What Makes a Church a Church?

Installed newly (again) as the rector of a new congregation in the Episcopal church (it was a glorious celebration), I am troubled as usual by a question that seems to be so basic that I have to wonder about my own capacity to be in charge of anything, especially a wonder-filled community of saints. Yet here I am writing again about the most basic of concepts.

I would like to claim that being simple makes it possible for me to explain simple things. The truth is I love lofty ideas and build castles of them in the air, but then I fear that such ephemeral architecture cannot contain the wonders and the griefs of real lives and people.  So I seek the foundations of things, the grounding concepts that guide the building I am charged with, often four stories up the temple.

Okay.  So, what is a church?  What makes a church a church?  In the Episcopal tradition  we obsess a little over the idea of The Church, sometimes called “catholic” or “universal” to distinguish it from the local and temporal reality that most of us spend our lives trying to keep, build, survive, and fund.  We talk about apostolic succession and kerygma, or we put our head down and just work away at the keeping and the funding end that occupies our times and don’t ask about the basic questions because we fear that if we dropped a plumb line we might discover that we are not building square on the foundation.

The word church [ekklesia] only appears twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 16 and 18.  It shows up far more frequently in the book of Acts and the Letters of the New Testament because that is what those books are about.  Although I have spent a few weeks obsessing over word study, here we are just going to consider a distillation, so feel free to kvetch in the comments about what is left out.

Jesus seems to assume that the apostles will lead a community or communities based in the proclamation of the good news of God that Jesus proclaimed: “Grow up, change your mind/life; the Reign of God has come near to you.”  This reign would be known in a particular holiness of the apostles, in their living out of that reign, and in healing and miracles offered as signs.

A word about the word holiness: what we mean by holiness is set aside to a particular way of being in direct relationship to God’s way of being.  In Christ, holiness might be thought of as an ethical way of life that frees one to love well in the way of God.  It wouldn’t make sense to say, “I am holy because I don’t play cards.” However one may display holiness in not playing cards because they refuse to take unearned money from another or take chances with the blessings of God for no purpose.  A man is not holy because he does not drink alcohol, but abstaining from alcohol because it may lead another to fail is holy. Not doing stuff doesn’t make you holy.  But you might not do stuff because you want to love well and are therefore being holy.

Jesus sums up this ethic of his disciples in the word agape that we translate usually as “love” today or “charity” in the King James Bible.  It is helpful in our day to distinguish a little here.  It is commonly stated, even from pulpits, that it should not be illegal to love someone, by which we usually mean something about sex and marriage, or at least, romance.  Whether we agree with that statement or not, it is important to point out that when Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” he is talking about something tied deeply to service or charity, the self-giving love that one person pours out for the good of someone else, not feeling but action.  It is a love that costs the giver something, not a love that is getting something.

We are to be a people who wash each others feet, or as Paul says in slightly more relatable way, Outdo one another in showing honor.  We are to forgive freely, give openhandedly, and to pour out ourselves for each other.  By this the world will know that we are his disciples.

So let me summarize what I have learned from Scripture:

  • A church is made of disciples of Jesus.
  • Those disciples love each other; they fellowship and serve each other.
  • A church proclaims the reign of God in love and service, and in miracles and healing.

If you want to be a member of the church, you must be a disciple of Jesus.  Anything else is fraud.  We are sometimes nice to the point of being liars about this.  The last twenty years of my life have confirmed that when the church is made up of anything less than disciples of Jesus, we toil away trying to be something like a church, but we are always toiling and always coming up short, sometimes horribly short.

The church today is often made up of worshippers rather than disciples.  Let’s blame someone else for that, O Sons and Daughters of Adam.  In my experience it is harder to convert a worshipper to a disciple than it is to convert a lost person, even a really really terrible lost person, to being a disciple.  The good is the enemy of the great, as the saying goes.  We become satisfied with worship, which is a good thing.  But then we don’t follow Jesus in the details of our non-worshipping life.

When I worship I feel good.  I know that it is a good thing to do, and I sincerely believe that God made us to worship.  But our worship in the church is to be simple and direct, not being too wordy, “because your Father in heaven knows what you need before you even ask.”  And worship is never wrong: God is always worthy.  But throughout the Bible we read that our worship is not always worthy.  And when it is isn’t worthy it is for two reasons, insincerity and injustice.  When we praise God but then do not grow or act on the law, our worship confirms our condemnation.  (That sounded really reformed.  Sorry, just being Biblical.)

Jesus never really commands us to worship.  He commands us to pray and assumes that we will worship.  I think he can safely assume that because we are made for it, but he commands us to love God and our neighbor as ourself, and to love one another.  He commands us to serve one another, forgive sins, and to proclaim the Gospel.  He points time and again to true worship being care of the least, just like the Law and the Prophets.

I am a remedial priest, as I said above.  I admit it.  Two churches ago, I was caught up short when I realized that I assumed that my parishioners were faithfully praying and studying the Bible and getting to know Jesus.  I assumed that they were disciples and that they knew how to be disciples.  I was wrong, and it was terrible to me to realize it.  In my last assignment I began to realize that I suck at fellowship.  I assume that people love each other and spend time together.  I am classic introvert who serves in a public role.  I can be present for a reason or for a greater good, but then I have to recharge.  I never think, “O we should just get together and be together for fun.”  For fun I go run in dangerous places, camp alone in the wilderness, and read books.  (Nonfiction, of course.)

I completely undervalue fellowship.  My mentor in the priesthood, the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain is a masterful hostess who tried to pass along to me that a good priest is a great host of meals.  Crap.  Sorry, Rebecca.  I am still learning.

Our family eats together.  It is religious to us, our keeping of mealtimes.   No phones, no television or media, except once a week when we have pizza night and watch a show together.  But outside of our family, we live a very American home life, isolated in our enclave of a home.  Two introverts plus children trying to counterbalance a very public ministry existence means we protect our homespace.

My grandfather, on the other hand, negotiated with my grandmother that he didn’t care what she made as long as she always made enough to share in case he brought someone home with him, which he often did.  That is good church.

A healthy church fellowships together. The disciples of the church eat together and hang around each other.  They have fun together and learn together.  They pray for each other and study together.  They know each other and love each other.

I always considered this a bonus, icing on the theological cake of the ekklesia.  I was wrong. Agape assumes knowledge of the other. Jesus commands his disciples to abide in him and so in the Father.  If we are going to live in Christ together, we must fellowship for that to have reality.  Think of fellowship as purposeful hanging out to the glory of God.

Finally that brings us to purpose or mission.  What is the mission of the church?  This is one of those million-dollar questions with a ten cent answer.  The mission of the church is to be the community of disciples of Jesus and to equip the believers to know, love, and serve each other and the world in Christ.

I cannot justify anything else from the Bible.  We have this page in the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Church
Q. What is the Church?
A. The Church is the community of the New Covenant.

Q. How is the Church described in the Bible?
A. The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members. It is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.

Q. How is the Church described in the creeds?
A. The Church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Q. Why is the Church described as one?
A. The Church is one, because it is one Body, under one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Q. Why is the Church described as holy?
A. The Church is holy, because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s work.

Q. Why is the Church described as catholic?
A. The Church is catholic, because it proclaims the whole Faith to all people, to the end of time.

Q. Why is the Church described as apostolic?
A. The Church is apostolic, because it continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles and is sent to carry out Christ’s mission to all people.

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

This wonderfully summarizes what I found in Scripture, except with that The Church focus I mentioned earlier.  The mission of the church is restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, and it does this as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.

I have two critiques of this statement, which I also really appreciate.  One, there is no mention of the Reign or Kingdom of God, which has a reality to it that unity depends upon.  We are one because we are living into the Reign of God.  It is not mere unity. Our unity has an ethos, a way of being that is demanded in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.

And the second criticism is that it says “promotes” which is a sloppy word that has lead us to hypocrisy, or maybe it just codifies it.  We are not to promote but to be just, peaceful, and loving.  Only then can we promote anything.  Otherwise, we can be horrible people in our promotion of something we call justice or peace or love.

We are not to promote, we are to proclaim and be the Reign of God by being disciples in communion with each other, loving God and each other, and serving as he served us.

At Christ Church of the Ascension, I am working to articulate this in clear and accessible ways and to put in place concrete “holy habits” to embody the truth in actions.

  • We are disciples of Jesus who know him through Lectio Divina and prayer lives centered in the Daily Office
  • We are disciples of Jesus who love him by worshipping him and by loving each other in fellowship.
  • We are disciples of Jesus who serve him by serving one another and our neighbors in generous acts of giving and manual acts and by proclaiming the reign of God in our being just, peaceful, and loving.

So I keep and teach the Daily Office and traditional worship, read and study the Bible and teaching and modeling Lectio Divina, and am open to fellowship after services and at weekly teas (even taking up golf as a chance to be with other believers), and serving others, especially in being generous with the poor and needy and other members of the church, any church, because God is one, even if we are many.

Am I missing something?  Someone will say “salvation,” I suppose.  But that belongs to the Lord, at least for today.

In Christ,



Thanks for reading and sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.