Skip to site content

What is church?

A sermon delivered by Kathy Pickett, Pastor of Congregational Life, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., shared at Spring Creek Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, Ok., on November 20, 2011.

Matthew 18: 20, Matthew 25: 35-40, Matthew 22: 36-40

Today is Christ the King Sunday originally known as, the Feast of Christ. The celebration was put in place in 1925 when Pope Pius the XI realized secular society was losing interest in church participation. This holy day is a celebration of Christ’s reign in the world and a day to offer Christ to the community.

About ten years ago I had a similar realization; society was and is still losing interest in church participation. My awakening happened one afternoon while mixing cookie dough and realizing I needed a cup of sugar. My first thought was to borrow a cup from one of my neighbors but realized I didn’t really know any of them. I knew most of them worked, we waved and smiled politely as we all came and went each day, but I really didn’t know them.

The awakening continued after getting dressed to go to the local grocery store. While looking for sugar I noticed for the first time how the Hispanic food isle had grown as well as the dollar item section. What did the grocery store realize that I had missed? As I continued processing what my eyes were being opened to I wondered what both realities said about local congregations. What did we need to learn about paying attention to our community and getting to know our neighbors?

It all came to a crescendo two years ago after years of reading, researching, seeking solutions, paying close attention to the dramatic shifts and societal changes taking place. In the middle of a Sunday morning worship experience a steady flow of surprising questions flooded my mind.

Why are we doing this?

Is this what God wants us to do? If so, how do we know?

Is any of this what Jesus had in mind?

I realized I was searching for a deconstruction of institutional church models, with no church growth survival tactics, but instead, a theology of church shaped by what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My quest, sometimes my obsession, to discover what I was being prompted to know grew into a doctoral project exploring two more questions,

“What is church and how do we know we are being church?”

Participants in the project had a homework assignment each week to spend time spiritually discerning scripture and prayerfully listening to what God might be trying to say to us today. The first week’s assignment was Matthew 18: 20, “Where two or more are gathered in my name I am there with them.”

That weekend Holmeswood hosted our annual community celebration, Fall Festival.  1500 flyers were sent home through the elementary schools inviting our district neighbors to join us in a day of fun and fellowship. The parking lot was transformed into a small fair ground with sno-cones, popcorn, hot dogs, a cake walk, face painting, a moonwalk bouncer, and lots of people. As I watched what was taking place I wondered if any of the Sacred Gathering participants were thinking about their scriptural assignment and connecting the dots to answer the question, what is church?

The first one to find her way to me said, “Is this being church? Two or more are gathered?”

Later that afternoon another one said, “Kathy, this is being church. People are talking, sharing, having fun, eating together, and really getting to know each other.”

Jesus’ ministry always happened right where he was; where he stood, sat, in a boat, on the water, grilling fish with friends, with all sorts of people gathered around. Farmers, peasants, children, the sick, blind, lame, political and religious law keepers, widows, single ladies, Martha Stewart types, fishermen, folks climbing trees, touching him, begging him, questioning him, challenging him, following him. He offered himself to them right where they were, Emmanuel, God with them, God with us.

He taught his disciples to do the same.

I think one of the best movements to emerge through all the stuff about church in the twenty first century is the language of missional. When missional was first introduced it was kind of a bad word. Missional messes with our understanding of missions. Why is it necessary?

Missional also messes with our theology. Ideas like incarnational ministry, and the manifestation of Christ, Christ made obvious through us, or being the presence of Christ. It implies a theology that is a way of life and a way of being for everyone committed to following Jesus. Perhaps even more disturbing, missional requires us to leave space for the mysterious action of God to make the ordinary, extraordinary.

Jesus gives us lots of clues about what kind of missional activity he’s looking for, things like, feeding the hungry, and giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, providing clothing for the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, taking a stance for social justice and equality for all, even when it is risky.

Andrew Prior, minister and author of onemansweb.org, describes his understanding of this text, “Jesus seems to be promising to those of us born centuries too late to meet the historical Jesus in person that the closest we can come to a transformative face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is to aid and be fully present to the poor and marginalized. To adapt Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, however you treat the least of my sisters or brothers is how you have treated me.” Communities of faith, through all our best programming efforts, has often made this way too hard.

During a Sacred Gatherings discussion, considering incarnational ministry experiences, one of the participants shared her weekly assignment story:

“I was in the grocery store and a young mom with a toddler was trying to get through the checkout line. The little boy was crying and screaming like toddlers do and I could tell the mom was embarrassed, and overwhelmed by the situation. I felt sorry for her so I started talking to the little boy, and then played peek-a-boo with him. He settled down and soon mom and son were on their way.”

“I didn’t think too much about it until the mom approached me in the parking lot. She thanked me, and then went on to say, ‘When he’s like that most people look at me like I should be able to control a screaming toddler, but I didn’t have it in me today.’ She went on to tell me she had struggled with chronic depression and anxiety for years. She had recently been divorced and wasn’t sure how to be a single mom. She wanted me to know that my willingness to be kind and loving provided her with a renewed hope. I didn’t feel like I had done anything, but in that moment I knew Christ was present there with us.”

We really have no idea when we are in the midst of the least of these. We have no idea how our actions, presence, our willingness to listen and pay attention to others will begin to make a hopeful difference.

What is missing in a person’s life that he or she really hungers for? What will quench the thirst of disparity and no hope?

What items of metaphorical clothing will provide a person comfort, security, and belonging?

According to Prior, and Jesus, the answer to it all is love. Prior says, “as cliché’ as it seems, love conquers everything, it’s the bottom line, it is life changing.”

Jesus tells us, in the midst of a religious political challenge concerning the law that the greatest commandment is to ‘love God, heart mind and soul, and our neighbor as we love ourselves.’ And the kind of love Jesus says we are to have is agape love, self-sacrificing love of both God and people, the meaning is mutual. It’s love that must be understood from the love of God known in Christ.

If we are honest, this is not always easy to do.

Dr. Robert Martin, Professor of Practical Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology says that ‘being church, where two or more are gathered, must be practiced so that it becomes a way of life’, a way of extending this agape kind of love to our neighbors. Wherever we are we have the opportunity to offer communion to others. It might be in the grocery store, at work, in the doctor’s office, watching soccer games, sitting in the school cafeteria. Martin uses the imagery of “little altar tables” everywhere, as a way of remembering to share the sacrificial love of Christ when gathered with others.

What is church and how do we know we are being church?

Spring Creek’s website has some great answers to my questions:

“We believe that the church is a community of believers dedicated to living the way of Jesus. True Christian belief results in clothes for the homeless, cups of water for the thirsty and warm handshakes for the stranger. We have been touched by the love and grace of God, and we desire to share that love and grace with others.”

Matthew’s gospel was written out of concern for the early community of faith, seeking to be church as followers of Jesus in the midst of extreme societal unrest. The gospel is clear though, Christ’s rule and reign was in their midst as it is today, and as it will be tomorrow.

As followers of Jesus, each of us is called to put into practice being the incarnational presence of Christ. We are called to be and do church anywhere and everywhere two or more are gathered, to share Christ’s sacrificial love with others, celebrating Christ the King as a way of life, and a way of being.