The Definition of ‘Church’

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘church’?

In the following article I discuss my experience with and thoughts on ‘church’ with the understanding that my relationship in Christ and with other Christians is always an evolving and growing process. To provide some context, I have been a Christian since the age of 13. My understanding of what constitutes Christianity may be described in the Nicene Creed, or read on the About page. I write to a Christian audience (the ‘you’ and ‘we’ in particular refers to those who accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour), although I welcome inquiries and discussion from non-believers as well.

Note: This article has already been published under WCCAC’s 7th Trumpet. I am re-posting by request and have removed a minor footnote originally intended for humourous purpose. Hope you enjoy ^^.

Church, for me, has rarely ever been thought of as Westside Calgary Chinese Alliance Church (Westside). That phrase is only the name I give to people who ask what church I attend. In fact, for the first large part of my life, I thought of it as the Harry-Sally-Bill-Ann-Patty church; that is to say, I thought of church as the church that my friends and I attended. I don’t think this personal definition is too far off the mark of a real church though, since the word “church” just refers to a group of believers gathering together. This definition sufficed as long as I was close with my friends, and church felt like a fine place. Indeed this definition functioned throughout junior high and right up until the end of high school. Then I slowly began to lose touch with my friends.

University has a terrific way of pulling people apart. I stayed at home for university but after the first year I began to serve in the junior high youth fellowship. FLOW and Integrity, the junior high and university fellowships, fall on the same nights, so my time with FLOW meant that I had much less opportunity to stay connected with my friends and with the university crowd at church.

Thus, during those years, I began to think of church as the AWANA-Junior Worship-FLOW-work church. This is because church was now defined for me not so much by my friends as it was by the ministries in which I was involved. The peak of my involvement occurred when I was blessed to receive an internship position of eight months under Pastor Vicky’s supervision. For eight months I went to Westside every day, but it was now the office where I worked as well as the building in which I did much of my volunteering. After the eight months I withdrew from the children’s ministry and AWANA to focus on FLOW, and to give myself some much-needed space to learn and grow in the Word. I hadn’t listened to a sermon for almost a year. On a side note, I must point out that the people in each ministry (AWANA, VBS and Junior Worship) were wonderful to work with. Everyone was kind and caring and being able to serve alongside everyone else was a blessing and a learning experience in itself. Most beloved for me were the youth in FLOW, because seeing them every week was consistently and constantly the most bizarre combination of humbling experiences and blessings all at the same time.

Yet, after I withdrew from the children’s ministries, I began to see church as purely the FLOW-church. While I was finally able to hear a sermon and attend service, church was re-defined almost entirely by my connection with FLOW and the girls’ junior high Sunday School. The only church I was most comfortable in was the one that included my co-counselors and the junior high youth. This couldn’t last, of course. Four years after I began, I completed my term as FLOW counselor and once again found myself struggling to define the word “church,” a word that was now equally strange and familiar. To be honest, I felt lost. Westside was still the place where I worshiped, but I felt increasingly displaced. Not until I read a devotional passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer did I realize my long-lived error.

Bonhoeffer writes that a basis of a church community is not constituted by “what a man is in himself as a Christian, [or by] his spirituality and piety” (296). Though I felt that church was defined by my ministries, this was a mistake, and a grievous one at that. For any one of us to define our church by what we contribute is to begin to define the church by ourselves and to thus shift our focus from God’s grace to our efforts. Bonhoeffer sums the correct view here:

What determines our brotherhood is what [man] is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, and though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. (296)

Reader, you likely have a very good understanding of how my views of church came to be. But I have realized now, and I exhort you to realize this too: that the Christian community is not one that you make through your service or through your efforts at building a relationship. Rather our church already exists and through Christ we are enabled and encouraged to participate. In very straightforward terms I have realized that church is not based on what I contribute, or what I make of it, as the world is so wont to say of other social gatherings. How does one practically go about defining church by Christ and not by themselves or the people around them? Bonhoeffer reminds us gently that the Christian community is “not an ideal which we must realize… [but] rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (296). Perhaps the best thing for us is to strip ourselves of whatever significance we think our ministries may have, and concentrate purely on the community which we are able to enjoy through Jesus. Perhaps then we will understand and enjoy to a greater degree the fellow believers around us, so that church never becomes a place purely of work but of fellowship. To be honest, I have not come to the conclusion as to what precisely church should entail, but I am on an ever-continuous journey in understanding “church.” I am confident only of this: that as we rely increasingly on the grace of Jesus we will participate better in this community He has provided.

—–

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Excerpts from Life Together.” Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups. Ed. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith. Harper: 1993, New York. 293-98.

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