Defining church, churches harder than one might originally believe

How many churches are there in our community?

This is the question posed to me this week by a friend of mine who is a successful church coach. He has taken a dying congregation and, in two years, increased its weekly worship attendance to more than 300 people. I began thinking through all of the buildings and various denominations I see in a week. I estimated we probably have 300 or so churches in Pueblo.

Then he nailed me.

While we have hundreds of church buildings and dozens of denominations, he said, there is only one Christian Church. Church doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings, or whenever services take place. Church isn’t nearly as much about what we do inside the walls as it is about what we do when we leave.

In a world where people are more institutionally suspicious than ever before, we who cling to our bricks and mortar, programs and Sunday sermons as “church” will continue to wonder why the world sees us as isolated and out of touch with the rest of society. People care less and less about denominational affiliation, and more about how we – all Christians – respond to the world’s needs.

We worry more about members going from one Christian church to another than we are concerned about living out what we believe as witness to those who don’t come to church at all. We get more obsessive about our membership roster than about training and empowering disciples to do God’s work, from wherever they choose to do it.

My friend who put such a challenging question to me said he recently had a hard discussion with his church. He explained that he intended to spend half of his weekly hours engaging people who did not regularly attend worship, including those who had never come to the church building at all.

Initially, everyone approved, but they soon realized that, after sermon preparation, meetings and study groups, there was little time left for him to pay pastoral care calls.

At first, I was shocked. If he had to choose between coffee with a nonmember and visiting a regular member in the hospital, he said, he’d go to coffee. It seemed callous, but he reminded me that he is not the church, and that if we’re doing our job of empowering people to minister to the world, there should be plenty of people in the church ready and willing to call on the church member.

On the other hand, there were few who could sit with someone curious about his congregation’s ministry and lay out their vision like he could. He was called to revitalize a dying church, and so his first priority is to evangelize. The word “evangelism” has a bad connotation these days, but at its heart, evangelism centers on building relationships. He was hired with the charge of bringing new life to the church. The problem is that, too often, churches say they want one thing, and then act like they want another.

I have another friend, also a pastor, who recently left his church. He started the congregation with nothing five years ago, and now he’s positioned to walk away because his congregation would rather he “spent more time caring for them,” rather than reaching out to the community.

There are times when we all need the support and nurturing that a church family can offer. But when the leadership of that church becomes the sole source for this care, rather than the leader who empowers others to carry out the daily ministry, something’s wrong.

Those of us who focus more on our own needs – or the needs of our church building or denomination – rather than the needs of a world mired in suffering and spiritual crisis, have lost focus of the true vision of the church’s purpose.

We cannot serve two masters.

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