There. I did it. In one word, I probably turned you off to reading any further.
Such is the nature of the church, isn’t it?
It doesn’t take much for us to shut down our openness to the divine. So delicate, fragile and tenuous is our hold on the fleeting feelings of connectedness to God that we can be easily shaken by the ways in which the church fails in its responsibilities as a sanctuary and safe haven for those who seek to follow Christ.
Ecclesiology simply means “the nature and structure of the Christian church.” What does it mean to be the church, and where are we supposed to find God?
Shortly after I moved to Laguna Beach, I made friends with the folks who organized Beer & Hymns OC. The premise is simple: sing hymns, drink beer. Truly, what’s not to love? I walked in to the crowded bar in Costa Mesa, California, ordered my beer, and turned to face the stage as people around my age picked up their instruments and began tuning. Printed “hymnals” were distributed, and for two hours, we sang raucous hymns at the top of our lungs. I had a moment of sheer spiritual bliss when we began to sing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” an old tune I know only because of the little country church I served in rural New Jersey. I looked around and realized that I was among the oldest of those who had gathered to sing. The room was filled with young adults, mostly in their 20s, who were singing with joy, exuberance and pretty excellent harmonies. The music was excellent; the experience was transcendent.
This was church for me, that day. My heart felt strangely warmed as I observed the true joy on the faces of those around me. Worship. This was worship. There was no proselytizing, no preaching. There were no altar calls, no repeated choruses of “Just As I Am,” and no invitations to give your life to Christ. There was simply the courageous willingness to go and worship in a public place; to sing songs with timbrels and dance (and really good Hefeweitzen). It was so simple, pure, and inviting.
It made me think of my own experience in my beloved church of origin. I am a product of the traditional United Methodist Church; the decline of mainline Protestant denominations and absence of millennials in our pews are topics of conversation in almost every circle I inhabit. The church I serve is a reflection of these trends, and my family and I are among the youngest in the congregation.
In the midst of Beer & Hymns OC, I realized how powerful God’s presence could be in such unexpected places. A dingy bar in a crowded shopping center wasn’t the place I expected to feel so uplifted, but I couldn’t help but feel immersed in the Spirit.
It made me realize, also, how closed off the church can seem.
In the Old Testament, God permitted King David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple — elaborate and gilded — but this is not the promise that mattered. God said, “He shall build a house for my name (emphasis added), and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Solomon didn’t build a physical dwelling place for God. Instead Solomon built a structure in God’s name, bringing recognition to God. The Temple helped people encounter God. As it has always been understood, God does not “reside” in an earthly abode, but there are locations, places and situations where we especially recognize God’s presence. And when God promised the throne of the kingdom would last forever, we recognize that God’s presence is not absent even when the physical structure of the temple is gone.
Perhaps God has promised the same for us. The “temple” of the church is not built for our benefit, but for the benefit of our children and our grandchildren. The temple is not ours. That means the church’s task is to instill the gift of faith in the generations to come. Our expectations cannot be contained in the walls of a building, because our God cannot be contained there.
The church is changing. People are changing. Our fear is that the church is dying. With all that I have, I promise you that the church is not going to die. The Body of Christ is much stronger and vital than any of our institutional attempts to enliven it.
Friends, they're out there. People are out there, finding connection to church in a bar in Costa Mesa. Finding a connection to God while singing hymns that your grandmother sang. They are singing with vigor, with spirit, with a pint of IPA. They are becoming the body of Christ, praising the name of the Lord.
So, we don't have to fret about the church's death. It's not dying. It's changing. The metamorphosis of the church and the way in which we gather and worship means that we have to adapt to how we do our sacred work, because God cannot be contained in a box or a tent or a temple. And, neither can the body of Christ.
Rethink Church looks forward to sharing stories of people connecting with church. Sign up for our Compass newsletter to catch more inspiring stories of connection.
Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow is a native of Knoxville, TN, currently suffering for the Lord with an oceanview sanctuary and a marvelous, inclusive congregation in Laguna Beach, CA. Mandy holds a black belt in Taekwondo, makes music whenever possible, and watches a lot of baseball with her three children. Find more of her work at Reverend Mama.