What is the Church?

I’ve been wrestling through this question a lot lately. I know the “right” answer. Something along the lines of “It’s not a building, but a group of people who follow Jesus.” But, that answer is lacking in specificity, at best, mainly because it leaves you questioning what it means to follow Jesus… an answer I thought was obvious until a few years ago.

Definitely not the case.

Yet, even in dissecting the meaning of discipleship and everything that comes with a true belief in Jesus, one that moves past intellect and leads us to a transformed life, we’re left with a mixed bag of opinions, theologies, dogmas, and a whole lot of questions.

After spending almost a year on the road, visiting a new church every Sunday, our family has experienced many expressions of community. And I’ll confess that I was more than a little annoyed when Covid stranded us in Chattanooga, historically the “Most Churched City” in the country (per capita). For someone with a heart for church planting, this was frustrating to say the least.

But that frustration has led to some serious soul searching over the past few years.

Because not only is Chattanooga an epicenter for churches, it’s also a leader in the non-profit sector. (Yet another reason why I believe the Lord has a sense of humor: The LAST place church planting New Englanders who run a non-profit would plan to put down roots would be in a community like Chattanooga. This city has enough churches and non-profits already, not to mention the important fact that Chattanooga is a place where EVERYTHING is about who you know… and we knew absolutely no one.)

Yet, here’s the paradox: How is it possible to have a church on almost every corner, but have an exploding rate of homelessness? A high violent crime rate? A foster care system in desperate need of foster parents?

Over the past couple of months I’ve had two conversations that have made me want to take up this blog again. The first one happened back in the fall when a local church asked if they could help us with a volunteer project we were organizing. They wanted their congregants to wear shirts representing their church. Our response was simple: We NEVER wear our shirts at volunteer events. Mostly because we don’t want to bring attention to ourselves. And, at the risk of stepping on the soap box, I honestly don’t understand the mentality, outside of being a safety precaution… but even then, you can wear neon green shirts that don’t act as a billboard for your church. Publicizing a church at a volunteer event seems to fly in the face of Matthew 6:3. (Granted, we’re not necessarily doing things in secret, but, at the very least, let’s be discreet.)

The second conversation revolved around a WHAT a specific church was going to be known for in their community. Specifically, what types of services to the community did they want to be known for. And this is when the light bulb went off. I started going back through conversations I’ve had over the past 20 years and there is MOST DEFINITELY a common thread when it comes to programming and ministries. Every church we’ve ever been a part of seems, at least in part, to be motivated by a desire to be known for something they do, or some service they provide.

And maybe this is part of the problem.

Maybe instead of focusing time and energy on what the local institution (a local church) would be known for, we could focus on equipping and empowering congregants to step into those spaces in their communities … on their own. Or, better yet, ask other congregants to join them.

But, without the shirts.

The truth is simple. Most communities don’t need another community kitchen or food pantry. They need volunteers to show up with no other agenda but to love people. To see them and to serve them. Without promoting themselves, or the place they gather on Sunday morning.

I always go back to a conversation I had with an elder at a church in Portland and how the leadership intentionally decided to give tens of thousands of dollars to our local children’s hospital in hopes that some of the wealthy doctors would start coming (AND TITHING) to our church… instead of giving it to a local ministry that was actively serving the refugee community and having a difficult time making payroll.

Seriously. I can’t make this up.

When we’re motivated… even in part… to make decisions based on how they elevate OUR names, or line our pockets, we’ve already missed the point.

BUT… here’s the REAL reason I want to write again:

The work we’re going in our community, partnered with other organizations, non-profits, and businesses is the closest things I’ve ever experienced to the community I hear churches talk about. And, yes, some of them are followers of Jesus. But, some of them aren’t. Some of them also left the church a long time ago. And, of those individuals who have left, I can’t tell you how many of them have referenced the work we’re doing, asking if we’re “faith-based.”

We’re not.

But as a family we’re living out our faith with no agenda but to simply help others.

And with no tacky neon shirts. EVER.

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