In the church camp song We Are the Church, there’s a line that goes “The church is not a building…” And every time I hear that line I want to scream, “It is too! It is too a building!”
Now…I know what they’re trying to say. They’re trying to say that the church is more than just a building. But I feel that they’re being a little disingenuous…or at least overly narrow…in their thinking. You show anyone with even the barest amount of architectural knowledge different buildings, and I’m betting that they’ll identify the churches upwards of 90% of the time. Heck, “Click on the churches” could be used as a photographic captcha.
And even when a church isn’t being used as a church anymore, it’s still a church. It’s still referred to as a former church. I know of at least two restaurants that are in former churches. I know of a community center that’s in a former church. And Alice, of Alice’s Restaurant famously lived in an old church.
So a church, whether or not it’s currently being used for worship, is a building.
And therein lies my issue for this week…an overly narrow definition of what the church is…or should be.
Religion journalist and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich often writes about the future of the institutional church, and like many others, he says that it’s doomed unless it changes its ways. That it has to stop being a group of people tied to a building, and start being a group of people tied to a task…a mission. A group of people tied to making a presence in the community.
I don’t disagree that the things he says are good ideas for some. I disagree that his definition of the church is the only one.
Just as I disagree with the line in the song that says that the church is not a building.
The church is many things. And one of the many things it is is “the worshipping community at…” More precisely, “the worshipping community of a certain theology and style at…”
It may be a large worshipping community or it may be a small worshipping community. But as long as it’s “the worshipping community at…”, then it’s the church. In fact, aside from the architectural definition of a church building, I believe that this is the minimum definition, no matter what else they do, of a church.
The worshipping community at…
And many worshipping communities at different places don’t care what writers like Ehrich say, because they’re not concerned with growth at all. They’re concerned with being “the worshipping community at…”, or “the worshipping community for this language”, or “the worshipping community for this culture.” And while they may not make their presence known in the greater community as that worshipping community, as individual members, they do.
The little church we visit when we’re in Pittsburgh has probably seen better days, with more people in the pews, but they’re still the Episcopalian worshipping community at Squirrel Hill. The little onion-domed church near us probably isn’t bursting at the seams, but it’s Russian Orthodox worshipping community at DeWitt. And the tiny little church we visited up in the Adirondacks almost 20 years ago could probably hold its services in my living room, but they’re the worshiping community at Long Lake for people of that particular theology.
And that's OK. They don’t have to be big. They don’t have to make a big obvious splash in the surrounding community. They don’t have to have people know that this good deed is brought to your courtesy of the good people at Church of the Redeemer. If the small worshipping communities at Squirrel Hill, DeWitt, and Long Lake are leavening the rest of the world with the individual good deeds of their members, if they’re motivating their members to, as our Jewish friends would say, “repair the world”, then that’s enough. Some people might not find those models economically viable, and that’s a different question for a different day.
But the worshipping community at whatever place, no matter how small…well…they are the church.