What is the Church again? – Pastor Thoughts

“What is the Church?”

The most recent article of the Canada Lutheran splashed this question across its cover. It sounds like an open-ended question with a myriad of possible answers. If you asked 5 different people sitting in the pews or watching online on Sunday mornings, you will get 5 different answers. Asking 5 different pastors might even yield 5 different answers. 

And yet, here we are, all participating and engaging in this thing called “church.” Somehow we figured out how to do something in common and we seem to carry with us some kind of agreement about what the body we all belong to is and what it is about. 

In our post-modern world, defining what the church is feels like it is something that we each get to do, that we can form and shape the church in whatever way suits us. One version of the church is all about fancy music and fancy liturgy. Another version is all about serving the local community through outreach, food banks, social programs, community meals. And still another has all the programs that someone of any age could need to feel a part of the group: children’s ministry, youth, young adults, families, men’s groups, women’s groups, seniors groups and so on… Still another is all about connections and fellowship and relationships –  a big happy family. 

If you visit enough churches, you will find versions of these and more across the Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada, across North America, and the denominational spectrum. 

Post-modern Christianity can really be a choose-your-own-adventure reality. 

However as Lutherans, the answer to the question “What is the church?” might not be as open-ended as we sometimes act like. In fact, Martin Luther and the Reformers had a very specific and clear answer to this question. 

The church in the Reformers day was shaped by the Pope acting like an emperor, Bishops acting like princes and clergy who exploited the people. So the Reformers looked to have an answer that stripped away all human power and preference. They sought to articulate what the church was at its most essential.

What they came up with is written in the Augsburg Confession Article 7. “The Church is the assembly of believers where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.” Or in other words, the church is:

  • People of faith gathered together
  • The Gospel proclaimed 
  • People receiving baptism and communion

The next part might be surprising, even difficult, to hear: Everything beyond Word and Sacraments is secondary. Everything we do beyond gathering around the Word and Sacraments flows from that central foundation. 

That means that the way we worship, the programs we run, the committees that meet, the buildings that we build, the fellowship gatherings we host, the causes we undertake and so on, are things we do that are because of, or in support of, gathering around Word and Sacrament. 

The music and liturgy that we use in worship are meant to be an expression of our unity of the body. 

The outreach we do to feed the hungry are because God first feeds us in communion and transforms us into the Body of Christ – bread for the world. 

The programs we run: small groups, bible studies, youth, children’s ministry etc… are places to help us grow in faith by hearing the Gospel in new and different ways. 

The building, the fellowship events, the committees, the kind of coffee we drink, the pews we sit in, the lights and heat, the screens and bulletins, the bathrooms and couches, the eNews and volunteer teams etc… are pieces that exist in order to facilitate our gathering around Word and Sacrament. 

Even though so many of those things I listed above feel like they are essential to being church, they are actually secondary. Important, but secondary. When they serve the essential purpose of being a community around Word and Sacrament, they are worthwhile. But all too often the secondary things supplant the essential things. Suddenly Word and Sacrament takes a back seat to all the variety of versions of being church that each of us hold in our own minds and preference. More significantly, in times of change and transition – such as during the past 3 years – those secondary things that once served our gathering so well might begin to fail us or they might stop working all together. 

This is hard. Hard to understand how things that we thought were about what it meant to be church seem to be crumbling before us. Hard to let go of things that we thought were such an important part of being church. 

This is why we need to be reminded of the foundation, the core things that make us the church. “The church is the assembly of believers where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” And even when so much about being church is changing and different, this core remains. God transforms us into the One of Christ by gathering us around the good news of the Word that gives us life: Baptism that makes children of God, and Communion that makes us food for the world. 

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