First time I suggested ditching ‘church’ from our vocabularies (2009) I offended some people, including my wonderful mum. So, I feel the need to explain myself.
I’m back from a stimulating gathering of Christians, mainly from Churches of Scotland (see what I did there, I contradicted myself), focused on ‘Re-imagining Church: Out-with The Walls, Beyond The Boundaries’. The word ‘church’ is so written into identity and culture, both Christian & non-Christian, that it’s almost impossible to avoid when discussing what God’s doing or not doing today. But to radically re-imagine Christian ‘church’ in order to free Christians to live out the life & society transforming love of Christ in daily, down-to-earth ways requires more suggestive words than ‘church’. To attract people to new life in Christ & isolation-busting community life necessitates removal of all the negative associations that come with the word ‘church’.
Having said that, if you prefix ‘church’ with subversive words like ‘messy’ & ‘sweaty’ or soul-connecting words like ‘well-being’ & ‘mindfulness’, there may be hope for the word ‘church’ in attracting. ‘Church’ is people and our draw to such gatherings & activities will usually be as strong as our relationships with people.
Christians use ‘church’ ambiguously. “I went to a church” – building or gathering? Both in & out with Christian community, people can equate ‘church’ with a dead building or religious ritual, rather than the gathering & scattering of people who love God & follow Christ. How we abuse ‘church’ is also dangerous in how it promotes the secular-sacred divide & lie that views a church building as holier than a place of work, mall, street, football pitch, forest, valley, mountain, etc. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1). God is everywhere, The Kingdom of Heaven near to all human beings (Matthew 3:2), & ‘Church’ (God’s Family & Temple, Christ’s Body & Bride, etc.) is wherever God’s People live, move & have their being.
I prefer words like ‘community’ to describe God’s People, & ‘The Kingdom of God’ to describe Christ’s presence & activity in the world. I love how Irvine folk now say “I’m going to ConneXions” rather than Fullarton Church, overjoyed to see many respond positively to the loving & caring relationships practiced in ConneXions: a place & people, centre & community, a crossroads for caring relationships, where unchurched people and groups feel at home.
If we can’t ditch and completely replace ‘church’ let’s be careful with it. Does ‘Church’ pride stop us ‘waking up to smell the nitroglycerine’. I sense a growing awareness in our beloved Church of Scotland of just how desperate things are in terms of falling roles, reduced ministers and struggling churches. Thank you Albert Bogle & Sanctuary First for this conference, igniting imagination & fanning Spirit flames. Neil Glover (Ministries Council Convener), after his workshop on the difficulty of establishing hub ministries succinctly summed up (for me) where we are in relation to reimagination, renewal & revival of faith, hope & love in Christ – “It’s a time for humility, repentance & prayer.” Remember Jesus’ claim before his death & resurrection, “Bulldoze this Temple (Church) and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again!”