What Is Church For?

It’s been an interesting week in the office of Old South, with two particular occasions that got me thinking, once again, about the church and its purpose in these days.

The first occasion involved a visitor, whose presence was announced when he tapped on the window of my office. I nearly had a medical episode, as no one has ever tapped on my window in the many years I’ve served Old South. The window of my office, which is in the basement, isn’t easy to get to, so it was a bit of a shock when this man went to the trouble to get to the window so he could tap on it to get my attention. After the initial shock, he yelled through the window, “How do I get in?” My answer, “The door.” When he returned a puzzled look, I indicated the doors on either side of the building.

I then went upstairs to meet him, a little wary of a man who had an easier time finding my window than the front door. Our conversation was brief, but pointed. He said (in a rather aggressive way) that he was looking for a Christian Church, emphasis on “Christian.” I indicated that Old South is a Christian Church. He then went on to ask about certain items of doctrine and dogma, to which I tried to gently explain that Old South doesn’t require adherence to much of any items of doctrine or dogma, that the people of Old South may make their own choices about what they believe. When he asked about whether or not the Old South “believes” in the “Rapture,” I hesitated. That was enough for him. He turned on his heels and left, muttering something about the church not actually being “Christian.”

The other interesting experience of the week involved a phone call, from another man who said that he was looking for a church to attend. He is new to the area and had attended worship at another local United Church of Christ church. The minister that day had a petition for people to sign, regarding something around immigration. The man didn’t like it—that “politics” should stay out of church, that Sunday mornings should offer a break from what we have to deal with during the week in the news, etc.

These two individuals, as well as lots of other visitors to whom I’ve spoken over the years, have relatively clear ideas of “church,” and what church should be and what they are looking for in a church to attend.

For the most part, this is completely understandable. It’s also likely at least part of almost every church-goer, as people are free to attend, or not attend, the church of their own choosing.

But, here’s the thing: What is church for? Is it to support one’s predetermined notions of God and Christianity, of “church”? Is church all about finding a place where there is common agreement regarding doctrine and dogma, the “rules” of life and faith? Is church a place to escape from the “world,” a place only of sanctuary from the difficult, complicated world in which we live? Is the purpose of church primarily to cater to one’s needs and desires?

It’s one thing to go looking for a church in which one feels comfortable and connected, where one feels that one’s faith will be supported, renewed and refreshed, but is the role of the church only to reflect one’s own preconceived notions of the gathered community of the faithful?

The New Testament is full of examples and incidents where long-held ideas, values, notions of who God is and what God requires, are tested, pushed, and sometimes completely leveled as wrong. How should that work in today’s church?

If all the church is “for” is to uphold what one already knows to be true, then I wonder if this whole venture is already lost. What is the role of the church in challenging our notions, in opening up the possibility of change and transformation? If we already know what we believe, and know it to be “true,” why bother with church at all, if all it becomes is a weekly pat on the back?

Should the church conform to us, or should we Christians be more attuned to what it means to follow the way of our Savior, and to be shaped and molded by the journey of faith?

To worship and believe is to recognize that one is not God, and therefore one’s awareness, one’s understanding, one’s beliefs are always limited, and always possibly wrong or even misguided. The church ought to be that place where we gather to support and encourage each other for the journey, but also where we dare to open our hearts and our minds to the ongoing presence of the holy—mysteriously but wondrously both comforting and challenging.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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