As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to get asked, “What does your church believe about [blank]? And there is any number of theological or social issues that might fill that blank. Or I might get asked, “What does your church do about [blank]? Again, any number of social or cultural issues might fill in that blank. And when I get that question, I struggle to answer because the question itself is built on a premise that thinks about the church differently than I do. For just a few minutes this morning, I’d like us to consider what this thing called “the church” is and why that is such an important question for each of us to consider.
When talking about “the church” there are different ways to approach it. Because I want to specifically address the challenge I face in talking about “my church” I am going to ignore two of those ways for this episode. I am not going to try to address “the universal church” which would include people from all kinds of denominational contexts and ranges of conviction. I’m also not going to talk about the church as our denominational family…the Be In Christ Church of Canada. Most of the time when people ask about “my church” they are talking about Covenant Christian Community Church. Even defining that is increasingly challenging for a number of reasons.
The reason answering questions about “the church” or “my church” or “Covenant Church” is complicated is because the church is not, at its essence, an institution or organization or building. The church, my church, Covenant Church is a community of people. And for Covenant, some of those people are formal members and others are not. It used to be that we knew who was a part of the Covenant family because they attended our weekly gatherings on a regular basis. COVID realities have shifted that because many participate online now far more often than they are in person. As such, there are people who identify as a part of Covenant Church who we don’t see regularly.
And even among those that we do see regularly, we come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Even among those who are formal members, our circles of alignment aren’t primarily centred around detailed and debated theological statements or moral convictions. Our identity is centred around the person of Jesus. Outside of that centre, who is a person, not a set of propositions, is the life, teaching, death, and resurrection. And outside that is a series of values we believe are an outflow of our understanding of Jesus and his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Outside that are some theological statements that are generally affirmed within our denomination. But this is a few rings out from the centre. And someone could be oriented to Jesus and connected as a part of our Covenant family while not being certain they affirm all of those theological statements or all of our values. And yet, they are affirmed as a part the church, my church, Covenant Church because they are a part of the community of people that is the church, my church, Covenant Church.
And because the church is, at its core, a diverse group of people seeking to centre their lives and their life together around Jesus, it is very hard for me to answer most, “What does your church [fill in the blank]?” questions. The majority of theological, philosophical, moral, and ethical questions are outside of even the theological statements that our denomination makes…which is four steps outside of the person of Jesus whom we centre around.
Does this mean that those things don’t matter? Or that they don’t matter to us as a church community? Absolutely not! They matter a great deal. But just because something matters doesn’t mean we must have unanimity on what the answer is. We centre on Jesus - God in the flesh. From there we consider his life, teaching, death and resurrection as we have it recorded for us by his first followers. And it builds from there.
But “What does your church believe about [blank]?” and “What does your church do about [blank]?” To respond to those questions honestly requires a lot of conversation…sometimes hard conversation.
We often use “the church” or “your church” as shorthand for the organization that the people who make up the church work to support and maintain. So when people ask, “Where is your church?” I’ll tell them we’re in Penetanguishene even though we live much further afield then Penetang and we travel even further. When people ask, “When does your church gather?” I’ll tell them 10:30 am on Sundays even though we gather in different groups - formal and informal - throughout the week and some engage in our online gathering at other times.
We talk about “Covenant Church” having a Compassion Project where we are collecting soap and body wash and deodorant and toothbrushes and toothpaste and gloves and toques and socks and treats for single people in need that Beausoleil First Nation Social Services supports and for others in our own local community. That is something we are organizationally trying to pull together as an opportunity for us to make a difference collectively. But that is not meant to negate or disregard the myriad of other ways Covenant Church is serving in the community because the people who are the church are serving in the community.
When you show love, it is the church showing love. When you are generous, it is the church being generous. When you gather for the sake of encouragement and support and deep conversation and laughter, it is the church - at least a part of the church - gathering.
From my perspective, I love it when the church gathers in person on Sunday mornings. And I love it when you are there. Not because I don’t understand the myriad of reasons why people may not be able to be there. But because it is easier to be the church - in all the good that brings and in all the hard stuff that comes with it - when we can see each other and talk with each other and hug each other. I’m convinced that Covenant Church is at its most beautiful when we gather as a diverse family of people around the person of Jesus. But we are also incredibly beautiful as we spread out and embody the way of Jesus in all the various ways we do so in our homes, schools, workplaces, and places of play.
I hope in all of our shorthand talk about “the church” as an organization with events and gatherings that we don’t forget that we are the church.
I hope and pray you will remember that you - all of you together - are the church. I pray that this encourages and inspires you as you pursue Jesus and live his way in your world this week. And I pray it encourages and inspires you as you think about how you can live this life together as the church. I’m so glad to be a part of this church with you.