The Church is Our Buildings
In one sense, we all think we know what the church is. It's the assembly of people who gather some place for worship, plus everything else that proceeds from that gathered and then sent event.
Intriguingly, we let the building in which these gatherings take place symbolically stand in for the church itself, so the church really is also, in most instances, a building.
Buildings are almost always integral to church because a) people have bodies, and bodies take up space (and need seats), especially when there are many bodies together, and b) the church in worship is formed around the sacraments, most of which include material elements like bread and wine and water that require things like tables and bowls and bathtubs and chalices.
The church is all the people who gather in all the buildings that make up the church. So the church is the whole church, what the creed calls the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
We aren't quite who we are without all of us, although there is some danger either in defining just our one way of being a church of churches as the one way to be church, and/or by mutually recognizing all other churches, reifying our own form of church because there is no need for us to work for structural unity of all the churches if each way of organizing church is itself already church.
Already we are at a level of complexity that gives indication why it is so hard to define "the church," especially the church in relation to other concepts like "culture"--think of Niebuhr's typology of Christ and culture, with the church against, of, above, in paradox, or transforming the culture--or recent inquiries into the church (like James Davison Hunter) as that which can change the "world."
The Church is the Sacrament of the Trinity
So the church is all about God in Christ in the Spirit. It is the community that lives in hope of the promised community that is on the way. So, as if the sociological dimensions of church as institution were not complex enough to define church, we are required by the nature of the case to add this theological, Trinitarian dimension also.
We still don't know what the church really IS
Just take a couple of case studies.
1) Il Papa: Think about the news released recently that Pope Francis sneaks out of the Vatican at night to serve the homeless. Since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the head of the worldwide Catholic church, the pope more than any other living Christian likely can lay claim to representing "the church." And yet in order to live out the call of the Christian in the world (which is what the church collectively is called to do) he has had to do so under cloak of secrecy, because the church that is does not quite live in the way the church is called to be if it is in fact called to new life by one member of the church, the current pope.
2) Missional: Or take the word missional. We like this word a lot these days, primarily because we want to emphasize the sent-ness of the church, God's sending the church into the world participating in the missio dei, the mission of God. When the church realizes this call and focuses on sending, it discovers how complicated distinguishing church from world actually is in practice. Since the members of the church are also members of the world, it is not always simple or helpful to distinguish one from the other. And the very set-apart-ness the church assumes when talking about being missional requires formative practices in the church for the church to be its own thing sent distinctly into God's world. One of the best thought and practice leaders on this insight is 3DM, but then precisely because of this Up-In-Out understanding of the mission of the church, 3DM tends to re-define "church" in quite radical ways.
3) It's all one thing: Or perhaps none of this is even helpful at all, because even when the church is gathered as the church, it is still in and part of the world. There's no escaping the world even as the church desires both to transcend, be set apart, transform, or otherwise impact or change the world. There's nothing other than whatever is the case, the creation, and so the church is always implicit, complicit, and explicitly in and part of the very world it tends to attempt to set itself apart from.
4) It's the thing dying in Western contexts and thriving in the southern hemisphere: Pretty much every church is in decline in the United States now, and it's already a done deal in Canada and Europe. In the meantime, and for reasons that fall well beyond the scope of this post, it's an institution (whatever it is) thriving in the global south.
But what do we want out of church?
I was struck recently by this short quote from John Updike in A Month of Sundays. "The churches bore... for me the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it."
Setting aside for a bit both what the church is sociologically or theologically, or even what it does or how ideally it is to be modeled, in the North American context especially the church gets marketed to us often in some of the same ways as soda or sweet tea, and we have just about as many options for church as we do for soft drinks, but it does indeed leave us to wonder, in spite of the church's role in promoting thirst, whether it actually quenches it. On this latter point, I think most churches and church-leaders would have to admit we might be woefully inadequate, at least in part because we lack the courage to be the church in ways that actually quench rather than promote thirst.
I think this is one reason so many of us are drawn to Pope Francis. He seems to be more than a thirst-promoter. He models a way of being church we can see might actually quench our thirst. It's a rather unique situation, given that he is living as one Christian in the world but as the head of the largest communion of Christians (church) that exists. It's a phenomenon we're all watching but don't completely understand.
More importantly, it remains to be seen (and I count myself in this evaluation) whether we have the courage and faith to follow such a model.
For just one practical example of this, consider a recent report from a committee of the ELCA. This is a product of a committee at the national level of our church (our denomination) but it has radical implications for the local church, as well as the relationship between whatever we consider to be the church and the world:
The MAPP (Ministry Among People in Poverty) committee meeting was largely focused around deepening the conversation about how the ELCA and its congregations engage with people living in poverty or who are otherwise marginalized in society.
Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people.
Part of the reason for this is that our standard model for a congregation with a professional staff and a building, costs, in most places, 125K-150K per year just to operate at a minimal level. If we were to take as a definition of a MAPP community as:
Any word and sacrament community (SAWC, CUD, or Congregation) in which the average household income is less than or equal to twice the national poverty level…
How can a community like this ever sustain a burden and overhead structure of 125K per year?
This question led us to consider the idea that the essential or nuclear structure of any mission community consists of the intersection of three interlocking circles of PROCLAMATION, SERVICE, AND JUSTICE. In and of itself, such a community may or may not require the standard load structure of a congregation. But what sort of leadership does it require? What sort of space does it need? Could it be imagined as a community affiliated with some other congregation rather than as a completely independent entity? Could one leader shepherd several of these communities? What is the role of synods and churchwide structures in giving birth to these communities? What sort of ongoing support structure might be necessary to sustain them? How might this model change our approach to small immigrant communities, ex-offenders, runaway or throwaway teens, women who become mothers too soon and must drop out of high school, etc?