There is a huge amount of energy right now around creating new worshipping communities. That’s good: Like all living things, the Church needs to grow or we will die.
But all that ferment should prompt some questions:
What makes a “community” a “church”? What are we aiming to be?
I’ve blogged off and on about the many forms of Christian community that have come to life in the Church across the ages. But this takes the question in a different direction.
- Is the Christian community that centers its life in, say, a coffee shop or a pub, automatically “church”?
- Is the Christian community that moves into a shared house or a neighborhood to better be disciples in mission also “church”?
- Is the worshipping community that meets on the internet to serve the techy, or under a bridge to serve the homeless, any less “church”?
We have to aim to be the Church. It isn’t optional, no matter how bad our experience of particular churches.
Jesus did not lay out a detailed polity or liturgy, but he did make it clear that the Church is at the center of his plan:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16.18 NRSV)
I think new worshipping communities (as well as longstanding congregations) would be wise to think about Church and community in three concentric circles:
Outer Circle: The Church Encounters the Not-Church
Every congregation that aims to be the Church has to exist in a broad outer circle.
This is where the Church encounters the “Not-Church.” It may seem like blurry line, but there is a zone that marks a difference.
No matter how inclusive we want to be, there are all those people who do not claim to follow Christ. They will tell you that they are not part of the Church.
This is the exciting zone where people who need the new life Christ offers find out about him. Some people’s lives are sheer hell — but Jesus said the gates of hell could not prevail when the Church comes near with faith in Christ.
This is the highly permeable zone where, through loving relationship and public witness everyone who does not yet know Christ can find out about him and draw near.
This is the Church in the world, the Church in God’s mission with or without programs and plans. If the Church pulls back from this, then they are failing in the work of Jesus.
But this outer, permeable circle is not the heart of the Church’s existence.
Here people who don’t believe, or follow, or love Jesus are welcomed in love. But they are not yet part of the Church even as they experience the welcome of the community, because they do not believe, or follow, or love Jesus.
Middle Circle: The Community Builds Disciples
Inside the outer permeable zone is a middle circle. This is the place where those who have been drawn close to the community in that outer zone can learn, and grow, and become part of the community.
In the early centuries of the Church they called this process “catechesis.” They gave a good three years to teaching prospective members what Christian faith was about.
- There were things to know about what Christians believe.
- There was a disciple’s lifestyle to adopt.
- There was a community to grow into relationship with.
Whether we make it an intentional process or not, there is still a lot to learn to be a disciple today.
Churches who do take this circle seriously can really transform people’s lives.
- A serious education program, learning the Bible’s teaching, can build confident faithfulness.
- A serious mission program can build the habits of seeking justice and serving others.
- A serious small group program can create deep relationships that bring healing and joy.
I think we’d do well to have a life-long focus on these transformative issues. If we don’t, the Church will be unable to do anything of worth in the outer circle of relationship with the world.
But this middle, transformative circle is not the heart of the Church’s existence.
The Church needs to be serious about this middle zone because this is where interested non-Christians become effective practicing Christians.
Inner Circle: The Church Is the Church
So where, or when, is the Church really, in essence, the Church?
The center of the target is the community gathered on Sunday morning for worship. We gather as the Church (though we welcome those from the permeable outer layer who want to know more).
We gather on Sunday morning for no small reason: That is when Jesus rose from the dead. This is the weekly celebration of the new life, the salvation, that the Resurrection brings us.
We gather to be in the presence of God and respond as is fitting:
- we bow down in worship
- we offer praise
- we confess sin
- we seek mercy and help
- we hear the Word of God.
Most importantly, and most crucial to our identity as the center circle, as the Church in its essence we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
Even if some particular Protestant theology convinces you that the Lord’s Supper is purely a matter of symbolism, look at what the symbolism teaches you: Jesus gives you his body and blood, uniting you to himself.
In the Eucharist, more than in any other aspect of the Christian faith, we learn that we have become the Body of Christ — the Church.
Worship, especially the Eucharist, is at the center of the actual life of the Church.
(If that doesn’t mesh with your experience, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just says something about the worship life in your congregation.)
We Need All Three Circles
If we don’t keep a clear focus on all three circles we get into problems.
Confuse the outer circle with the essence of the Church and we end up with “seeker sensitive” approaches that remove core elements out of fear of offense. Neglect the outer circle and we end up hidden away, failing to live our Christ’s mission
Neglect the middle circle and we end up with no competent disciples able to bear witness to the world, to lead the Church, or even to appreciate what goes on in the innermost circle of worship.
Fail to attend to the inner circle, the communion with God at heart of Christian community, and you end up wondering why you joined in the first place; your energy is sapped by maintaining the institution or serving the world without springs of living water bubbling up to restore you.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: Which circle is easiest to attend to? Which is the most challenging?
And if you need a way to engage with the Bible that builds faith and communion with God, let me send you a free copy of my new book.