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What is church?

After 28 1/2 years of going to church almost every sunday, I am wrestling with a basic question: what is church?

Growing up we went to many evangelical churches, home churched for a bit, then turned to liturgical churches. We rarely missed a Sunday. I always liked church in the various forms. I have warm memories of friendships and fun and learning. The highlight for me as I grew older was to discuss (and often debate) the sermon and what it means to live it. Those discussions could go on for hours. Church shaped me and contributed to the faith that I have today.

When I left home, I got more involved in a church that was an incredible blessing to me. I went to the traditional liturgical service and then started going to a music-less service which expanded my thinking of what worship is (previously, it was equated with music). And then found my home in the second service which was shorter and more contemporary. The preaching was meaningful. The music was good. The fellowship over coffee was awesome. The second service ended early enough that I could teach sunday school.

Probably though, the weekly Bible study was where I was fed the most, experienced God’s presence and learned what it meant to be a part of community. Those friendships still remain dear to me even though I haven’t attended the church for a couple of years. Those studies were times of honest questioning, and diving deep into scripture and allowing Scripture to speak to us where we were at. We cared for one another, and the people in my small group have been an incredible blessing to me. Very quickly, this Bible study was what I would call my “church” and the sunday service was background.

And then about a year and a half ago, I decided to become a member of an intentional Christian community. I lived in a house that served as the “ministry hub” for the community. I ate supper with housemates as well as people from the community. Because there were many people there, we were able to offer hospitality to people who were pretty vulnerable and needy. I became involved with a community that serves the homeless and street involved. And these two communities transformed my life. Church was no longer restricted to Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon or to a time when we met together to contemplate the Scriptures. Rather, church was something that was a part of my daily life.

Also, growing up in privileged parts of town, church used to hold people who were nicely dressed, often well educated and relatively ‘normal’ for lack of a better word. But now, I find God in hanging out with people who would not fit in those circles. I remember during a taize prayer service, one guy – who was inebriated at the time – said “God, I’ve done a lot of bad things. Please except me.” The gut-wrenching honesty of people who cannot hide their brokenness is beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. This feels real to me.

Last year, I watched two close friends to me be badly hurt by the church – by the institution, structures and people. I still grieve their loss – they are an amazing family whom I love dearly and who were part of a huge transformation for me. Tears well in my eyes as I think of them. They are not the first faithful ministers that i have seen hurt.

This fall, I took a pretty big step back from the two communities. This was partly because my schedule was pretty tight with work and school. I began working for a church that I knew wouldn’t become my primary community. And I love my job – honest. But the introvert in me is exhausted by 1pm on a Sunday. Sunday night, my house commits to having a meal, time of sharing and a meeting together. And so to squeeze another service in there just seemed to be anything but Sabbath-like. But another reason is church FRUSTRATES me. I hate meetings. I hate politics. I was frustrated that my time spent on “church” was life-draining, and not life-giving. So I took a break.

And life as a student has its way of becoming all-encompassing. When I started to see consistent marks that I have not seen before, I started working harder to see them improve and to make the most of this learning experience. And, for the most part, I have learned an incredible amount of information and accomplished goals that previously I never thought I was capable of doing. Five courses and 15-20 hours of work does not leave much time for much else.

I started praying along with the Northumbria Community which is a dispersed community that I think I’ve mentioned before. I don’t know what it means to be part of this community but the daily morning and evening prayers grounded me and spoke love and healing into my heart. Knowing that I was part of something larger than just my praying helped me too and while I’ve only met two people from the community, I enjoy reading the posts on facebook and hearing what is happening. Looking back over the fall, I have to say, it is this (almost) daily rhythm of prayer that has kept me in one piece, even when fragmentation or breaking was threatening.

Our house prays daily together too. Sometimes it is spontaneous prayers. Other times we use liturgies from various communities. Sometimes we sing. Next week I am having people over for St. Lucia’s feast for a ‘service’ that welcomes people to come as they are, recognizing that Christmas is not necessarily a happy time. As a house, I have held up members and they have held me up. This has found me in hospital ER rooms, running errands, going for long walks, hugs and a listening ear.

This term I’ve been studying and learning about Christian’s role in injustices throughout history and how the institutional church justified things that i just find horrid. And I don’t want to be a part of the institution any more!

The weeks go by though and people ask: what church do you go to? I think I’ve been inside a church 2 times this fall (with the exception of the church where I work).

what is church?

is it a community?

is it a place of worship?

is it a place of teaching and being fed?

is it a place where people can bear one another’s burdens?

is it a place where the sacraments (e.g. Eucharist) are celebrated?

Because if you answer ‘yes’ to all these things, then my living room is a church of some sort.

Why then do I feel like there is something missing in my life?

Who is church for?


the other people who make up the family of God?


There is a church I’ve been wanting to go to for awhile. It’s hard now that I work Sundays and we have our meeting sunday nights. But the latter will change soon hopefully. I could make excuses. But when I really think of it, there is a huge part of me that doesn’t want to be just another consumer of Christianity.

It’s so easy to have frustrations with one church, with the people or its doctrine and then leave – cause there’s a church just down the road that you could check out. each church can offer components that *I* would like. I’m too busy to commit to yet another community, so I would be going in just to get the component of that church that I am seeking and leave without offering anything in return. And then when I’m sick of it, I could go back to my other communities or find another one that fits my current whim. I’ve tried to convince myself to go – but it hasn’t worked yet as just showing up to a service and leaving quietly is not really what I want. I mean, yes, I could participate in worship that I am not leading or involved in some way and could be fed. But this seems to be missing something still.

If my going to church is for the benefit of others – well, call me selfish, but I just don’t have it in me right now. I go to church in the morning to serve others. I’m involved in a lot of things that benefit others. I find it hard to fit in a life giving cup of coffee with a close friend – another commitment of service is not something I can take at this time.

Is it for God’s benefit? Does he take pleasure when people meet in a building together and worship him? More pleasure than when I meet in secret or in my living room with others who are striving to follow Christ?

In the past few weeks, there has been a yearning in my heart, an emptiness that is not filled. Is it because I have a strong voice from growing up that I have to go to church? Or am I missing something vital in my life? I feel alone. But not alone like I’ve felt before – God’s presence has been very real to me. And I live in community, go to class, go to work – sometimes I am desparate for alone time my life is so filled with people. But there’s something missing.

I feel lost. Not lost in a existential way – each day, thanks to the prayers of the northumbria community, I am reminded that I am to seek God, to love justice and to seek mercy. That’s a pretty grounding direction. But how do I do this? where? with whom? how is this hole in my life to be filled when I don’t even know what will fit?

Is the answer church?

If so, what is church?

Everybody I know says they need just one thing/And what they really mean is that they need just one thing more/ And everybody seems to think they’ve got it coming/ Well I know I don’t deserve You/ Still I want to love and Serve You/ More and more  – You’re my one thing.

Save me from those things that might distract me/ Please take them away and purify my heart/ I don’t want to lose the eternal for the things that are passing/ ‘Cause what will I have when the world is gone/ If it isn’t for the love that goes on and on

Who have I in heaven but You Jesus/ And what better could I hope/ To find down here on earth/ I could cross the most distant reaches/ of this world, but I’d be wasting my time/ ’cause I’m certain already, I’m sure I’d find You’re my one thing. – Rich Mullins


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