The Church – Person, Place or Thing?

July 21, 2013


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
July 21, 2013

“The Church – Person, Place or Thing?”
Rom. 12:5
I Corinthians 12:27

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy driving around and looking at buildings and signs. Occasionally, you find something really funny. On the insert in your bulletin, you will find the names of actual churches and some commentary on them.

There’s Greater Second Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN, which stands in contrast to the not so great second Baptist church around the corner. For those who do not want to commit all the way, you can go to the Halfway Baptist Church. On the other hand, Hell Hole Swamp Baptist Church in South Carolina is not a seeker sensitive church by any stretch of the imagination.

Now here’s a great church name: Original Church of God, Number 2. I really can’t think of anything to add that could possibly be funnier than the name itself…except for perhaps number 3.

Boring Seventh Day Adventist Church is another one of those “truth in advertising” names, but this church goes the extra mile because the name of their pastor is Elder Dull.

James Bond United Community Church in Toronto, is of course “shaken, not stirred.” St. Martini Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, WI, is also shaken, and not stirred and comes with an olive or a twist of lemon if you prefer. Of course the Lutherans can actually drink a Martini so I guess it isn’t such a stretch to name your church after one, or is it?
Cole, Neil. “How do we Name our Churches?” Mar. 3, 2010
What is the church? Is the church a building? Is it the place where people gather to worship? Is the church a person, a place, or a thing?

After an accident in which she lost her arm, a girl named Jamie refused to go to school or church for months. Finally, the young teen decided she could face her peers. At the conclusion of the lesson that day (which was about inviting friends to church), the teacher led the class in doing the motions to the familiar children’s poem:
Here is the church,
Here is the steeple,
Open the door,
See all the people!
Jamie’s eyes filled with tears. A 13 year old in the class realized how she must be feeling and went to be beside her. With one hand apiece, they supported each other, making the church, the steeple, and the people. Together, they illustrated what real church is.
Sermon Illustrations, pg. 39-40

What is the church? Is the church a building? Is it the place where people gather to worship? Is the church a person, a place, or a thing?

Over the years, I have given great thought to this question. My thoughts are usually sparked by a comment someone makes…
• The person who comes to the church office asking for financial help, saying that they are Christian and know that the church will help them.
• The elderly person with little ability to get out and about, telling me that the church hasn’t been responsive to their needs but I’m sitting there.
• An acquaintance from the community who asks how things are going at the church. I don’t know what that means. How many came to worship? If we’re meeting our budget? If the carillon bells are ringing again?
• A person who asks for prayer and then thanks the church the next week for an answer to that prayer.
• Another who has a small stack of cards from people in the church but complains that no one in the church recognized the event. “But”, I say, “Who sent you the cards?” “My friends,” he replies, I suppose they are also members of the church, but they sent cards because they are my friends.”
Is the church a person, place or thing? I have to admit that in a little corner of my brain, I want to say: “But you are the church. Did you send cards or visit or pray or give or participate? If you didn’t, then who should have done it? The church?

The church as it is described in the New Testament comes from the Greek term ekklesia. It means “an assembly” or “a gathering”. We’ve all probably talked with people who say, “I’m a member of the church, but I don’t go very often.” But wait a minute… the church is ekklesia – a gathering. What if you invited me to a gathering at your house on Saturday evening and I responded, “Sure, I’ll be a part of your gathering, but I won’t be able to attend.” That’s a confusing answer, because being a part of a gathering means being physically present! Ekklesia cannot exist unless people gather.

We drive by an old country church, overgrown and dilapidated. No one has gathered there for years. Is it still a church?

There are about 12 people getting together in homes to read, meditate, discuss and pray. Each week they meet. Are they a church?

Martin Luther’s understanding of the church was functional – what legitimates a church or its office-bearers is not historical, but its current worship & mission. What we do is what distinguishes us as a church.

John Calvin wrote about the visible church and the invisible church. The visible church is the community of believers, making it a place where there is good and bad. The invisible church is the community of the saints – those who have gone before us and those who will come after us.

Canon Ernest Southcott said it best: “The holiest moment of the church is the moment when God’s people – strengthened by preaching and sacrament – go out of the church door into the world to be the church. We don’t go to church; we are the church.”

Think about how you would describe the church.
• What are the sights and sounds?
• What are the rites and rituals?
• What do you taste and touch that makes it church?
• Who do you see?
• What is the feeling you get?
• How do you learn and grow?
The church is not a set of buildings; not so much of a ‘what’ but a ‘who’. There are people associated in every aspect of what it means to be church. Romans 12:5 tells us “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” And I Corinthians 12:27 reads “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

You are the church. If you want the church to visit you when you are sick or lonely, you need to visit the sick and lonely.
If you want the church to be a place of service to others, you must serve others.
If you want the church to send cards, start today.
If you want the church to have more members, you need to invite people.

There is a better rhyme:
Here is a building,
Here is a steeple,
Open the doors,
The church is the people!

Bible References

  • Romans 12:5
  • 1 Corinthians 112:27