Here’s something to give up for Lent: “church”.
OK, now please let me explain. I am not telling anyone to leave church or stop attending or play hooky for 40 days. No, I have an actual spiritual exercise in mind here, and it involves the word “church”.
I believe “church” is a word that Christians often take for granted. It can be overused. It can be used wrongly. It can be unconsidered altogether. Whether we can site ignorance, neglect, or some undefined need to oversimplify, a great term describing Christian fellowship and commission has been reduced to a stereotype.
Think about it. What do you call that big building with the steeple where folks who’ve put forth the effort to get all dressed up manage to go and stick it out for an hour a week? When someone has dared to become an obstacle to your Sunday morning course asking, “Where’re y’all goin’ all dressed up?” what simple answer do you offer? What term do you use to refer to a worship service? For that matter, what term do you use to refer to just about anything that happens in or near that big building with the steeple on top? Whether it’s worship, Bible study, children’s choir or ceramics class, chances are good that you have referred to the place and, perhaps to your credit, the activity as “church”.
You probably have heard this as often as I have. You might have even said it. The church is not the building. The church is not the program or the activity. The church is people.
When Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock, I will build my church,” he did not mean that a cathedral was to be constructed on that very spot in Caesarea Philippi—though I’d like to think he might have at least chuckled at the thought of a ceramics class. Jesus was ready to build upon what was confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The Greek word we often define as “church” is an important term in this gospel story. It is ekklessia. In Jesus’ day, they already had places where they gathered together, and they were called synagogues. Ekklessia is a word that does not have much to do with how we construct Christian campuses and compounds or how we might cloister or hide inside of said buildings. A very literal translation of ekklessia demonstrates that we are supposed to be the “called out” ones (ek + klesis).
The church is people. It is time to stop going to church and start being the church. Again, I don’t mean abandon the weekly worship service or cease and desist your important ministry of rocking babies in the nursery. Based on Jesus’ definition, church is what Christian folks should be all the time, and not the box in which you might find some of them.
Here is the Lenten exercise I have in mind. Give up “church” as your term for the building and the stuff you do there. The exercise is not to come up with clever synonyms, but rather to really pay attention. What do you mean when you say “church”? What should you mean when you say “church”? Should someone actually get in your way on Sunday morning and ask about where you are headed, that person is in that moment your congregation waiting for you “to church”. It is your time to be one of the “called out”, and your words and actions should demonstrate who you know Jesus to be.
How will you "be the church" in the restaurant you go to following the worship service?
How will you "be the church" when you're standing in line to pay a bill on Monday morning?
How will you "be the church" in that conversation you have with that person who is always so surly?
The list of questions could go on and on, and the Christ, the Son of the living God is asking them.