Church: Why? What’s the Point?

I’ve been pondering a question lately, the sort of thing I suppose only pastors wonder about: Why do we do church? Why do we keep coming together week after week after week the way we do? Why do we do so many of the activities that we think of as church: from the church service to Sunday School to Bible studies to fellowship dinners to mission trips and service projects? Why?

Of course, for me all of that raises the more fundamental question: What is the nature of church? What is it exactly that church is supposed to be or do? Understand, I’m not really asking this from the individual church point of view, but rather from the church-in-general perspective. What constitutes church? What exactly is it that defines us as a church?

After all, there are any number of ways of looking at it. We as church do so much. So what part is the ‘real’ church, the heart of who and what we are?

So, for instance, we do a lot of reading and studying the Bible in most churches. So is that our primary function? Is the church mostly an ancient form of a religious learning center, a forerunner to the parochial school?

Or are we more of a social fellowship group? After all, we do a lot of social activities. We are a community of people, and we reinforce that with all our dinners and fun gatherings and trips. So is that who we really are? Are we as church primarily a religious social club?

Or are we perhaps more of a community service organization? Do we exist mainly to go out into our neighborhoods and communities and try to help those who need it and to make our world a better place? Are we in essence little more than a religious version of the United Way or the Peace Corps? Is this who we really are as church?

What is it that defines us as church? What is our primary purpose? What is that thing that if we were to stop doing it, we would cease to be a ‘church’ in the proper sense?

I have my opinion about how to answer that question, and I may well share that answer in a later post. But, for now I’m simply interested in the question itself, because it strikes me that this is central to the problem of the United Methodist Church right now.

As I talk with other UM pastors, I am always surprised by the variety of answers I get to these questions. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. We are, after all, a fairly diverse church. Why should we be any less so here?

Still, it concerns me. This is a matter of ecclesiology, and we don’t seem to have a central one. Everyone assumes we do, but that’s because everyone assumes that their answer is the answer. We all think that everyone else is working off our assumptions and presuppositions. But they’re not.

This is part of why our marketing efforts fail, I suspect. We don’t know which ‘church’ to advertise. And, when we pick one at a national level, it seldom reflects the majority of our churches. Not because we’re all working off of another well-defined concept of ‘church’, but rather because we are all working off of so many other definitions.

So, if I may, let me ask it here: What does it mean to be church? What is it that you think we ought to be doing as a church? What defines us? And why? Why should we bother to do it that way and not another?

What do you think? Why church? What’s the point?

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4 responses to “Church: Why? What’s the Point?

  • Craig L. Adams

    To me the preaching of the Gospel, teaching the Bible, guiding people into a life of prayer are all central to the mission and ministry of the Church. Historically, Methodists believed in an “experienced religion” – and I believe this is still vital today. I think I’ve been consistent in valuing these things over the years – but I often feel quite out of step with my colleagues. And, I do not believe this is the direction the general Church has been moving – though there is some lip service given to these this.

    The problem with not having a consistent view of what the Church should be doing, is that we can’t do everything. Doing some things very well may preclude doing other things well.

  • John Meunier

    Great set of questions, Lauren. Don’t all you elder types have to answer a question like this at some point? It would be interesting to collect those up and see what people write.

    My answer at the moment goes something like this: The church is the people called by Jesus Christ to be his witnesses in the world. (Inspired by Acts 1:8). I have not really unpacked what that means since your post got me to put my first three minutes of serious thought into it for quite a while. (How bad is that?)

    Just for kicks, here is the answer from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s outline of the faith.

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  • Lauren

    The problem with not having a consistent view of what the Church should be doing, is that we can’t do everything. Doing some things very well may preclude doing other things well.

    Craig, I think you’re right. And, as a result, so many of our churches are incredibly scattered in their efforts. We all want to do the right thing. We just don’t know what to do first. Without some clear set of priorities to guide us, we tend to drift, to just go through the motions. Your insight here is valuable.

    Don’t all you elder types have to answer a question like this at some point?

    John, yes, we probably do have to answer some version of these questions for ordination, but as you rightly point out in your blog post, our definition of church and mission is generously vague. Even our mission statement – to make disciples for the transformation of the world – leaves lots of room for various interpretations.

    And you’re right. It would be interesting to hear all those definitions of church and mission lined out in a row. I think we’d be surprised by the shear variety of interpretations. And, to your latter point, don’t feel too bad. In my experience none of us really think about this issue near enough. I know I don’t.

    Thank you both for your input.

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