27 Jun 2009

"Going to Church"

Submitted by Paul Brown

I don't remember where it was that I heard this, but recently I heard someone question the propriety of the phrase "go to church". Perhaps it was Jeff Vanderstelt at the Gospel Conference (Session 1 or 2), who I remember at the very least never using that phrase but substituting "gather with the church" or something similar. It could have been in Total Church. Maybe it was somewhere else. At any rate, "being the church" over against "going to church" is a popular topic, at least according to Google.

The concern about phrasing arises from understanding the meaning of "church". In the New Testament, "church" is always the redeemed community of Christ-followers. Sometimes it refers to the local church (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19), sometimes to the universal church (Eph 5:25; Mat 16:18), but in no case does it refer to anything like a building or an event that one could go to. I don't think that this teaching is controversial or peculiar to those who have been emphasizing the missional nature of church.

Although many of us who are Christians know this doctrine about the church, nonetheless our language more often than not refers to church as someplace to go or a meeting to attend. For example, Holly and I commonly refer to what we do Sunday morning as "going to church". Likewise we call our Sunday evening activity "going to Regen", and during the week, we "go to community group". Fundamentally, church, Regeneration, and community group are all communities of people, yet we refer to a meeting or gathering of it as if it were the thing itself.

While I don't want to get hung up on the phrasing per se, I do think that the way we say things both reflects and shapes the way we think about those things. When someone says "church", what is the first thing that comes to your mind? What do you visualize? When I hear that word, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Bear Valley Church building, perhaps an image something like this (but with more of Kendrick Lake in the background).

I don't know whether it is worth going to the effort to train myself to abandon the language of "going to church". But I do know that I need to cultivate an attitude of rightly seeing the church as the community of those who are redeemed in Christ and to live out my identity as part of that community all the time, not just at our gatherings. Maybe changing the way I talk about it will help.


Chris mentioned this ill-used phrase in his farewell sermon at BVC. I think it also appears in Total Church, which we are both in the midst of reading now.

I want to have a new vernacular for the gathering together of the church, but I also don't want to sound like a weirdo. I suppose that there must be a fine line in redefining phrases and still remaining understandable to people.

Right! Now that you mention it, I do remember Chris using this phrase during his sermon at Bear Valley.

There's nothing wrong with being a weirdo....

I think that this may be part of the reason that people long ago used the phrase "Going to meeting", which I've understood to be short for "Going to the meeting of believers" or "Going to a meeting of the Church".

In recent years, I've heard people use the phrase "Going to a church service". Adding in the extra word "service" seems to define the action more specifically as a gathering of those in a community.

I like this train of thought. Many times we will hear that someone is negatively stirred by a particular phrase or word. Sometimes we can respond by avoiding the phrase rather than hearing the heart of the person who is stirred. Sometimes a negative impression shared with me should lead to a behavior change, but not always. It's always worth considering... but only after hearing their heart. Our choice about changing our behavior is a separate matter altogether.

Keep writing, Paul.