What is the Church?

I like to breathe.

What I mean by that is that I like to pay attention to my breath. I like to close my eyes, inhale deep, and imagine what it was like in the Garden when God breathed His breath into the dusty lungs of the first person.

Whenever I take a moment to think on that, I realize the miracle of my being. I suddenly feel intimately connected to the breath rising in and out of the person next to me. It’s a beautiful thing.

bolivia la paz church
La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by Matthew Snyder.

“Do you still believe in the Church?”

Today I met with a peer learning group at one of the coffee shops in town. We’re sitting together throughout the semester to share stories and challenges from our ministry assignments, to bounce ideas off one another and provide some sense of encouragement and solidarity. It’s a good thing.

It came up that I was in a church last week teaching Sunday School — an unexpected ministry assignment of mine — and one of my friends asked, “Do you still believe in the Church?”

She didn’t ask it accusingly, but inquisitively, clearly seeking my understanding on the topic.

“Could you clarify what you mean by ‘belief,’” I asked. “Do you think it’s still worth it?” she replied. Having thought on it recently, I said without missing a beat:

“Absolutely.”

A non-traditional view of the Church

Perhaps you’re sitting there on the other side of the screen shaking your head and thinking: No, Matt — NO! The Church is the epicenter of so many problems in our world. How can you still find value in it?

And I would say you’re right — kind of.

Maybe this is a non-traditional view, and if so, that’s fine with me. But I think part of the problem with the Church is that we’ve made it “fixed.” In the West, we’ve made the Church stationary, sitting like a mausoleum on street corners in neighborhoods all across the country.

We’ve turned it into an institutionalized organization and run it like a business. It’s brick and mortar — something you visit or walk in and out of, like Starbucks.

Yes, it’s important to have somewhere to gather together collectively to worship, learn, and grow. But we put more of our money into the ritual part of it, not the doing part (see here).

I appreciate that the Quakers call “Meeting Houses” what the rest of Christianity calls “churches.” Similarly, instead of calling what happens on Sunday morning “church” or “worship,” they call it “meeting.” It retains the integrity of what I’m about to get into.

What is the Church?

I’ve always liked what Elton Trueblood said, “The church is many things, but primarily it is a Society of Jesus, made up of ordinary people penetrating ordinary life.”

We need to remember that the Church is really people — you and me — the very representations of “Jesus with skin on” to the people around us. It is an organic, living fellowship of human beings. And moving collectively and powerfully within that fellowship is the very breath of God.

This fellowship of ragamuffins — those codependent on the grace of God — is called not to remove or separate itself from the world, but to enter into it, because we are just as much a part of it as it is a part of us. 

In the same way that God put on skin and entered into our midst, so we are to put on Christ Jesus and enter into solidarity with those in the world thirsting for hope, hungering for change, and wanting for grace.

And I don’t say that implying they have to pray the magical prayer! — because we all know that prayer doesn’t change them; demonstrations of solidarity, love, and mercy do.

Final thoughts on the Church

Does the Church need to change? YES. But just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it lacks value. If you can learn from your mistakes, then so can the fellowship that’s codependent on grace.

I just pray it does.

So when I breathe deep and contemplate my breath and the breath of the person next to me, I realize the beauty of God I share with that person. I become aware of how connected we really are to one another.

Trueblood says, “Christianity, when true to itself, is a movement with a powerful thrust.” The Church collectively holds in its lungs the Spirit [wind, breath] of God!

May we no longer hold our Breath, but rather enter into the world, driven by compassion, action, and mercy. May we be Jesus with skin on and show the world what he’s like.

MS

 

About Matthew Snyder

Matt is a thirty-something writer and young adult minister. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Merridith, and their dog, Finn.

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