Thousands of books (dare I say tens of thousands?) have been written about it. Ecclesiastical rock stars have touted the top 10 ways to do it (and written books). Denominations are still wrestling with THE way to do it. And yet, we aren’t there yet.
I don’t know how many books, conferences, YouTube talks, and general conversations I’ve encountered about how to “do” church better, but in all of them I get this sickly feeling that we are missing something huge. To friend or not to friend parishioners on Facebook. This or that kind of music. To have a children’s moment or not. How can we get more people in the church? Should we have a big fellowship event? To engage in “contemporary” worship or not (shouldn’t all worship be contemporary, that is, relevant).
So how do we “do” church better? I’ve heard this question over and over. Well, my initial answer is: “We don’t ‘do’ church. We ‘are’ Church.” Even the very word “church” denotes a way of being: deriving from the Greek kyrios meaning, “ruler” or “lord”, a word often used in the Greek Christian scriptures (often referred to erroneously as the New Testament), which developed into kyriakon meaning “of the Lord” and which was used for houses of Christian worship around the 4th century, eventually morphing into the German word kirika, from which, it would seem by most references I’ve seen, we get “church”. But, in the 4th century, evidently the Greek ekklesia was more common, literally meaning “a gathering.” In other words, it’s a noun, or at least an adjective: it is a name or a description of something, not an action.
This all leads me to believe that we “are” the Church (that is, the gathering of the people of God) when we actually gather (there’s the verb). It describes what we do already, and, more importantly, it describes who we are: we are the gathering of God’s people. If this not the starting point of any conversation about the people of God, I have to say that the conversation is sadly misguided. And as soon as we start talking about trying to get more people in the pews on Sunday morning (or whenever a particular faith community might gather), then we have succumbed to the consumerist trap of ecclesiology (the study of people gathering, particularly in Christian settings).
I truly believe, and go ahead and call me naive if you want, that if we are intentional about our gathering (and that means being intentional about why we gather which should then form how we gather, where we gather, and what the place looks like…not the other way around) that our gathering will become attractive to those who are looking for that thing that pulls on their spiritual strings and is guiding them on their journeys of searching and discovery as they look for that for which they are longing—namely, connection. That, I believe, is what Jesus was ultimately trying to do when he gathered his rag-tag band of misfit fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other castaways (pardon the fishing pun)—he was building a community centered on the living and loving God, and shaped around the vision God has had for creation since the beginning.
Idealistic? Unrealistic? Maybe. But as I read the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, the stories about Jesus in the Greek scriptures, and the genesis of what has become the Christian Church, I cannot help but believe that we are sorely missing something huge in all of our hiring consultants, slick advertising, and grandiose productions. And as usual, that thing is so simple yet so elusive—connection…to God, to one another, to that thing that is nagging at our hearts and minds that tells us (even the most devout atheist among us) that there is something more, something much deeper, something warm yet dangerous, something that, if we’re willing to take the enormous risks to gaze upon, will change our lives forever (and that is probably what is scariest of all).
So how do we do church better? Stop trying to be something we’re not, and just seek through practice, trial-and-error, and some seriously deep and scary self-reflection to be what God is calling us to be individually and communally (those of us in the U.S. could probably use a larger dose of the latter, though). It means taking some risks with one another and ourselves. It means not being afraid, knowing we will get hurt, and caring enough to try anyway. It means leaning into that overwhelming love of God and trusting that things will be ok no matter what happens (and even if we die in the process, to trust that God’s work will go on and that people will go on).
Call me naive. Call me what you will. But I still believe and I’ll keep working on it, in me and my community.