What is a church?

Part of my search for the mystic is a quest to reconstruct meaningful ways to be and build kingdom community in this new world. To do this I think we need to experience a

I’ve got more thinking to share on each of these and some ideas on a couple of new categories as well. Stay tuned. But I want to make sure that we stay true to the essentials. So today’s question is:

What is a church?

Is two or three gathered by the calling of Christ to reach people (Mission), who share the Lord’s Supper (Missional Community), and baptize converts (Missional Activity) a church? What more than this is necessary? Or is this too much? Or is it something other than these elements?

What do you think?

Blog posts of note…

For an excellent conversation that references my post on a Reversal of Kingdom Capital see Anne Jackson’s (aka “flowerdust”) post titled,money, money, money.

For an outstanding application of what we discussed on my post Fiesta for God , check out Kristi Cornwell’s post titled, The Party . Her story comes complete with a blazing fire, a barn and line dancing.

Ladies, hats off to you. Excellent stuff. Thanks for leading the way.

into the mystic…

Alex McManus

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27 thoughts on “What is a church?

  1. Here is an excerpt of an ancient blog from one mystic warrior defining church to an f2f community…

    You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all–irrespective of how we got here–in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day–a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home

  2. As I read the above comment by Mark I am intriqued. I like it and I also sense a bit of universalism in it. The big question of the comment is “who” is the “you” refering to?

    Do we/you/I believe that everyone will be included in the Kingdom? Is everyone included in the Church?

    For example, I can understand how God can use Judas to help build the Kingdom but I am not sure that He was a part of it, and I am pretty confident that I will not see him in my eternal future.

    How does this talk help us value all, welcome all and yet still hold on to the truth of Jesus’ words of being “the only way” to life? How do we throw open the doors of our community/churches (as wide as we can get them) and then remind people that Jesus said the door to His eternal Kingdom is narrow (probably more narrow than many of us think/believe).

    Help me process this to become a better mystic servant.

  3. Steve,
    That was just an excerpt of an ancient blog, taken out of context. Here is more:

    It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free–signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.

    Perhaps, you would like to read the whole thing…

  4. Steve,

    Mark was quoting Ephesians 2.19ff.

    That was an outstanding example of an effective use of the scriptures . It can catch you off guard. Good catch mystic warrior.

  5. I resonate with so much that is being said. Thanks for the post and the links of previous ones. I’m stuck in Acts, cause this is the question I’m struggling with. Id like to ad a quote of Parker Palmer though: ”
    “Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them – and receive them from others when we are in need.”

    Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn’t just create abundance – community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

    It’s taken from his book,” Let your life speak”

    Let the Renaissance begin!

  6. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
    I always missed the point of this passage. I used to think it meant that I should go to church, but now I see the point is on stirring one another on to love and good works. I think I am missing your question, but at least close in saying that the church should stir one another on to love and do good.
    I havent heard that sermon lately.

  7. I have come to find that the wrong answers sometimes come from the wrong questions. For church in North America and Europe to be renewed and restored, the question must change from “what is church” to “who is church?” Listen to ourselves. We always use these words with reference to church:

    …come to church
    …go to church
    …at church
    …when I went to church Sunday
    …while I am in church
    AND SO ON.

    Our whole paradigm must change along with our language in order for people who have nothing to do with “church” to even want to have something to do with it. It is not what we teach, but what we emphasize that is communicated most clearly. If we continue to use this language and think only in the paradigms of places, then people will never understand the holistic lifestyle they are called to that Christ desires for them…to BE the church!

    140 references in the NT to “ekklesia” and everyone of them refers to people rather than places, events, etc. People don’t want another segment added to life. They don’t want something to fill their Sunday morning schedule. They want abundant life, fulfillment, beyond-self purpose. They can find it in BEING THE CHURCH if the church would BE who she needs to be.

    When we begin to be the church to our families, our neighbors, in the marketplace, throughout the world, and on the web, then and only then will people’s definition of church be redefined and restored to what Christ intended it to be.

    In practical terms, this means that when the people leave worshipGATHERING, the church leaves. When Christ-followers go to work, the church goes to work. When Christ-followers enjoy a latte and conversation, the church enjoys a latte and conversation. The church is completely pliable to become whatever it needs to be in the contexts she exists in. That’s when we will bring out the God-lights of this world and preserve the God-ness of our culture…when we quit doing church and trying to define it in boxed and structural terms, and instead define it in people and relational terms. She has many forms, but one purpose.

  8. I like to think of the church as both the gathered and sent community.
    The gathered community comes together to worship, praise, adore and magnify Christ Jesus. They listen to God’s Word, celebrate the Lord’s Supper, encourage and support one another in their discipleship.
    The sent community goes into the world to magnify Christ Jesus through service. As a spiritually transformed people through their apprenticeship to Jesus the sent community brings the kingdom into the world. They are salt, light and yeast.

  9. Jason, exactly.This conversation is an extension of my post on the “reversal of kingdom capital.”You’ll notice that my question is not: what is church? My question is what is a church?Part of this conversation regards our giving or “tithing”. There is a conversation happening within the mystic about whether Christ following people should give their “tithes” to/through a local church only or is it OK to give directly to meet the needs of others or to accomplish some missional task.So what’s your take on the following scenario? Jon, a Christ following body builder from Norway, meets Pedro, a Christ following horse trainer from Argentina for that latte you mentioned. They are, as you said, the church enjoying a coffee drink. I walk in to order a seasonally appropriate Pumpkin Spice Latte and decide I want to give them a tenth (a tithe) of my income.
    Since they are the church, would that be as legitimate a way to give as putting my money in the offering to “a local church”? There are a couple or three differing povs on this issue here at “into the mystic” –all of them with something good to offer. What do you think?

  10. I’ll go ahead and take the heat for whatever may come of this, but we don’t have any formal membership at symphonic, none in the sense of classes or member agreements or signing a document. we don’t really have a church ‘roll’ either. I don’t know why. maybe we are just to young and small for it to matter yet. I have struggled with this – I want to follow Jesus in this and all matters of life. I think, right now, I have settled on this explanation: even though we do not have a list of members we do have members, they have not been identified by us, they have identified themselves with us, they (and here is a slippery statement) have become self evident or church evident. Before you think I’m too crazy here – isn’t this the final argument about Scripture? It is what it is because God the Holy Spirit wrote it and reveals it as such? Parts of the body of Jesus Christ (authentic parts) cannot be manufactured, only recognized.

  11. Ron said… Parts of the body of Jesus Christ (authentic parts) cannot be manufactured, only recognized. – Good stuff!

    Authentic Christ followers have the Spirit of Christ living inside their physical bodies. Authentic Christ following communities have the Spirit of Christ living within their community body. Could we conclude that this Spirit draws the parts of himself together and that when they come together, they are ecclesia? We can’t artificially manufacture it, but we can recognize it when it happens. Remember the ancient post…

    We see it taking shape day after day–a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.

  12. I love this conversation.

    I think that since the church is people and not a structure, that there is a multitude of variations of expression as a church. From the organized local church to a gathering of 2 or 3 over a latte.

    A person’s choice of Christ-following community to live in largely determines–for me–what a person’s giving habits are. If a person finds meaning in living in Christian community within the bounds of an organized local church complete with buildings, staff, and utility bills, then I think there is a responsibility to give to God within that structuring. Of course, one wants to be sure that the local church they have chosen is being missional and doing something beyond supporting itself.

    If a person finds Christian community in a house church with little to no overhead, then they will give to God in the way common to the people in that gathering (ie to certain individuals in need, throwing Kingdom parties, or supporting other ministry needs in the community like food banks and soup kitchens.)

    I think that there are always exceptions to the rule though. For instance, someone attending a local church may feel the Spirit’s leading in a particular week to give their tithe to some other cause or individual. Likewise, someone attending a house church might feel the Spirit’s leading to give something a an organized local church that is doing missional work within the community.

    The questions that I am still pondering are: Is one particular expression of the Church better (perhaps “more authentic” is a more proper term here) than the others? Are there gatherings that we call church that fail to be an authentic expression of the Church? What can one do to help a gathering that is called a church to more accurately express the ethos of the Church?

  13. I like Jeremy’s idea of giving to God through the Christian community one is part of. For me one of the issues is that there is always enough. When we live by the resources of the Kingdom we have no need to hoard because God provides. Therefore I think that one could give to the mystic and still to a local church.

  14. IF the Church would at least recognize that giving 10% is something that is not optional, conversations like these wouldn’t even have to take place. There would be more than enough money to take care of the poor and needy all over the world. And I bet you could throw a few parties and buy a few drinks with what is left over.

    God has blessed his people worldwide beyond words, and yet many, if not most of us, hoard and spend on ourselves. Then many of us grow frustrated when leaders share about the value of releasing funds into the Kingdom (messages on tithing and giving).

    I think one of the bigger issues in the future will be on getting people to understand the importance of giving and doing it (no matter who it’s to).

  15. Stephen, How about this? Ten percent is what we give when we want to support programs. One hundred percent is what we give when we want to reach the world.

    In this sense, ten percent is optional, but one hundred percent isn’t.

  16. Alex,

    Sounds great. I like it. Now how do we teach that to other followers (other than maybe simply living it out…which may be the best and only way).

    This seems to fall right into line with the teachings of Christ (be willing to give it all, at least) as well.

  17. Isn’t perhaps the reason so many churches struggle to get people to give 10% precisely because we see so little fruit from our giving? We give to support a budget rather than give to change the world. And I think that people want to give. People want to make a difference with their money. But they get told they have to give 10% to their church and all they see is it just getting swallowed.

    Some thoughts I have swirling around in my head as we look to plant a church are firstly for people to see 100% of their money as God’s, secondly to be committed to directly giving away a minimum of 10% of that, but thirdly that we encourage people to give only 5% to support the church directly and are released to give away the remaining 5% (or more) as they are led and to more directly be being a blessing to people.

  18. Another possible idea Sam is to set up the church’s spending so that half of all you recieve goes outside the congregation to things like missionaries, poor, needy etc.. That way people don’t see a difference between giving to a church and helping people. They can give to a church that gives.

  19. Thanks Jon. Even with thinking of asking people to give just 5% directly to the local church, I would still very much want that 5% to focused on helping people, supporting mission, service projects etc. We definitely are looking to run a very low maintenance budget in terms of staff, building etc.

  20. Keeping overhead low to nothing will allow almost all funds received to go toward mission. One of our greatest challenges is overcoming the modern paradigm of church which includes professional staff, building, expensive marketing, etc. There is still a need for that, but when 80-90% of gifts go toward keeping the machine running, mission gets the crumbs.

  21. mission mission mission mission mission misssion = authentic gving from Christ following church (heart)

    task task task task task task = mechanical giving from believers (head)

  22. Well, I’ve been silently following this conversation, and I deeply appreciate all of your thoughts and heart-felt desire toward finding the path. It is inspiring and encouraging.

    Yet, there is yet another facet of Alex’s question that I’d like to raise, especially here in a dialogue between church-planting/missionary/mystics. One that, as I become more and more aware of my own sense of leadership identity (or lack thereof) I find hidden at the heart of the “church” issue.

    It seems to me that brooding underneath the question of “what is a church” as it is specifically asked by leaders is the much more personal question of “What is the role of a twenty-first century shepherd/leader?”

    As initiators in the Kingdom we cannot help but reproduce forms and models of “church” that are specifically aligned with our own sense of place, purpose, and identity as leaders. Does this sound ego-centric? Probably, but I think it’s true. How likely are you to build a community without defining your own role as leader? Whether we like it or not, your specific identity in the community becomes the first “structure” that the community is built around.

    Frankly, a decade ago when my present Kingdom paradigm transformations were beginning to first unsettle me, it became more and more pleasant for me to daydream of Christ-following without the burdens or expectations of trying to explain to others how the local church should manifest. I often thought, “If only I was ‘free’ to go on mission without having to handle this ‘church paradigm crap.’ Without others looking to me for answers, now.” I was having a hard enough time keeping up with a changed view of mission in general, let alone explaining how leaders (i.e.: me) fit into the picture. Questions of new paradigms in oversight, eldership, and the like, became part of an incredibly and unexpectedly painful identity crisis.

    What is a church? And who are you in it? To some degree or another the question you’ve been trying to answer relates deeply to your own sense of biblical responsibility as leaders. It is a sense of responsibility toward care, oversight, feeding and leading that ultimately raises the ugly questions of organization, structures, programs, Kingdom capital, and the like.

    I have a good friend who is the leader of what you could call a highly decentralized missional movement. He says he’s not really a church-goer as much as a church-doer and church-be-r. I love that. I love him. He leads leaders. As a leader, I never ask how he is led or fed because quite frankly, I get it. But my heart still pains for those of you in the trenches whose ministries are not national, international, or global. Those of you who still change dirty diapers and are left to answer the daily question of how the church that you’ve been called to lead somehow should manifest itself locally.

    I’d love to see more interaction between you regarding your roles. For now, all I can add to the discussion is the trusting encouragement that when our own sense of identity begins to congeal, and we find our true face and place before Him … the Wind will blow.

  23. Boy, Shaman, it’s been five weeks and I’m still thinking about the issues you raised. For instance, It seems to me that brooding underneath the question of “what is a church” as it is specifically asked by leaders is the much more personal question of “What is the role of a twenty-first century shepherd/leader?”
    Just a couple half-baked comments:
    1. The best pastoral theology book I’ve ever read (okay, many of them I don’t get past the back cover and table of contents, b/c I can tell already that it won’t help me) is by David C. Fisher. The first half of the book deals in depth with just four questions: Who am I? (i.e. pastoral identity: it’s written for pastors) What’s my address? (relevance of geography) What time is it? (not the 18th C. anymore, nor even the 20th) Whose church is this? (relevance of ecclesiology) The second half of the book is more narrative, called “Portrait of a Pastor”. Both are excellent excellent, tho already a bit dated (pub.1996) He was way ahead of his time in his thinking, and it is still relevant today.

    Fisher says “Modern ecclesiology wears a very human face… more interested in matters of organization, polity, offices, and officers. Biblical ecclesiology [is more interested in] the distinguishing character of the people of God. …This break between earthly and practical matters, the local church, and eternal and theological matters, has worked enormous mischief in the church.” (p.76)
    I agree, and this discussion thread is just a beginning. But, the beginning is where we need to start.

    Much later, in the second half, he says things like “Our work demands that we appreciate and understand the citizens of this [world]. We speak Christ’s Word into a very specific set of circumstances to people bound by time and space. Our message must also bear deep sensitivity and love for the poor lost citizens of earth to whom we are sent to help. I know that I fall short in both these areas…” (p.241)
    I wish I could contact Fisher somehow, that he might contribute to this discussion himself.

    2. Thank you for your sincere interest in how those of us who simply ARE “leaders” (despite our roles or lack thereof) cope with [changing] dirty diapers and are left to answer the daily question of how the church that you’ve been called to lead somehow should manifest itself locally. Now that I read that again, I guess you may be talking to pastors laboring under 19th C. paradigms. But many of us mystic warrior types are “sidelined” (according to the old paradigm): having to change diapers etc., or in a “boundary time” as Bobby Clinton so charitably calls it, or find ourselves in secular work when our first choice would be full-time ministry.

    The hope I find in the Mystic is this new paradigm of being “on mission” no matter how I pay the bills; no matter what my business card might say; no matter what formal role or title society might pin on me. I can be a “mystic warrior” for Christ, I can serve the Church and my local church with all my gifts and talents and possessions, if only I have the humility and creativity to discern how and when they might be exercised in whatever context I’m in.

    Not a new thought, I know. Brother Lawrence tried hard to transmit it to us, centuries ago. But for some reason, it did not help me much until expressed in this new way.

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