than having the courage to be vulnerable, they are in survival mode, trying to control what they can, and now allowing movement into the church community, nor venturing beyond it.

    If the church can have the courage to be vulnerable, I wonder, do we then open ourselves up to the Spirit’s activity? For me, I think that is what it means to live into the gospel of Jesus Christ, which us Lutherans always seem to be talking about!!!

  2. Phew- question of the age, I suppose. I think the long and short of what I have been learning is that church is actually the byproduct of discipleship, living in community, engaging the Spirit, etc. etc. It seems to be the cart (system/structure/organization) to be pulled by the horse (life/Spirit/discipleship/community). I suppose what has happened (is happening?) is that sometimes the cart and horse switch places. Maybe the cart has run over the horse sometimes.

    I think, and not as an expert but just as processing, is that church has become it’s own end, and not the life/Spirit/discipleship/community. It’s because we have seen such gorgeous things come from church that we mistook the church for the stuff the church did, we mistook the cart for the horse. We thought if we imrpoved the cart, the horse would get better. So we added more and more to the cart, more and more to the organization and structure, that eventually it dragged the horse to a stop. We began serving programs instead of programs serving us. we began serving buildings instead of buildings serving us. Wonderful tools such as RCL or colors of the paraments or art or music or confirmation or sunday school all became things we had to serve and preserve rather than tools given to nurture life/Spirit/etc.

    Some have done as they did in the last reformation, thrown out babies and became iconoclasts. Of course that is the radical and unnecessary reaction. We don’t do that. But I think we are coming back to asking ourselves essential questions like, are we supposed to serve _________ or is it supposed to serve us? In other words, can we get the cart behind the horse again?

  3. My thoughts get jumbled with answers I’ve written for candidacy & placement paperwork! Not to mention my missional ecclesiology paper I wrote for this very course 3 years ago! Hmm, I smell a paper to go back & rework. The nitty gritty is that church is you, me, & we (think Ubuntu) because Jesus (who is in God) is in you, me, & we through the Spirit (who is in Jesus). Ah the complexity of perichoresis!

  4. I noticed in Aaron’s comment and Todd’s on facebook, the language of survival. I think a lot of our congregations, synods, etc are caught to some extent in this mode of thinking and operation. I agree with Aaron that the courage to be vulnerable is important in the life of a congregation/church but I also think that we might consider sustainability as a stepping stone to vulnerability. Not sustainability as a means of survival, but sustainability in giving the work to the people, leading and equipping the congregation to be the church, the body of Christ in the world. I hope that as people are given the tools to do ministry the worries about finding the “perfect pastor” or the “perfect program” diminish and the community begins to grow as they trust themselves to provide ministry. As their confidence grows, hopefully so does their ability to be vulnerable in with and for the community.

  5. What is the church? I will give it a try. The Church with a capital “c” is the body of Christ in the world. It is the hands of Christ caring for the world through the centuries and will continue into the future. It is the love of God embodied in a physical group that gathers in the name of God and moves out into the world to share that love. Now to me love is not an emotion but a commitment and an energy that always builds up, that propels creative action. I could get more lengthy but I think that summarizes my thoughts.
    Diane E. Shallue

  6. I know what the church is not: It is not a hospital that is full of sick people who need a quick stitch or operation and then are out the door in a couple days, never to be seen again. It is not a lifeboat that save people from the relentless tsunamis and rough water that we see as ‘life outside the church’. Both of these images assume that the world and the church are two different places, and that the world is a horrible place, and the church is the single place of solace, happiness, healing and hiding.
    We are repeatedly shown in the Bible that Jesus did not shy away from the world, but fully immersed himself in the world and got messy and dirty along the way, but never lost sight of his message and mission. Jesus brought a message of love – he “leaned in” to the rough waters of life, he was inspired by the random acts of kindness from people who weren’t in his group of friends.
    Church happens when our “should’s” and “ought-to’s” of Christian living get turned inside out. We are not called to hide inside the 4 walls of a church (which is ironic because my church office has no windows), we are called to be among God’s people – and last time I checked, God’s people are all people. Perhaps church looks a lot more like blessing food and sharing a table with strangers, serving unemployed minority populations (29% in the Twin Cities), and having water fights on paddle boats on Lake Como while we bless the water together and proclaim God’s promise to be in it.
    I think Christ’s vision for the Christian church is so much bigger, creative, diverse, and requires much more risk than we, the church, are currently willing to take. I long for a church that lives inside out, because that’s where I see God through Christ the brightest, at least in my experience, and therefore, that’s where church happens – preaching God’s promises, sharing and blessing the meal and baptism, and serving our neighbors by meeting where they are at, in laughter, tears and joy, warts and all.

  7. Really interesting stuff to think about here…thanks for sparking the imagination with your questions and conversation.

    My random thinking as I begin to process:

    Some would argue that the day of the denomination is over. I disagree…pretty strongly. Even those who make that argument wind up linking with others by affinity…and while they would never self-identify in any way, shape or form as anything even close to a denomination, I’ve observed that it’s not long before they begin thinking in ways similar to denominations.

    Here is what I wonder:
    There are movements, which are largely centered around a mission. Movements have excitement, energy, and those within them would say that they are ‘spirit driven.’ So be it. What often seems to happen though is that at some point in time, movements make a transition and begin to function institutionally. (I’ve been a part of several of these.)

    While there is variation in how and when this happens, it seems that it happens at the moment when the movement begins thinking about its own organizational survival as its primary mission instead of the original mission of the movement. It’s when they ‘take their eyes off of the ball.’

    Visualize the quarterback (apologies for the sports metaphor) who becomes more concerned with getting hit than with making the pass, and flinches at the critical moment.

    I think the church sometimes flinches.

    Some would take this and say that the “institutional church” then has no purpose. Again, I disagree. Humans live and function best in community…God has given us the church, and so in whatever form it is, I believe the church, and denominations can still play a role.

    I’m more interested in denominations reclaiming “movement” as opposed to “institution.”

    Now how to do that…that is the question.
    Thanks for the great questions.

  8. I am no theologian, but Christ told us to go and make disciples so…for me the church is people trying their best to live out the mission that Christ has given us-living joyfully in the knowledge that we are loved and saved by the grace of God and reaching out to share the good news with those we come in contact with every day-I’m just a simple girl with a simple answer.

  9. Pingback: Weekly Links | Timothy Siburg

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