Saturday, August 7, 2021

What Is Church?

They dotted the landscape. Whether brick, stone, or wood the buildings called "church" were numerous. Most were used for generations prior to my arrival on the planet. So often all I noticed were old people. It seemed everyone was at least my parents' age or older. The only time I felt part of the group was with peers in Sunday School or the 2 week summer Vacation Bible School. High School Youth Group (Luther League) was not significant as I made other arrangements to connect with friends.

Both in New Testament Greek and general New Testament Studies at seminary the word,"ecclesia" was central.  It was foundational for my career as a pastor. Ecclesia or church, the place where people gather for worship and education was a significant part of community. I was being trained as a leader in that long established tradition. My role would involve preaching, teaching, worship, and visiting. It checked the boxed of my laid aside desires to be a physician or a teacher, as well as developing new skills.  (See July 11th post for background)

Most of my 40 year career has involved small town or rural congregations. A couple of stopping points: a large, growing suburban church and chaplaincy in a healthcare institution, broke with the general flow. While being a chaplain I served in a couple of small settings. I could not shake the parish pastor role. Chaplaincy provided interactions with a broad spectrum of age groups, religious and non-religious affiliations, the community of coworkers, as well as transitory individuals and families receiving medical care. This, too, was pastoral care but not in a "church" as I had so diligently etched into my psyche. This setting was varied, challenging, and stimulating. However, my own issues with authority and bureaucracy brought about my resignation. 

An endurance athlete, coach, mother, step-mother, and more named Kate Coward refers to her training groups (biking, running, etc) as "church." In interactions with Kate, I asked about her choice of this specific word. This is an edited portion of her response, "In its basic sense it is a group of people, assembly, or gathering. In my case it is a group of people of different ages, genders, and situations in life, who enjoy being together and meet regularly. We listen. We offer advice. We teach. We share our worries, joys, hard times and celebratory times with each other. Our gatherings make us healthier and happier humans, and therefore better serve our friends, families, neighbors, and communities around us."

Kate placed into a few sentences what I have been pondering in my spirit for more than a decade. Recent Gallop statistics on adult membership to a church, synagogue, or mosque: 1999-70%, 2018-50%, 2020-47%. Americans who do not identify with any religion: 1998 to 2000-8%, 2008 to 2010- 13%, 2017 to 2020-21%. The religious church is in a steady decline. The buildings which dotted the rural landscape of my childhood and those which I have had the pleasure to serve are dwindling. Aging population, relocation, mobility, and other groups or organizations have replaced these once stalwart gathering places. The disruptions to communal life and understanding whether it be political, economic, social, or doctrinal are causing the traditional religious church to be less of a support structure and more of a divisive wedge. The push to have 
the correct world view, political affiliation, social awareness, evangelical zeal, nationalism, patriotism, etc. have caused people who are looking for acceptance, hope, support, and spiritual growth to get those needs met elsewhere. The need for an assembly of people of various ages, genders, and situations who listen, support, teach, advise, and share life in all facets remains vitally important. However, the past model of religious church as a homogeneous group or the current model of religious church as a business activity center vying for relevance and membership to secure operational funds appear to be out of sync with the original intent. 

After 40 years of pastoral ministry and pastoral care, my role is to be a person who asks questions, stimulates thought and conversation, and assists others in exploring the spiritual aspects of their being. My role is to equip and support, not dictate, deride, or decide. My interactions are not limited to a building or only to those who have a paying membership. If I can reinforce becoming, as well as providing ways to foster healthier, happier humans, than I am fulfilling my position in church!


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