Category Archives: Introduction

The Name

There is a conversation–some might even say a debate–concerning the nature of the church.  What is it?  How does it function?  How might we define it?  These questions, of course, each have multiple answers.  It’s not going to be an “all of the above” sort of answer, because there are certain things that the church is not.  I don’t think it useful, right now, to define the church by what it’s not.

The conversation takes us between “Church as an institution” and “Church as an organism.”  I remember that we had this discussion in Church History 1 or Historical Theology 1, or (more likely) in both.

The bottom line, of course, is that the church is both.  It is an institution and it is an organism.  Here I welcome any thoughts, but in my own opinion we find elements of each.

We have an organism: something that is living, growing, at times even declining.  It goes through changes and develops to meet the needs of each new generation.  It is made of living human beings which make up the Body of Christ, no part of which is complete without the others.

We have an institution: something that contains a hierarchy of leadership, statutes and stipulations, canons and codes of discipline.  It changes based on the decisions of committees and governing boards.  In many ways the church acts as a business, with revenue and marketing and a need to sustain itself.

There are elements of both an institution and an organism within what we call church.  Some of us may prefer one construct over the other.  I see it as both.  Because of the tradition I am a part of, I more readily label the church as an institution.  But if it truly is an instution, it is an uncommon one.  The church here on earth is meant to be reflection of the heavenly banquet and mansions and communion and kingdom which we will one day share with all the saints when heaven and earth are one.

I cannot think of a better way to describe this uncommon institution than in the words of Peter Chrysologus.  Commenting on Luke 12:32 (“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”), Chrysologus wrote:

The flock is little in the eyes of the world, but great in the eyes of God.  It is little–because he calls glorious those whom he has trained to the innocence of sheep and to Christian meekness.  The flock is little, not as the remnant of a big one, but as one which has grown from small beginnings.  This little flock denotes the infancy of his newborn church, and immediately he promises that through the blessings of heaven this church will soon have the dignity of his kingdom.

This is an uncommon institution.

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The Plan (Introduction, Part 2)

I think it only appropriate to outline what the plan is over this next academic year.  In short, I will be visiting parishes of different denominations each Sunday morning.  For the first semester (September-December), I will visit parishes of mainstream, Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist).  For the second semester (February-May) I will visit parishes which would label themselves as independent or non-denominational churches.

The Motive: to observe and to understand what people label as “church,” through attention, reflection and evaluation.

  • Attention – basically, this entails attending services.  I believe that the God who created all things has given us license for the various ways we might worship him.  Although I am aware of what is inappropriate in worship, I enter parishes determined to worship God in the way the given congregation (and denomination, I will assume) is accustomed to.  In other words, I’m not going to walk in and merely observe – I’m going to participate in corporate worship.
  • Reflection – this is what my blog posts will be about.  I will describe my encounter at the parishes I visit.  I will, as objectively as possible, outline the service, the message of the sermon or testimonies, the prayers, the tools, the trajectory…anything that comes to mind, and most especially those things which stand out.  I don’t want the posts to go on forever, so I will summarize as best I can.  I will offer my opinions, but only in order to invite conversation.
  • Evaluation – This is where I’d like your help.  No man is an island, as I (and John Donne) have mentioned before.  Evaluate is the word I use, but I do not use it to mean “bash,” “barade,” “diminish,” or “argue.”  I am aware that some parishes may say or do things which I disagree with.  I will not hide or neglect those things, but neither will I use them to write off an entire denomination.  I want to know what people label as “church,” and, if possible, why they do so.  I would like it if you who read would feel comfortable to share your comments and thoughts with me and others through this blog.

I cannot enter a worship service blindly, however.  I’ll do some light research on the parishes I will visit, which basically means I’ll visit their websites.  If by chance or providence I know someone at a parish, I’ll ask him or her about the parish.  If possible, I want to go on a “normal” Sunday – not a parish annual meeting Sunday, or a stewardship Sunday – if information like that is available on a website, I’ll be sure to take note.

I also do not want to be blinded by my own biases, and so for the next few weeks, before school starts, I’ll be working through my own understanding of what “church” is.  Having been raised in one tradition, I have certain expectations of what I will see and do on a Sunday morning.  But I do not think that what I do on a Sunday morning is the only thing to do on a Sunday morning.  At times, going to parishes of different denominations does feel like going to a restaurant and only getting the appetizer.  At times, going to Episcopal or Anglican parishes feels like going to a restaurant where my meat was seriously undercooked.

All that said, I will spend the month of August outlining my understanding of “church,” and why I am perfectly comfortable calling what I do on Sunday mornings “church.”  From now on, I’ll probably stop putting “church” in quotations.  At some point there will be a tab above the header that says “Glossary,” where terms I use such as “church” and “parish,” or “Episcopal” and “Anglican,” will be defined as I am using them (this is a place, I hope, that you will assist and help me to clarify we’re talking about).

So for now, thank you for reading my introduction(s).  If you’re following, or just reading, and you know of someone who would appreciate this project or could contribute in any way, I invite you to invite him or her (or them!) to the conversation.

Pax.

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Two Stories (Introduction, Part 1)

In order to begin, I would like to share two short stories.  The first is this:

Five years ago, during my freshman year of college (Spring semester, 2006), a group of my friends came with me to church.  I had begun going to an Episcopal/Anglican Parish north of Rochester, New York in January.  My roommate became the most consistent for a time, but each week I seemed to have a different person or group of people joining me.  On one occasion, one of my friends asked me, quite plainly, “Shane, what would you do if you wanted to add something to your service?”  Not completely understanding, I said, “What would we want to add?”  She responded with another question: “Well, do you ever feel like something is missing from your services?”  I thought through the question, but only said that it was something I should keep in mind and ponder over.

My friend was not rude or impolite.  To my knowledge, it was the first time she’d been to an Anglican/Episcopal Parish, and I believe she was creating discussion and trying to understand something new, as we all do from time to time.  I thank her for her questions and still think through them, constantly.

The second story is this:

While I was in college, I was a co-leader of a Sunday-night ministry called “Foot of the Cross.”  “Foot” was started in the 1990s, I believe, as an alternative to the more traditional school chapel services.  “Foot” had music, usually led by a “worship band” or pair of guys playing acoustic guitars, followed by a speaker.  At times music would also conclude the service.  This, at least, was the custom while I was at Roberts.  Perhaps ironically, chapel had come to be consistently the same as “Foot,” and attendance at “Foot” dropped over the years.  While we were in charge, we attempted to make some changes to the program, but on any given night, it wasn’t out of the question to assume “Foot” would be music-speaker-music in format.  I was well aware that no one would call this “church.”  No one would say, “I’m not going to church in the morning because I’ll go to ‘Foot’ in the evening.”  No one considered “Foot” as a substitute or equivalent to “church.”  I visited some friends after college and went to church with them.  Though I may have expected it, I ended up surprised to see that the program for the church service was music-speaker-music.  The service I went to that Sunday morning was the same in format as the Sunday night services at “Foot of the Cross.”

What makes “church”?  What makes a building filled with people on a Sunday morning (or any time of the week) “church”?  Why was music-speaker-music not church on Sunday nights, but music-speaker-music was church on Sunday mornings?  Perhaps my assumption here was wrong: perhaps they intentionally didn’t think of the format but of the message, or the community, or the time that constitutes “church” (in this case, I could only think of time being the difference).

The question, “What is church?” is more complicated that we think.  I believe our definition of what it means to be a “church” deserves careful attention, reflection, and evaluation.  For Christians, the fellowship of believers, celebrating the feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord together on a Sunday morning is a cornerstone of our rules of life and spiritual growth (or, at least, it should be).  This blog will become my outlet for attending, reflecting, and seeking to understand services at parishes other than my own, and to help me understand what people label as “church.”

This, along with a desire to know and attempt to understand other denominations within the body of Christ, is the impetus for this project, if we’d call it that.  I’ll continue the introduction in a subsequent post.

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