What is a church? Is it a building or the people inside it?


We all know the song about the church and the people which make up the church and we remember the nursery rhyme, “here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”

Over the years, though, this idea of what a church is and what a church is supposed to be has changed.

The church did not start out as a building on the main street of some village in Israel, Syria, Turkey or Greece. It began as a movement and became known as “The Way” and it began before Christians were even called Christians.

This early church movement was more of a community of believers brought together for the care and comfort of the people than it was some organized structure. It was a gathering of people in someone’s home because they could not gather together in public. But despite the threat of death for believing, they gathered together and dedicated themselves to keeping the ideas expressed across the Galilee alive.

Somewhere though, in the passage of time, after Constantine made Christianity legal and, in effect, the de facto state religion, the church took on a more corporate identity. And it is this corporate identity with an accompanying belief in its organizational structure that is the norm rather than the exception today.

Members of this corporate church will proudly proclaim their membership and tell anyone and everyone how long they have been a member. It was the church they grew up in and in which they wish to live their lives. It is a place where everyone believes the same way they do (even if they themselves do not know exactly what it is that they believe).

They see the world as a dangerous place and they see their church as the last bastion of morality. They want their church to be a place that offers protection against an evil and god-forsaken world; they want the church to put a stop to the sins that seemingly dominate this world. They don’t want the troubles of the world to come into their “quiet, little space” on Sunday morning. They want to feel safe in the sanctuary.

Oh yes, they know that their church is an elderly church and a dying church and they wonder where the new members come from. They wonder why visitors seeking God come to their church once but never a second time. They hear the talk about how the younger generation is leaving or has left the church and they wonder why.

They recall the days when their children and grandchildren were baptized in the church. They remember when the pews were full and there was very little discussion about the budget or missions, they remember how the UMYF met on Sunday evenings and the youth choir would sing once a month.

They hear about and listen to other pastors whose messages are always about how God will do wonders for you or how the Bible promises wealth in today’s world. And then they wonder why their pastor doesn’t preach the same message.

They will tell you about the pastor who once preached a sermon on equality and wanted to start a program to feed the hungry or maybe house a homeless family for a couple of nights in one of the Sunday school rooms. They will laugh when they tell you how the PPRC met that following week and literally ran that pastor out of town. They will tell you that she was a nice pastor but she didn’t understand the “community”.

Those inside the church walls have been inside the walls for so long that they cannot see what is happening outside those walls. They don’t understand that having modern or up-beat worships services means nothing if the attitudes don’t change. They don’t understand that greeting an old friend or neighbor warmly means nothing if you ignore the visitor by the door.

They don’t understand that a visitor who comes to the sanctuary seeking God doesn’t understand why members don’t show respect towards others when they are willing to gossip about members of the church or people in the community a few feet away from a place that is supposed to be considered Holy.

They may speak of preserving the church and they don’t understand that others take that to mean that the building is more important than the people of the community, especially when the members belittle the community that the church is a part.

And they wonder why people have become so dissatisfied with the church.

Oh, I wish this were a modern day phenomena brought about by a society completely wrapped up in its own self-righteousness and hypocrisy. But it isn’t and that is part of the problem.

Martin Luther protested the self-centeredness and corporate identity of the church. In doing so, he formed a new denomination and perhaps changed the course of history. But all it has done over the years has given people another opportunity to find a way to define “the truth” in their own terms and world view, not in terms of the early church or what was done in the Galilee two thousand years ago.

When John Wesley looked at his church some two hundred and fifty years ago, he also saw a church more interested in its own self-preservation and only the people inside the church walls. And those inside the church walls made it very clear to the people outside the church walls that they were not welcome inside.

It was this attitude that forced John Wesley to reevaluate his relationship with the church and with God. John Wesley’s desire to revitalize his church would force him and his followers from the church. Church rules would prohibit him and others from preaching or even holding meetings in their own churches.

It would lead to the formation of the Methodist societies, a gathering of believers for the common good of all. It would be a reminder of the early church and basis for the connectional system that we have today.

The connectionalism of the church is more than just a phrase used to justify things like apportionments. It is in everything we say and do as a church body. The other day, in response to a piece I posted on my blog concerning baptism, a person noted that “it is profound that the entire church vows to help raise an infant in the Christian faith when that child is baptized.”

It isn’t the building that we are talking about; it is the people in and outside the building. We, as a denomination, have a stake in the well-being of each and every member of the church and a concern for the well-being of everyone outside the church, no matter what they believe.

This concern led to the development of the first health clinic, the first credit union, and the first truly public school. Though most people are not aware of it, these developments have roots in the early Methodist revival. It should not be surprising then that we, as United Methodists, have an interest in the well-being of others. It is an inherent part of our culture and our history as a church.

When most people speak of “our church”, they are speaking about the church they attend every Sunday. But, to United Methodists, “our church” is not just the church attended on Sunday but every United Methodist Church.

Our own organization speaks of the people involved. Methodist polity rests on certain beliefs about church organization:

  1. Each member is a part of the whole and cannot be separated from the larger community of believers.
  2. The individual has a responsibility to the denomination, and the denomination has a responsibility to the individual.
  3. The proper functioning of the church requires faithful leaders and loyal followers.

United Methodist polity assumes that all members share a common commitment to the doctrine and mission of the church. Harmony in the church depends on a common confession that there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." In addition to the worship of the Holy Trinity, Methodist church polity assumes the willingness of individuals and congregations to set aside complete autonomy and function in mutually accountable ways.

Through apportionments each local church provides support for the annual and general conference and the many missional opportunities of the United Methodist Church nationally and internationally.

Just as the early church gathered collections for the “saints in Jerusalem” and early Methodist societies collected monies to pay off the debts for building a meeting house or to support the poor, so too do the apportionments help United Methodists everywhere.

This does not mean that a local church is limited in what it can and cannot do.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now Bishop of the North Alabama Conference told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expects us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

One might define local United Methodist churches as being one of three types:

  1. Congregations where the only missions done are those “required” through apportionments or special offerings,
  2. Representational congregations — where a small percentage of the participants “do” missions for the whole congregation, and
  3. Congregations defined by missional involvement.

In one study, 31% of the churches surveyed were in the first category, 52% in the second, and 16% in the third.

In the third category, 60+% of the membership were actively involved in some form of “hands-on” service. In those churches, it took some time to develop such a highly engaged membership (7-13 years). (From Dan Dick, “Sins of Nomission”)

The question one must ask this is not “what is a church?” Rather, it is “what type of church are we?” Is our church one where missions are done, perhaps reluctantly, through apportionments? Is our church one where someone goes to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique on their own and everyone takes credit for it? (Or is our church one where we question the validity of such efforts?)

Or is our church one in which the ministries outside the framework of apportionments and the budget can be listed or identified? It is this work, this ministry through apportionments and local ministries that will ultimately determine the health of a church.

Dan Dick noted that

. . . churches that do for others tend to be healthier churches.  Giving is higher in missionally focused congregations.  Levels of participation and engagement tend to be higher.  Morale and spirit tend to be higher.  Just the other night I visited a small rural church where no fewer than five people proudly shared stories of the mission work being done by their congregation — and not just a few members of the congregation, but by the majority of the congregational members.  A few years ago I visited one of the poorest congregations (financially) I have ever seen.  They had funds for virtually nothing — including paying a full-time pastor or paying their apportionments in full — but just about every member of that church served in some mission-focused capacity in the community.  The spirit and energy in that congregation was infectious — a congregation with constant money worries where every person was smiling and singing and proudly sharing stories of the power of Christ to touch and change lives.  It was refreshing.

The health of a church can be measured by its response to the call for stewardship. Stewardship is not about giving money; it is about giving your time and your talents. Yes, for some, financial giving is all that they can do.

But when the response is limited or qualified, the people are saying that their church is dying and they just want the funeral quicker than slower. Those who say that others will do that simply are looking for the slower funeral.

There are those who avoid challenge. They are the ones who seek to blame or say that a person’s sorrow is a reflection of their sin and whatever happens is because they have fallen from God’s favor.

But there are others who say that it isn’t enough to just pay the apportionments or pray for those who go to Biloxi or Haiti or Mozambique. There are those who relish the challenge; there are those who see God’s glory rather than God’s wrath. These are the people who, when faced with poverty, sickness, or oppression, react and seek resolution.

We need to be more of the latter than the former; we need to hear God calling us to work in the vineyard and we need to answer that call.

I have seen a church die slowly and painfully because it would not move beyond its walls because the members thought that the building was more important than the community.

But I have also seen a dying church be reborn because change its focus from what is happening inside the walls to what is happening outside those walls. I have seen a church which had not paid its apportionments and was expecting to die pay its apportionments in full in six months and go from just existing as a church to one with a building plan and then a new building (which was paid off two years ahead of schedule) because it put the work of God before the building.

You cannot turn a church around overnight; it takes time. But when people change their attitude about what a church is, the change does occur.

Stewardship does begin with a thought about how you will financially support the local, national, and international United Methodist Church. But it does not stop when the stewardship drive is over or the offering is taken each Sunday; in fact, that is when the stewardship begins.

It is welcoming the visitor as if they were an old family friend; it is helping feed the people who come by for the feeding ministry on Saturday evening; it is helping plant flowers and to pull weeds in the Children’s garden on an early spring morning. It is chatting with the people who stop by the church and admire the flowers. It is being a part of the Habitat for Humanity or other projects.

In the end, stewardship is the fulfillment of the vow that each one made when they joined the church and when others joined the church, to be there with your gifts, your prayers, your time, and your service.

A church once was a gathering of believers who believed in the Gospel message, lived the Gospel message, and then went out into the community to preach the message by word, thought, and deed. A church once was a gathering of believers who came together for the good of all the people. It is what the church was; it is what the church should be; and it is what the church can be.

3 thoughts on “What is a church? Is it a building or the people inside it?

  1. Pingback: Some Questions To Think About « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: “Lessons from the Wilderness” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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