There were many interesting and important discussions during my years studying theology, but the one I remember the most clearly was on the topic of church. Specifically, what makes a church a church? I figured I knew the answer to this question. I’d been to many churches in my life and knew how it all worked.
I’ve been going to church since my first week of being alive. I went to Christian youth camps as a 2 year old because my dad was the youth leader at a little Wesleyan Methodist church, as well as a singer in the choir and a member of the board (you tend to have a few roles in small churches). And I have great memories of that place. Then my family shifted to a “huge” Baptist church just before I started high school. There were like 40 people in the youth group, the pastor used props when he preached, and they even had electric guitars and drums on stage! It was a little different. But we were there for a long time and I ended up getting used to it, playing in the worship band myself, becoming a youth leader, and then becoming part of a rock band that played worship music at other churches, youth groups and festivals. By the time I got to Bible college, I’d seen many churches and worship services, and even started up some services myself. I knew how it worked.
Then I went to Bible college, and a teacher said, “Ok let’s chuck everything out and start from scratch. Suppose you’re going to start up a new church. What do you actually need for it to be a church?”
What would you say? What makes a church?
I’d been to a lot of churches, and they all had their differences – big, small, new, old, friendly and welcoming, professional, generous, entertaining, boring, loud – but I didn’t feel uncomfortable in any of them because they all had the same basic structure. There was a pastor, a youth group, children’s/men’s/women’s ministry, playgroups, midweek small groups (Bible studies, KYB, life groups), seats arranged in rows and a Sunday service with singing, church notices and a sermon. It didn’t matter how big or small the group was – they all had these same basic elements. (Since then I’ve even visited a church with only 20 people and they still felt the need to have all these things!)
So is that what makes a church? It certainly seems that way when you read a lot of the church planting books. Find a pastor, gather 30 people or more, then start the Sunday service and all those other ministries. Crikey! That’s actually incredibly difficult! Even the first bit – finding a suitably brilliant pastor/entrepreneur – is hard enough. It’s no wonder the set up time is usually counted in months and years.
But there’s good news.
Thankfully, you don’t need to do all that to be a church. And this is why that Bible college discussion blew my mind. Because when it came down to it, you only need three things to be a church: worship, community and mission. (And thankfully, for the many people who haven’t been blessed with silky smooth vocal chords, “worship” does not equal “singing.”) I’ve read many books on church since then, and they all seem to say the same things, although sometimes with different words. Worship, community, mission. Or Up with God, In with each other, Out to the world.
We call it being Monks, Cheerleaders and Activists.
Monks – discovering who God is and what he cares about.
Cheerleaders – encouraging and supporting each other, praying for each other, celebrating and mourning with each other, loving one another.
And activists – working to do our bit to help put the world back together.
It doesn’t matter how you get together. You can sing songs or you can outlaw them. You can have pews or picnic rugs. You can have a thousand people or six. You can have a sermon or you can have a conversation. You can meet every day or every couple of weeks. If your group is centred around following Jesus and helping each other to be monks, cheerleaders and activists, then it’s a church.
For me that idea was actually a huge relief, and directly led to the small but awesome simple group of friends that messes up my house every fortnight (thank God for dishwashers!). My hunch is that this understanding of church could also open the door for many more simple churches and groups, in many more houses, parks, pubs, retirement villages, workplaces and so on. Led by many more ordinary people like me. That’s what I’m praying for.
Please let me know if any of this strikes a chord for you. I’d love to have a chat!