What image comes to mind when you think about church? Do you imagine a building with a bell tower? Perhaps a worship service with singing and silence, preaching and prayer? Perhaps you envision all the good that the church is called to do in the world such as healing the sick, feeding the poor and comforting the lonely. On the other hand, it may be that when you hear the word church, you get an image of friendship, shared meals and rich community.
While all of these visions of the church are true, they are also partial and limited. The church is a community where we can be known by others and develop a support network, yet the church is not a social club. The church has a mission that goes far beyond itself. It’s also true that the church is a force for good works and social justice, but it would be a mistake to understand it as being primarily a charitable organization. While our experience of deep worship is a major focal point for the church, I believe we would be wrong to imagine that our main purpose is to encourage personal spiritual experiences.
Of course, I have my own ideas of what the church is. When I began to follow Jesus, I was attracted to the idea that the most important thing we do as the church is to gather for worship, to hear and respond to the voice of God. For me, the meeting for worship (especially silent, unprogrammed worship) feels like the deepest thing I do as part of the church. When we gather to listen to the Holy Spirit, amazing things can happen. Lives can be changed.
Until fairly recently, worship had been such a big focus for me that I had a tough time taking seriously enough the other aspects of the church’s mission. “Community is great,” I thought, “but worship should come first. Community will emerge as a result of deep worship.” While I’m a firm believer in social justice and works of mercy, I regarded them with the same attitude: Let’s focus on worship, and we’ll naturally become a more just, loving and peaceable people. Building up the church was all about spiritual communion with God. If we took care of that, I figured everything else would fall into place.
However, I’m starting to see that this worship-oriented perspective can be limiting. It can even present barriers to developing the life of the church. I spent years attempting to establish a local church community with a near-total focus on our worship experience. For me, a good meeting for worship was like the field of dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” I believed that if we could just have powerful worship together, the Holy Spirit would guide and develop us into a loving community that does justice in the world.
In a way, my efforts were a success. For three years we consistently did have powerful worship. Yet, despite my expectations to the contrary, we never coalesced as an enduring community. People came for the worship experience and greatly appreciated our time together, but after a few weeks or months, almost everyone moved on. The worship was powerful, yet we were not being gathered into an ongoing community in Jesus.
This year, we’ve undergone a major reorientation. We are realizing that we need to pay attention to all aspects of what the church is: a worshiping body, a justice-seeking people, and a loving and supportive community. Though it has often seemed impossible, we are learning how to be all of these things and more.
Through sometimes painful trial and error, I am learning that the church is not solely about worship, or about community or about justice. It is about practicing patient faithfulness as we listen and respond together to how Christ is leading us. The church is a community that is focused on following Jesus, even when we still don’t completely understand where he is taking us.
The most important principle that I have discovered for building the church is this: Practice simple love of other people and humble faithfulness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I believe this may seem extremely obvious yet, quite vague. However, it is a reality that seems to be bearing fruit for my community and me as we seek to put it into practice.
Rather than seeking the outcomes I want to see (deep worship, supportive community and social justice) I am learning to keep my primary focus on the simple questions. Am I showing love to the people around me? Am I being true to the guidance that Jesus gives me? Am I willing to be patient, to sow and water the tiny seeds that may someday blossom into a healthy church that blesses the world? Though simple, they are often the hardest to answer.