Darryl is the Mission Coach for Alpine Presbytery and Minister of Kiwi Church, a new-ish congregation in Christchurch
It’s time to change our language folks.
First off, let me ask you something – Where do you go to family?
When I ask people that, they name a place where their family live and they go visit them there. I push back and suggest that’s where they go to a family gathering, but it’s not the only place their family gathers. Eventually we settle on the fact that this question doesn’t make sense. We don’t go to family, we are family.
No matter what our relationships are like – we are already family. We can be estranged, unhealthy, bickering, but we are still family. We can be spread all around the world but we are still family. There is no such thing as a real family. We are either family or we are not. You cannot be a little bit of a family, just like you cannot be a little bit pregnant. You are or you’re not.
People ask me, “Where do you go to church?”
Or when they hear that I’m a minister, they ask “where is your church?” Sometimes I can be a bit cheeky, and I say – “Lincoln, Prebbleton, Rolleston, Halswell, Sydenham, Burnside, Tamara Park, Aidanfield…” And they look at me strange and then I say – “Oh, we have our activities at Halswell, or Aidanfield, or sometimes other places. But our people live all over the place.”
If you asked the Apostle Paul “where do you go to church?” he would have looked at you strangely and replied “I don’t understand the question.” You see they didn’t ‘go to church,’ they were church. But you know that already.
In Paul’s mind, like when he wrote to the Corinthians, he would say “you already are the church, now discover what it means to live that out.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together points out that we are already are the body of Christ/the Church – it is a cosmic reality – now let us discover what it means to be that. It isn’t something to strive for, it is already a reality – so our efforts are not to try and make us part of the Body of Christ/the Church – our focus is to ask, what does that look like here and now?
Early in our congregation’s journey I would hear a family member say we had church tomorrow. I would say, “no, we have Thin Place tomorrow.” Thin Place, a name from the Celtic tradition, is what we have named our worship gathering, because we needed a new name to help us think differently about who we are and what we do. By discussing it together, it helped us be clear what the essence of the activity was and what it should look like. The actual name isn’t that important, it’s the community that is formed while we talk about it.
We have Thin Place. What’s the big deal? I hear you ask. We all know what we mean when we say church. But the word means lots of different things depending on the context. I wonder if by saying ‘we are going to church’ it subtly reinforces our preconceptions that the Sunday gathering is the centre of church. I hear it all the time, and I gently suggest having the Sunday gathering at the centre of our life together is part of the overall problem of the church not connecting with the general population (not to mention our attempts at discipleship, hospitality, relationship building, pastoral care, and other important things that help us express church).
So what can we replace it with? ‘We are going to worship’ could work, but that’s another word that is problematic, as we usually mean worship to be the hour on Sunday mornings, or the singing and we know it is much bigger than that.
Actually having this conversation together helps us identify how what we understand the essence of church to be. Craig Van Gelder, in The Essence of Church, suggests that we spend most of our time talking about what the church does, or how we organise the church, and he feels we need to focus more on the essence of church, what the church is. Once we have clarity around that (and believe me, that is not easy, as some of us have a lifetime of understanding church in a certain way, and worse still, some of us have studied it and have even more fixed ideas of what it is!), then we can explore how that is expressed given the context we find ourselves in.
Which means we also need to pay more attention to our context – our story, the place where we are, what God is already doing in that place, and so on…[more to come.Ed]