Today’s guest post on what is church comes from Dr. Janise McNair, PhD, ECE.
I have attended church since childhood. Not the same church, but always a protestant church. I started out in a Methodist church, then my family moved around a bit and we attended the protestant church service on different military bases. While in college, I attended a Baptist church, and now I’m in a Methodist church again. As far as other religions go, I have enjoyed learning about the experiences and importance of other religions through close relationships with friends of various international backgrounds. But through it all, I have pretty much stayed influenced by the long line of churchgoers in my family that have had a positive impact on my life and the lives of others.
What is church? Well, that’s a difficult question for me. Or maybe I should say it is an easy question with a very long, complicated answer. For me, church is so many things and also a few, very specific things. I wondered, should I write about THE Church, a church or my church? I struggled with where to begin and where to end. I decided to begin here. Church, for me, is a gathering place that helps prepare me to go out and do good things. The church gathering is a chance to set myself away from the busyness and noise of my life and to sit and think about how I’m doing, how I can improve, how to pray for/mourn/celebrate with others and how to be inspired to do something more. Church is turning off the cell phone, not checking email, not answering the door, not thinking about the grocery list or the next meal or the next deal or the next call. Church helps me focus on the right things.
Church, for me, is learning about scripture. The Bible is an ancient document from the Middle East, written by men, translated and canonized by the elite, and reproduced thousands of times, but it is a document that has taught me so much about human nature, the human spirit and God. It teaches me in ways that challenge me, but also in practical ways that influence how I relate to my family and how I relate to my community. It’s good. The more I learn and understand how things work, the more I’m able to figure out how to do the right thing, and also to figure out when the church is not doing the right thing. I enjoy being in a church where I’m taught by people who have studied scripture in a lot of detail with a lot of context. I love to learn from people who have a life experience with the scriptures that gives a personal perspective to how they apply it to life in general, and to their own lives in particular.
Church, for me, is also an opportunity to worship together. First, let me say that I think worship can happen anywhere. It can happen in my car while I listen to or sing a certain song. It can happen on the beach, when I see the majesty of a sunset. It can happen in a small group of people who have gathered to pray for someone. It can happen in a huge gathering of noisy people who are all praising God. I think it can happen any place under any conditions because Jesus is everywhere accessible, ready and willing to connect.
Worship in a church gathering has been a learning experience for me. Some time ago, I used to sit in the pew thinking about what I was or wasn’t getting from a given church service. Even at a good church, I would get distracted when something wasn’t quite what I expected, and that would become the focus of my thoughts. At some point the thought came to me, “God is not sending me to church for what I can get out. He’s sending me to church for what I can put in.’’ So, I tried to approach worship differently. I started to bring worship with me by praying on the drive to church. I prayed for the choir and musicians. I prayed for the preacher. I prayed for the church as a whole. I prayed for my wants to take a back seat for a while so I could experience God’s presence. When I remember to follow this practice, worship in church is always meaningful and moving to me, no matter what tries to distract me.
Lastly, Church, for me, is community. Standing next to other people, shaking someone’s hand, looking people in the eyes and listening to someone’s story. It pulls me out of my universe-of-one and reminds me that the universe might be a little bit bigger than my own problems, opinions, and intentions. I think, in the early church in Acts, the fellowship of believers was not so much about agreement, getting along and doing the same thing, as much as it was about gathering together, learning together and getting through things together. This feeling of community, in good churches, leads to taking care of the needs of the community — service projects, missions, and acts of kindness. The church can be a source of social justice that is as large as a civil rights movement or as small as a free plate of food.
So, Church, for me-THE church, a church, and my church—is a living part of the community. It brings people together to learn about Jesus, to worship Him in spirit and in truth, and then sends them out to serve and love people.