I’ve noticed something lately. Though it can’t possibly be the first time. Friends who go on long hikes to beautiful places or see a gorgeous sunset over the ocean or listen to a particularly inspiring piece of music or go to a museum to see priceless art describe those experiences as “going to church.” Or they say that the place they just visited “is church.” I know I haven’t just now heard the word church used in this way, but for some reason the language choice has become profoundly jarring to me.
In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve turned the phrase in this way. I know I’ve described various yoga classes and communities in which I’ve participated as being “church” to me. (Especially for someone who is not able to ‘worship’ because I am preaching or otherwise showing my public clergy face on Sunday morning.) Crawling out of bed in the dark to watch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon sure felt like jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring worship. Swimming out in Lake Michigan on a calm, sunny day sure feels a lot like being held in the hands of the Creator.
Ok. I’ll concede that those things ARE church if you stick with the first definition of church — a religious building — found in most dictionaries. If church simply refers to a building in which worship experiences of God take place, then you can make a very effective argument that those experiences happen almost everywhere, not just in official church buildings.
Those things may even be church if you’re thinking that all profound experiences that help you connect to something beyond yourself — God, Creator, Divine, the Universe, or whatever you call it — are somehow ‘being church.” You can certainly unroll your yoga mat, take a hike or stare at a great work of art for hours and have a profound spiritual experience. You’ll get no argument from me there.
However, if you take the notion of church, as I am prone to do, a step or two farther, church is not really a building. Nor is it a spiritual experience you have alone in a museum or in nature. The building is merely the place where the community gathers. The physical structure or rock formation or piece of art simply allow something far more profound to happen. Those things provide people with a place to worship, learn, pray and explore faith together over the course of months, years, generations. The building gives people a chance to express who this particular group of Jesus followers are in a particular time and particular place. It offers people the chance to wrestle with each others’ habits, opinions and peculiarities in order to come up with a shared vision of what it means to do Christ-centered ministry in the larger community. It helps us know whose we are and who we belong to (God).
Community is a much more difficult thing than a building (even given the cost of making sure the walls stay intact and the heat turned on). Community is crazy making. I have been known to say, tongue firmly planted in cheek, in moments of utter frustration, “The church would be a really great place if it weren’t for all the people!” But, if the people weren’t there, how would I learn patience? Acceptance? Perseverance? Honesty? How would I learn that God radiates within that person who just offended me for the 12th time? How would I come to recognize the face of Jesus in children sweetly and awkwardly singing a hymn? How would I come to know grace extended to me when I mess up for the billionth time myself?
So if you, my yoga doing, outdoors loving, new age book reading friends whom I love and adore, want church to be about something more (and you do from the way you’re using the word church), please think more carefully before you use the word next time. For my endearingly churchy friends, If you want faith to be something we live every day of our lives, please stop making the church building itself an idol and rather use it as a tool for sharing faith and doing ministry.
Whatever you do, do it together — going it alone is highly overrated.