What is a church anyway?
Long before Covid, I taught an adult education class titled “What is the Church, Anyway?” I can’t remember where I came up with that title, but I do remember that I was attempting to discover the purpose of church by considering its phases through history. It turned out to be a fun class. The first session we looked at the early phase of the church, the first and second century. Then we looked at the church during and after Constantine. Then, we considered the monastic period, then the Protestant Reformation, then the early 20th century. Finally, we concluded with the modern American church. It was a fast-paced, superficial, 10,000 foot view of the church through time. The conclusion? At each historical period, it seemed that a group of disaffected members broke off to pursue an alternative form of church, which inevitably became the form that survived into the next historical period. For example, in the late-Constantine period a group called the “desert mothers and fathers,” who were concerned with the institutionalization of the church, formed small, isolated religious orders in the desert. These groups would eventually become the monasteries that survived the fall of Rome (and preserved many Greek and Roman technologies through the Middle Ages).
Today, as the church moves through another historical period, I can’t help but wonder what group of disaffected members will stumble upon the church of the future? Will it be the “dinner groups” churches who meet on weeknights for food, fellowship, and conversation? (e.g, The Way Collective). Or will it be the mega church that sells its building and moves totally online, like The Potter’s House? Or maybe it will be the small, nimble community church that maintains a person-to-person connection like a church we all know and love. From where we stand there is really no way to tell what will survive and thrive. All we can do is to keep doing church with integrity, to identify what we value and then to preserve it in whatever form we can. One other lesson we discovered from our “What Is the Church, Anyway?” class was that in each period, God was guiding the church into the future to meet the spiritual and material needs of the people inside and outside the church. In the end, the answer to the question of “what is the church?” seemed to be “whatever God needs it to be.”
Still enthusiastic for the future!