Saturday, June 02, 2007

What is the church anyway?

We still get the 'Monthly Memo' from our old church in Shepton Mallet, and the June one has this provocative quote:

"When an organisation is in trouble, the answer is not to wring hands or employ the latest gimmicks, but to go back to the foundation documents." In other words, to go back to the original purpose it was founded for.

What is the purpose of the church? Or, to put the question a different way, what defines the church? Centuries of being the official church of the land means that an Anglican church is often defined as building+priest+parish boundary+public worship. But what if none of these things make you a church? Is it possible to have them all, but not to be truly a church?

There are all sorts of debates going on at the moment, as 'fresh expressions of church' or 'emerging churches' are established, about what makes a church a church. As a recent episode of House (medical drama on Channel 5) observed, 'just because you call something a dwarf doesn't mean it is a dwarf', and just because you call something a church doesn't mean it is a church.

There are a whole set of different models for defining an authentic 'church', here are the ones I can think of off the top of my head:
- One, holy, catholic and apostolic
- Where God's word is preached and the sacraments properly celebrated (Luther, I think)
- Community, Worship, Mission and Spirituality (Robert Warren)

I guess all these, and all the other models on the market, are attempts to tease out what the 'foundation documents' say. To me, the following things seem to be the essentials of a new testament church:
- mission: declaring the good news and making disciples of Jesus
- meeting together for worship, teaching and community
- the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit at work
- shared life: shared time, resources, gifts
- the right quality of leadership (which is a whole new posting!)

If I was trying to put all of this into a single statement, it would be something like 'A community of disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus'. Caught up in discipleship is worship, mission, community, the work of the Spirit, and both the right attitude towards those who lead you, and to your own leadership of others. I note in passing that none of the above presupposes a priest, building, parish boundary or public worship on a Sunday.

What are the essentials of a church?

Is this the right question to be asking?

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