Words are funny things.
Take the word “bomb.” Apart from its literal definition as an explosive device, we have used it idiomatically in our every day speech for years.
In the 80s, to call something a “bomb” was to indicate it was a failure. That movie was a “bomb.” That concert “bombed.” You still hear the word used in this context.
In the 90s, however, the meaning changed. To say that something was “the bomb,” meant that it was awesome. “That band is the BOMB!”
Correct use of the word could literally depend on your generation. Having grown up as a normal kid who knew that bombs were generally bad, destructive things, I could easily accept the negative meaning of the word. So when I heard teenagers in the 90s use it in a positive sense, I thought they were all crazy and illiterate (the verdict is still out). Bottom line: It’s amazing how a single decade could reverse the meaning of a word or phrase.
In the past few days, a lot of discussion has erupted on the internet in response to a recent post by Donald Miller explaining that he did not feel the need to go to church every week – in the traditional sense, anyway – to experience God or community. He still expressed his belief in the value of the church, while – at the same time – challenged our traditional thinking of it. You can read the entire post by clicking here (Do so, if you haven’t read it. It’s worth the read, as is it’s follow up).
While some of the conversation in response has been positive and even constructive, Donald’s post has also sparked controversy and even outrage from people who felt like he was attacking their practices and they countered him by attacking his spirituality and even his faith. (It still amazes me how easily offended people who are to be known by their love for one another can become).
Still, the discussion – even when there is disagreement – has not been all bad. There have been some thoughtful responses by leaders like Ed Stetzer (read his here) and others. But my favorite response came from Carlos Whittaker (you can read that here. DEFINITELY read that post). In that post, one phrase sticks out at me:
“We have a definition problem, not a local church problem.”
Like I said at the start of this post, words are funny things.
Consider the word “church.” What is it? How do you define it? Is your definition limited to the American model of Sunday services, Sunday school, music, preaching, life groups, and Wednesday night dinners? To define “church” as only being allowed within this box seems a bit limiting – even if you factor in the wonderful diversity of how church is celebrated week-to-week in its various forms all over the country. OR have you gone the other way? Do you reject church in its traditional forms so that you can find something more “authentic?” Is your definition Latin: kirsche – a building or institution? Is it Greek: ecclesia – a community with a purpose. Is it steeples and choirs? Is it light shows and “edgy” music? Does church happen wherever 2 or more are gathered in His name, or do you need some sort of threshold in attendance along with an organizational structure of elders, deacons, and the like before you call it “church”? Do you believe that your church is “biblical,” while the one down the road is not?
You see, “church” IS a loaded word. It has more depth and possibility to it than we often want to admit, because that would mean we would have to consider the ramifications and possibilities that come with that admittance. Like many things related to this whole “following Christ” thing, it is easier for us to limit our definition of something based on our own experiences with it and just leave it at that.
I grew up in a traditional church. By traditional, I mean we dressed up, sang hymns from a hymnal, listened to a choir and a pipe organ, and heard a sermon that lasted about 20-25 minutes. We sat in pews. We had Wednesday night suppers in the fellowship hall.
Even in college, I still thought that that style defined church. That’s just how you did it. I attended Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches during this season of my life. Regardless of their denominational uniqueness, they were – by and large – exactly the same in how the Sunday service went.
“Outside” of church, I was involved in a dynamic campus ministry. We had life groups. We had messages. We had worship with acoustic guitars. But it was not church – at least, we weren’t allowed to call it that. Church was still the traditional, Sunday gathering. The campus ministry was considered “para-church.” (I still cannot find the word “para-church” in my bible, can you?)
This perspective persisted even well into grad school. When I heard about a local church that used video clips from movies and played rock music (even secular songs at times), I gave the idea a significant, “hmmm…,” but could not let myself call such a place a “church.” They had to be, at best, para-church since they used electric guitars and video instead of pipe organs and responsive readings.
But a perspective change was forced upon me. I needed an internship to graduate, and I could not find one at any of the traditional churches I was set on working in.
God, in his wisdom and, I believe, being a God with a wonderful sense of humor, opened a door for me to become an intern at the exact rock-music-video-casual-dress church I had deemed “not a church” earlier. I literally feared that working there would damage my credibility. But I needed an internship – desperately – and I accepted the job.
I was there one – ONE – week and felt like an absolute idiot. I felt like an idiot, not because I had joined some sort of contemporary “cult,” but because I saw something I had never seen in my entire life as an attender of the traditional church: I saw ADULT non-believers turning to Christ every week. I don’t know about your experience, but that was rare for me to witness. In fact, the bulk of the congregation was made up of new believers, and NOT people who had grown up in church. There was an energy in that community I had never experienced before, and I was immediately hooked.
My definition of “church” changed overnight.
Did I develop a disdain for traditional churches? Absolutely not! I merely realized that “church” was much more than I’d ever defined it.
And now I find myself at yet another season of my life where I’m discovering new definitions of the word “church.” I think writers like Donald Miller and Carlos Whittaker are seeing and feeling it, too. It’s not a dismissal of all things that have come before. In fact, I think that it’s partly a recognition of what has made church so successful in its history – it’s ecclesiastical heart and soul. It’s uniqueness as a community driven by a purpose to spread the love of God to the world.
Defining “church” should not be merely based on one’s experiences or preferences. Nor should it be based on tradition. It should be grounded in Scripture, but – even then – I dare say it’s not merely scouring over Acts 2 and trying to pull some formula out of the verses. If anything, Acts 2 is not a prescription for how to do church, but a description of the beginnings of church and a community trying to figure out how to live out this new life they had found in Christ and in the Holy Spirit together.
But defining “church” needs to begin with conversation and a willingness to acknowledge that some of our sacred cows are not so sacred after all. In fact, I would argue that our unwillingness to plow ahead without ever questioning who and what we are as a church PROVES THAT WE NEED TO STOP AND ASK, “Is this what we are supposed to be?” If not, we risk plowing ahead blindly – then left wondering what has happened to our effectiveness and why people aren’t piling into our chairs and pews like they used to.
And there are other words.
All of these words are loaded and contain more depth than we often give them.
It is our duty as followers of Christ to examine these words and let the biblical depth behind them soak into our skins. It is a disservice to Scripture and to God to limit these words to simply short definitions that have been handed down to us by those who have come before.
Sure, the conversations can get dicey. Just ASKING the questions can bring out the toughest (and meanest) critics.
But consider that nothing great ever happens unless men and women are willing to take risks and ask the hard questions.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. After daring to ask tough questions about faith and the nature of the church during his day, he set in motion what would come to be known as the Reformation. Because of his actions, the message of the Gospel broke free from the chains of the Catholic church, and people discovered the grace of Jesus Christ all over again.
He was excommunicated in 1521. So, yes… to question something “sacred” brings great risk. But if in our search for depth in our definitions we unearth the truth of the gospel and the possibilities of “church” all over again, the risk is not just worth it…
…it is required.
“First I shake the whole apple tree, that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.”– Martin Luther