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What is the Church?

Reflections from two days spent with a group of college students seeking to be Church together

My Dear One,

I just spent the last two days of my life with a group of 10 college students planning and imagining how to be the Church together this fall. It was exhilarating, hope-filled, realistic and exhausting. What I heard and saw was both a reminder of what is at the core of our faith and the very real challenges we face. I want to share with you a few things I observed, hoping you will be strengthened in your journey as I just was in mine.

I will begin by confronting four myths about the Church we debunked and end with four hallmarks of the Church we confirmed.

Myth #1 - The Church is dying

I’ve been a priest for 15 years and deeply involved in the work of the church most of my life. And too much of that time has been spent in church meetings where people lament we have fewer people, fewer dollars, fewer congregations, and less energy and commitment to the ministry than we used to. There is truth in all of these, I will not deny it. But in all of this we are missing one crucially important thing that’s also happening: the Church is growing!

We confuse growth with expansion. Sometimes they coincide but they are not the same and are by no means dependent upon the presence of the other to be confirmed. Some of the periods of most intense growth in my life have been times of some kind of shrinking back: through pain, difficulty and a sense of losing ground rather than gaining ground. These are the times that have taught me most about who I am, who God is, how I am to love, and what I’m called to be and do. Again - the difficult times, not always or even predominantly the easy times and those times the rest of the world might see as “success,” but it is the trying times, that’s when I’ve grown the most (see last week’s post on suffering).

This applies to our communal life in the Church as well. We are growing, deeper I believe, in our understanding of how much sacrifice our faith expects and what we have to offer our world. Yes, these young people are concerned about how many people come to their campus ministry, but they are also concerned that they welcome an ever more diverse group of people - which may or may not lead to a growth in the overall number of people present. What stands in the way of people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, identities, and hair color (literally this was brought up!) from feeling welcomed into our community? These questions are asked more and more. For a Church that still silos itself along ethnic, racial, and political dividing lines, this concern for diversity is a sign of incredibly promising growth.

Myth #2 - Young people don’t care

These ten people demonstrated as much passion, conviction, concern and genuine longing for a healthy Church as any community I’ve been a part of, and much more than some. Don’t think for one moment they don’t care or are in any way apathetic about the future of the Church. To the contrary. They start back to school this Monday. They are busy moving into new housing, sorting out their class schedules, going to work, reconnecting with friends after summer break, being involved in various organizations, and STILL they gave two entire days to their campus ministry, to their church. That’s dedication. They care. And they’ve set a schedule for the fall which has them gathering four or five days a week, in addition to all the time they spend just hanging out in their building, which they’ve claimed as both their physical and spiritual home.

Myth #3 - The way to “fix the Church” is to change everything

In the middle of the “decline” around us, one reaction is to panic and say everything needs to change. But this was not the direction our discussions took. In fact, they held on to many traditional things about the Church as absolutely vital: liturgy, eucharist, fellowship, welcome, servanthood, and food. These all happen in most churches from the largest to the smallest both in the past and the present. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We are humans and we have some basic needs that do not change: for identity, community, love and food - usually in some combination with one another.

One of our students cooked tomato soup for lunch, crafted from the combination of ordinary elements; vegetables, cream, and spices; that have been around since time immemorial. But she brought it around to tase test before we ate. Something about the proportion seemed off to her. There wasn’t enough of … something. The ideal balance of ingredients is what creates a delicious soup. Too much salt and the soup becomes unpalatable. Not enough and it loses its allure. As the Church, we do well to remember the gifts we already have been entrusted to uphold and continue to taste test them for the right proportion.

Myth #4 - The way to “fix the Church” is to change nothing

And yet, things need to change, are changing, and absolutely must continue to change for the Church to move forward and grow and serve ever more faithfully. We must be creative, flexible, imaginative, and open to the continuing guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. If we remain wedded to the way things have “always” been done, and by always we mean only as long as our short memory of our short lives, then we seek to entrap the Church, arrest its growth, for the selfish sake of our own comfort and familiarity. The truth is, the Church always has changed and always must. It is our job to guide it down the this bumpy, adventurous road, not park it in a garage like some classic car we obsessively keep shiny for special occasions.

fTW Hallmarks of a Healthy Church:

following The Way is a series of reflections and resources for living into the Great Commandment: to love God with all our Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. The Great Commandment exists not only to show us how to fully live into our individual humanity but also how to live fully into our collective humanity. Just as each of us is gifted with four primary spheres of existence, so too is the overall Body of Christ. The Great Commandment serves the Church as a recipe for the four primary ingredients of Christian Community and gives a means by which to taste test for the right mixture and balance, ensuring nothing is left out and nothing overpowers the others. As we discussed what our call is as the Church, I heard these four things echoed again and again:

HEART: a Community of Justice

We exist to serve others. This is an ingredient that isn’t added to the soup nearly enough. Christ commissions the disciples to go, teach, share the good news, heal, seek and serve. He didn’t commission us to build a building and get others to come to us. He said quite the opposite, go out to them, where they are, meet them at the well where they’ve gone to draw water when others aren’t there, encounter the blind beggar at the city gates, don’t send them away to get food but rather feed them right where they are, clothe them, raise them up and treat them as equals.

SOUL: a Community of Love

We exist to love others. Everything we do should be infused with love. It should be central in our decisions, our actions, our interactions, our budget, our calendar, everything! How do we create a community that teaches us to more fully love God, neighbor and self? Such a community is irresistible. “By this they will know you are my disciples,” says Jesus, “if you have love for one another.”

MIND: a Community of Kingdom

We exist to proclaim the Gospel. We are called to go into the world and share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. We are asked to be vulnerable, willing to share our story, our real story, humbly lifting up our triumphs and humbly confessing our faults. We are called to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense.” Be prepared. Plenty will take offense.

STRENGTH: a Community of Incarnation

We exist to incarnate Christ. This ingredient is also often underrepresented in our Church. We don’t gather simply to worship Christ, we gather to be Christ - to be the continuing incarnation of Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, and mouth in the world. Together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are tasked with doing what he did, and in fact greater things.

On our second day of retreat we were joined by Brother James Dowd, an Episcopal Benedictine monk from Omaha, Nebraska. He reminded us that the Church is called to be a Community. What makes a Church is the people of God gathered together, empowered by the Spirit, for the mission of Christ.

This is right. The Church sometimes forgets this or becomes distracted by other pursuits. But ultimately it is our task, joy and privilege to walk together, supporting and loving one another in this journey. This is clearly what these college students treasure most about their campus ministry, the community. They love spending time together, knowing they are there for one another, that they are not alone. Would that all of our churches provide this same safe space. I know of too few others where people come when there isn’t any meeting or programming going on, just to hang out together, check in, play the piano, eat M&Ms, talk about their day.

Let us continue to lift this up, that we are Called to Community, especially in this time of division, where members of the Body seem constantly to be saying to other members “I have no need of you.” We have need of each other … everyone, everyone belongs. Let us then go together, walking side by side …

following The Way,



A few years ago, I wrote a bible study on this very topic for The Work of the People. It features films of some of our generations most thoughtful theologians and writers discussing this same topic. If you think it might be helpful to you or your church this fall, check it out here.


1. What is the “Church?” – Walter Brueggemann 2. A Call to Justice – Hannah Terry 3. A Call to Love – Richard Rohr 4. A Call to Kingdom Worldview – NT Wright 5. A Call to the Body of Christ – Malcolm Guite 6. What is the Church Becoming? – Rachel Held Evans and Brian Zahnd


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