By Nathan Taylor, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
I was reading How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community by Kelly Bean and she showed me we need a new way of understanding what it means to be a church.
She presents the same concepts I’ve heard time and time again but with one major difference. She lives out that understanding.
She affirms the basics of what a church is.
Little “c” church is a community of believers. Big “C” Church is the collective of all believers.
But more importantly both churches and the Church are people, not buildings. These are very commonly held ideas about church. But the problem is they aren’t lived out.
Throughout the book she is very careful to refer to ‘church buildings.’ But I wonder why she doesn’t call the alternative communities she is heralding churches.
I know that my understanding of a church would include those gatherings.
This is the thrust of the book. A movement changing our understanding of what it means to be part of a church. A movement from going to church, to being church.
This will require a major change in the way we communicate about churches and about church buildings. She tells the story of a church that gave their building a name to help prevent confusion. I think that is a brilliant step to keep our understanding of church and our practice of being church clear. Quakers call the building a meeting house.
So how do we speak about churches while avoiding confusing the building?
I like thinking about it like hermit crabs.
The church is the hermit crab body and the church building is the shell. The shell isnt a part of the crab it is simply the space that the body of the crab resides in until it outgrows it’s shell.
One problem with this metaphor becomes painfully obvious; churches build buildings. Hermit crabs don’t make their own shells they move into abandoned shells.
Well the same was true of the early churches and many modern churches now. Many churches gather in homes or intentional communities or in spaces like the stories of this book.
Then I thought about the earliest church before a church building existed and I wondered when was the first church building built. According to an article on Christianity Today the earliest evidence of a building being built specifically for a church to gather in was in late 300s to early 400s—so basically the beginning of Christendom.
Now that many claim we are living in post-Christendom, perhaps this return to a lack of an emphasis on a church building is part of that. But that’s just it: the emphasis needs to be on the church, not the church building. Every community has a space they exist in, but it doesn’t need to be a church building. And that doesn’t mean it can’t be a church building. We need to inhabit a space that fits us like hermit crabs. And hermit crabs that grow need bigger buildings to inhabit. But what happens if a hermit crab shrinks and its shell is too large and cumbersome for it to carry around?
Then we lean on our understanding of what a church is and seek out a space that fits.
I am not saying you need to abandon your building. As a youth director I have sought to create spaces for youth. Space is very important to me. It says a lot about your priorities and concerns where your youth are located physically within a church building. And what that space looks like. But the space is secondary to the church, to the body gathered.
The PC(USA) puts it like this:
“The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (F-1.0301 Book of Order)
We are to be communities trusting and risking. Does your church look like that? Does the Church look like that?
I do have one critique of the book. I find the author’s insights to be quite brilliant but I wish the stories she told were fewer to have more room for her thoughts. As it stands the book tells so many different stories that are wonderful and worth telling, but I would like fewer stories and more editorializing.