A lot of times I sense that my generation is in the midst of trying to define – or maybe redefine – what “church” means.
We tweak the worship. We’ve substituted “old-fashioned” church homilies with slick marketing and PR that wouldn’t be out of place in most major corporations. We change the setting and encourage services now at malls and coffee shops (or, alternatively, we make the inside of our church buildings look like malls and coffee shops). Our pastors wear jeans; we have digital outreach ministries and allow for online tithing.
I suspect this has occurred at least in part because my generation is often critical of the church – sometimes fairly, it’s true, and sometimes not. Told for years that “this is just how it is,” a lot of my peers are now rebelling against that attitude in order to proclaim loudly what works for them in church and what doesn’t. They want to decide for themselves “how it should be” rather than simply accepting “this is how it’s always been done.” And so defining what church should be and should look like is the natural reflection of that urge.
But regardless of what we criticize or change, Christmas Eve reminded me of two things: that church is simple, and that church is necessary.
When I attended my church’s Christmas candlelight service this past week, I was struck by how warm and wonderful it was. I sat with my husband in front of a Deaf couple who had brought their own interpreter, just down the pew from a group of elderly women and their husbands who had attended together, and to the right of a young Kenyan woman and her mother. I didn’t know any of them – we’d all come from different morning services to attend this one and the congregation around us was packed wall to wall. We all wished each other Merry Christmas, and it was touching to see that people seemed eager to be present. We all sang the carols loudly regardless of our singing ability. People hugged and said “yes, I believe” with firm conviction when the pastor asked if we, too, recognized the consolation of Israel and the light of the Gentiles as having come to earth to save us.
Outside in the world, when I am going about my day to day, I must relate to the world as what I am: as an outsider, as an alien, as someone who is not from here. I engage with people daily who don’t share a vocabulary of faith with me, who don’t always understand my values, and who do not assume the same truths that I do – and I live with the understanding that it is my privilege to care for them and about them. God wants us to do that, indeed commands us to do that.
But it is a refreshing change of pace after that to enter a place where everyone shares my vocabulary; where everyone is waiting eagerly for what I am waiting eagerly for; where the things that matter to me matter to everyone else regardless of our many differences otherwise. Together, we can say, “I believe.” Together, we sing and share a sort of joy that only we know. Together, regardless of who and how we are, in our assembling together as we are encouraged (Hebrews 10:25), we find family and peace and home. And it is in those moments that I recognize the paltry echoes of what I know we will eventually witness one day:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it (Rev. 21:22-26).
It’s not wrong to criticize the church when the church needs to be criticized. Nor is it wrong to want to shape the church and interrogate our notions about it, to work on it, to continually seek out ways to make it better. But in the end, we must not neglect the basic foundation of what it is. Church is simple: it is Christians meeting together in praise and love. It is a place where we go to share the Spirit with others, to find a home away from the world. For that reason we must not neglect it; and if we are not satisfied with it, then we must move to return it to its purpose, never to abandon it.
God wanted to give us a place and a people to whom we might belong.