When Is Church not “Church?”

March 15, 2010

What makes church “church?”

What is the one thing a church has to have in order for that hour on Sunday to be “church?”

Honestly, as a pastor, I don’t think I really know anymore.

What Makes It “Church?”

Is it Communion?
Most of our churches follow the same format on Sundays.  They are, despite some bells and whistles, the same basic formula.  There’s some singing, a sermon, some announcements, and an offering taken up.  And if we’re feeling really holy, we squeeze in Communion.  Some churches make a big production out of Communion.  Some churches seem like it’s just the one day they allow snacks in the sanctuary. 

Is it the sermon?
My Baptist preaching professor loved to wax poetic about the “supremacy” of preaching.  Meaning: if you don’t have anything but a sermon (and mandatory altar call), that’s okay, because that’s all that really matters in church anyway.  That seems a tad bit self-important and narcissistic to me, and I’m a preacher.  And how did we land on forty minutes as the “ideal” sermon length?  Was someone pining for the days when they daydreamed through their college lectures?  Because without singing, that’s kind of what you have in church.  There are days when our worship leader is gone, so we don’t sing.  And I know that my sermon feels more like a lecture than it should.

Is it the singing?
Though I don’t really know how we mandated singing as an integral part of worship.  If you think about it, saying rhyming words in unison with other people is a pretty weird thing to do.  It’s not like I just pop into song on Monday morning with my quartet of coworkers like a hot Broadway musical.  Believe me, I’ve tried, and it does not come off at all well.  It was as if no one even looked at the songsheets I distributed on Friday, much less memorized them.  Julie Andrews would’ve projectile vomited if she had seen us.  But in church, I feel it is good, nay necessary that I break into song, and it always flows without a hitch.

Is it the building?
Lots of people are sentimental about the building they go to church in.  Which is kind of a barrier for me when I tell them about my house church.  They can’t imagine what it must be like for a church to not have a building.  For that matter, they seem confused about how it can actually be a church without a building.  They also seem to not comprehend the steps it takes to get a building, including having a lot of people, and a lot of money.  Guess what?  No one can serve two masters.  You can’t worship a building and money, people.  You have to pick one. 

Is it just showing up?
So what can you throw away and still have church?  A priest in Ireland is trying to throw almost everything away and see if he can still have church.  His morning mass now has no sermon, minimal singing, a speedy Communion, and lasts 15 minutes. (Sunday mass, I’m guessing is still long and boring.) 

Fifteen minutes?  That’s half the time I spend watching a hilarious episode of The Office.

And guess what…it’s working.  People are showing up.  They like it because they go to church and then get on their way to work.

Sure, it’s a weekday mass and not Sunday morning.  But it makes me ask: what is really necessary in church?  If we had 15 minutes on Sunday morning, would that do?  Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered…” He didn’t say what they had to do while they were gathered, or how long they should gather.

Still, I don’t know.  Is the point of church to just worship God, or do you need to gain new knowledge or grow spiritually?  Is it church if you “fill your tank” and improve your marriage and finances in three convenient sermon points?  What if the sermon is garbage anyway?  Is it still church, or would it have been more “church” with no sermon at all?  What if you just passively listen and don’t really absorb the sermon?  Maybe after all the sermonizing and offerings, your church only spends about 15 minutes “worshipping” anyway!

So, is the “quickie” mass innovative, or pointless?

The more I think about it, the more conflicted I really am.  What do you think?  What is the lowest common denominator of “church?”  How much can you do without, and what do you have to have?  Do we have an idol in our preaching?  Or is this Irish church setting the bar way too low?

One response to When Is Church not “Church?”

  1. Hey there! I’m notoriously bad about reading the blogs that I’m subscribed to. I have several hundred more in queue to read after this one… but, I thought this was a very interesting topic.

    I once worked with a pastor that would not allow a new service to be started at the church because it would be a service in which he wouldn’t preach. Reading scriptures, according to him, was not officially “presentation of the Word” – which he was sure was part of worship.

    This being said, most of his sermons were on the basic topic of “How to make your life better through Christianity…” (Which, in my estimation also isn’t “presentation of the Word”.)

    Although I think that committing one’s self to eliminating a great portion of the worship rituals/acts could become an exercise in minimization, I also think that if done in a true spirit of worship, then you’re offering people an opportunity to make daily worship a part of their life. And let’s be honest – most people even don’t give 15 minutes a day… so, I’m all for it.

    Keep up the good blogging!!