It’s said that one of the historic strengths of the Christian faith is that it can fit into any society yet also filter and change it at the same time. Most religions continue to maintain their personality when in a different culture while Christianity enfolds itself and flavours its environment while retaining its core beliefs.
The same principle holds even within a culture. Churches have bazillions of different ways of doing things: Church or cathedral? Expressive or reflective? Liturgical or free flowing? Worship team or choir? Gospel quartet or christian rock? Eucharist or altar call? Sermon or homily? Dunking or sprinkling? All kinds of things either open or closed. I could go on for a long time but they’re all Christian.
Admit it – when we use the word church we are inevitably speaking about some kind of building and the activities of people gathered in that building. But almost every person sitting in a pew on Sunday morning will also know that the true term Church is much larger than that.
The universal Church consists of every person who confesses Jesus and follows his teachings: it is comprised of believers from all over the world, of every skin colour, denomination and doctrinal background.
Your church is a part of THE Church, but so are those other churches in your city and the neighbours down the street meeting in a house. The Church is people in a coffee shop sharing life and faith, as much as a family praying together is. Believers who have left their church can still be part of the Church because it doesn’t belong to any allegiance other than Jesus.
Last week I wrote about the phenomenon of people who are churchless, also known as the invisible church. People who come to a place where participating in their church leaves them exhausted, dissatisfied and shallow.
However, imagine standing in a church in a Mexican slum and listening to people singing and sharing their stories in a language you can’t understand, yet feeling safe and mysteriously sensing something in common with them. Imagine someone from the U.S. Bible Belt visiting in your home and as you visit you feel a kinship with them than you hadn’t expected. Imagine traveling to the middle of the African continent, driving for hours on flooded, pothole filled roads into the countryside where there is no hint of electricity, then sitting down for a meal with people who you immediately connect with in a special way. Imagine meeting someone randomly on the beach at a resort in the Caribbean and discovering a deep commonness with a person you have never met and never will again. Imagine sitting in the home of good friends who have chosen to be churchless but who speak honestly about their journey and openly about their love of God.
Even as I’m writing this another happening came to my mind. Okay, don’t laugh, but many years ago I experienced a feeling of, well, energy … flowing between me and an older Christian man who I randomly met one day at work. Now, I’m not one of those people. I’m not a hand-waving charismatic, and I doubt these stories when others tell them, but I’ll never doubt this experience. Something invisible but real moved between us, something discernible and almost physical. I’m sure he felt it too, though neither of us spoke of it, probably because we didn’t know how to. For me, it was a mystical confirmation of my faith, for a person who doesn’t do mystical, at a time when I needed it.
Those are a few of my personal experiences of well-being, brotherhood, a meeting of soul-and-spirit with people that surprised and blessed me. I was a part of the Church universal and we shared something special, something inner, something … holy.
Just to be clear, there are lots of healthy small ‘c’ churches where you can find a spiritual community. Often they are good for us even when we aren’t comfortable because learning to live together is important. I want you to know that if you are in one, you are the Church.
But God is much more than human constructs; there are smaller, more natural ways of being Church; of being part of the larger Body of the Church. Remember that the first churches were people simply meeting in homes, sharing a meal and letting God direct them. All over the world people still do that.
Just know that God’s kingdom includes you and people like you; introverts, deep thinkers, purists and square pegs are also welcome.
So just be the Church. Be the Church in your home, be the Church in a coffee shop; be the Church at work; be the Church in your daily life. Find a time and place to get together with someone(s) and discover God together: talk, ask, share, eat, drink, discuss Bible passages, cry, laugh, sing, pray.
And if none of that works out, rest in God’s love and be his agent of grace to those around you.
The Church universal. Cool, huh?