What is a church? (Steven Croft)

Monday, 12 November, 2007

Steven Croft asks, what is a church?

Here is a game to play with your home group, your PCC or over dinner with some Christian friends. You could even adapt it for a sermon. The aim is to help you think more deeply about what it means to be church.

Manchester churchIt's a vital question, whether you are aiming to grow an existing church or develop a fresh expression. Before you can create or develop something you have to have some idea what it is. Imagine building a car without realising that it needs an engine, trying to put up a house without foundations or baking bread without yeast. All of us in some way are involved in building the church as part of our discipleship. Yet many Christians would be more familiar with the essential elements in a victoria sponge than they are with the really essential elements in a church. 

You will need to make sure everyone has a copy of the list in the box below and a pen. Ask the group to break into pairs and go through the different attributes. If you have plenty of time, invite people to:

  1. Circle the elements which you would you say are essential to form a church
  2. Underline the elements which are desirable and helpful
  3. Delete the elements which are unhelpful
  4. Leave unmarked the elements which are neutral or depend on context
  5. Feel free to add other essential elements

When you have been through the lists, compare your answers.

If you are short of time then just concentrate on the first task: see if you can reach a short list you can agree on in terms of the essential elements in forming a church.

Pews A font/baptistry Sunday worship
Ordained ministers Communion vessels Committees
Hymn books A photocopier Small groups
People Guitars Instant coffee
A building The risen Christ The Scriptures
A pulpit Sacraments Food
Printed Bibles Bishops A choir
An organ Connection and oversight Robes
A data projector Common Worship Mission to God's world 
Prayer meetings Lay ministers  

As I've played this game with different groups over the last six months, I have come to believe that just three elements are part of the essence of what it means to be the church. They come up in every set of responses. My answers are in the box at the bottom of the page. Resist the temptation to read them until you've at least had a go at the game yourself. I may be wrong! I also believe that three other elements are essential to maintain and build a healthy community. Everything else is either desirable, merely convenient or helpful or not according to context.

It is often the non-essential elements of church which take up so much time and energy

You may or may not agree with my answers (and please let me know). However, what often emerges from the exercise is surprising agreement about these elements and a realisation that it is often the non-essential elements which take up so much time and energy.

The second part of the game is to begin to explore more deeply how we decide what is right and wrong about the life of the church. A good way to begin is to invite people to suggest their own key verses for thinking about the life of the Christian community. Where do they go in Scripture and in the Christian tradition for thinking about what it means to be the people of God?

There is no right answer here. In fact, the more places we look, the more our understanding grows. The more we look, the more we discover that our understanding of the church can't be contained by just one proof text or just one summary of Christian teaching (such as the marks of the church in the creed). But here, to finish, is one key passage which I continue to find helpful.

Bible and handIn Mark 3.14 we read of Jesus' call of the twelve disciples. This is a passage which speaks hints of new Israel: it is deliberately about the forming of a new community. Mark has distilled the essential elements of what it means to be the community of disciples – the beginnings of the church. What are the essential elements?

'And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out...'

The essence of being church according to Mark is people being called by Jesus to live in the rhythm of being with Christ and being sent. If you read on in the verse you discover what we are sent to do: to proclaim the good news and to overcome evil in the world.

This is the kind of community we are called to become and to build.

My own answers to the game:

Three essential elements in being the church: people, the risen Christ and mission to God's world.

Three essential elements to sustain the church: the Scriptures; the sacraments and connection and oversight.

About the author: 

Steven Croft is Archbishops' Missioner and Team Leader of Fresh Expressions.

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