The beautiful, mangled church

by Kristin on February 10, 2012

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Jo Naylor

When my blogging and Twitter friend Preston asked me to participate in a blog series he was organizing about “church,” I hesitated. The answer to the question “What is church?” is at once too easy and too complex.

The too easy answer, at least for me, is this: A building where people who believe in Jesus gather. But the head-scratching aspect quickly overshadows the easy answer. Just writing the first sentence of this post made me pause and second-guess. Do I write church, Church,  “church,” or The Church? Each approach carries its own connotations and triggers different reactions. The word “church” is obviously anything but clear cut.

“What is church?” is one of those questions that’s inevitably followed by a dozen more questions: Are you referring to the static space or a living organism? The church of Acts or the churches of today? A specific community of people or a broad institution? And if it’s a broad institution, do you include all Catholic and Protestant churches across the world?

All of these technical matters of definition are also colored by the very personal experiences and stories people bring to the conversation. If we grew up in a church or go to church now, we inevitably think of these specific places when we think of church. What are the connotations for you? Maybe church is boring or fun, a place filled with old people and donuts, the only place where we got to sing our hearts out, or the only place where we weren’t allowed to ask questions.

For those who haven’t had good experiences with church (or perhaps haven’t had any experiences at all), the word “church” might conjure defensive feelings—church can be seen as a place of judgmental, close-minded, old fashioned people who want everyone else to change and be more like them.

I’ve had my own share of experiences with churches, which means I have a full collection of associated words—everything from “boring” to “moving,” and “judgmental” to “fully accepting in love.” I’ve been “hurt by the church” as well as “rescued by the church.” That’s why I decided to be a part of Preston’s blog series. I realized, sadly, that “hurt by the church” is a far more common phrase than “rescued” or “loved” or “accepted” by the church, so I need to tell that hopeful story—the one that always seems to be less loud.

My post is scheduled to go up on Preston’s blog tomorrow—Saturday, February 11. Preston describes this project as simply “a series of over 50 posts from varying authors about the beautiful, mangled Church.” The idea came to him in the very same sort of confusion I’ve felt (and described above). Here’s how he put it:

I’ve been reflecting for the past few months on a lot of the polemics thrown around in modern Church. We don’t like the word “religion” and ritual seems frightening. We run from “institution” and jump on an idea of faith alone that, at times, loses our actual Lord and Savior in the process.

I hope you’ll take some time to read several of the At the Lord’s Table posts, and be a part of the conversation—it’s an important one to be having as we look back and move forward in faith.

When you hear the word “church,” what words, images and feelings bubble to the surface?

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  • sarah louise

    Will you post the link of your post? I’ll be very interested to read it. As one who has grown up “in the church” but so many different ones, who has converted from being a Presbyterian to Catholicism and back to being Presbyterian…it might not be a bad thing for me to explore more in my own writing.


  • Violet

    To me, “church” means two things: most concretely, church is a building where we worship God and join together in fellowship.

    But most importantly, church is everyone who worships God – Protestants, non-denoms, Catholics, Jews, and people who don’t have a “religion” but who believe in God and trust in His sovreignty. A hymn from my Catholic upbringing says, “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be with you, the Lord proclaimed.” That’s the real church.

  • Jonelle (warnoj)

    Since I was “moved” to attend our early church service instead of my regular one, perhaps I was “moved” to read your post tonight. The early service spoke of the peace that God brings. Church (and more importantly, God) is a powerful word in my life right now as I struggle to balance family, work, friends, hobbies; you name it and it’s on my plate that is being juggled over a very teetering foundation. Church is the vehicle to worship God. Your church might be the stained glass building down the street, the office building that rents out on Sunday, your mountain cabin, or your backyard.

  • Ray Hollenbach

    Kristin, I’m so sorry to comment four days late. I’m that far behind in reading my favorite blogs!

    Some people find their faith tested over questions like creation, or gender roles; for me questions about the church are some of the most difficult for me personally. Here is but one example, from Ephesians 1: 22 ” the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” How can this ragtag group of bickerin,g sinful, selfish people (of which I am a part) be the “fullness of Him?”

    There are at least a dozen passages that stretch my faith and understanding. Jesus has a remarkably high view of the church, and I’m pretty sure he’s mistaken. Either him or me, I’m not sure which.

  • Kristin T.

    sarah louise, you should definitely explore the topic of church in your writing! It was one of those exercises I wasn’t looking forward to, but then it really needed to come out. (Btw, if you haven’t already noticed, I did add the permalink to the post above for the post on Preston’s blog.)

    Violet, reading your comment made me think about how, as a child, we used to say the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday, which includes the line “I believe in the holy catholic church.” I remember asking my mom why we said that, and she explained that in this use, it was a reference to the universal church of believers. That sounds a lot like how you understand church. Thanks for sharing a bit of your experience!

    Jonelle, I can completely relate to the juggling you’re describing—my life feels too crowded right now, and I’m longing for that peace. Sometimes I find that in my church building on Sunday mornings, but other times my responsibilities there compete. I’m going to try to focus more on that sense of worship you mentioned.

    Ray, no need to ever apologize—I’m always happy for your thoughts, whenever you share them. What a great question this is: “How can this ragtag group of bickering, sinful, selfish people (of which I am a part) be the ‘fullness of Him?’” It does seem hard to imagine—not just the reality of it, but even the *possibility* of it! I guess that’s where the stretching and faith come in?

  • Winston Rand

    You post: When you hear the word “church,” what words, images and feelings bubble to the surface?
    For me: Well, alot of things. I won’t try to be too organized, just some thoughts. I have been involved with God and Church since I was 19. I had a turn around experience, and with it came both God and the Church. At the beginning of most things there is a good bit of naivite. I had no idea there was a difference between the two, I mean what do we know at that point! It’s like that with marriage too. So I very earnestly continued my journey getting deeper in with both God and the Church. To make a long story short, through grizzling experience I came to see a little more clearly that “boxed church”, as some call it, is not = to God. In its origins it was far more = to God, but even then one would not want to tread forth without discernment. I actually believe in a principle from the Bible that “in the beginniing it was not so”. what that means for me is that, though difficult, I am called distinquish and try to be “as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove” if that means discerning and yet kind and forgiving. Honestly, I think it’s a tall order for any human being- and we’re all in this human thing together- but it is doable with a measure of accepted pain (Henri Nouen and Brennan Manning are helpful here for me). So where does it leave me with “the Church”? In the beginning the church was not boxed, but it was organic. It was not something to theologise about, decide my right way and divide over it, as today with so many denominations of the church. Can you denominate something just because you want to? Not! But we do it anyway without regard for its creator’s “in the beginning” purposes. Getting a bit more practical, I have been a committed Christian for a fair number of years now and I can’t let go of original hopes and dreams of a real thing called church or koinonia or whatever that is not “boxed”. The problem is that for most people, it seems to me, the lack of structure and definition is too scary. I’m willing to accept wheat with the tares to a point, but not to a point that I lay down my heart. So, again honestly for me, I am waiting for what I call “a company of the willing”. I’m not sure that’s the right term, but it is what I am waiting for. Each year I poke around bookstores and people and look for people who might be risky enough to be looking for something like that. I know there is house church, but somehow the answer for me seems to be something that God Himself will release. I can’t just declare it out of time. Actually, I think it is coming and there always have been resurgences of real church along the way in history. So what do I do? I try to live it out in my family, which is probably meant to be a microcosm of a larger more identifiable Body of Christ. I still believe and I can’t give up on the book just because the cover’s not right. It’s late at night as I help keeping an eye on my sleep-walking grandson whom I love (so he doesn’t fall down stairs while doing an upstairs sleep over with his cousin). How’s that for late night jabber? Though I don’t know you, I appreciate your site and putting forth your reality so we can all benefit. Thanks. Win