If 12 friends start every Saturday morning over breakfast at a Panera Bread, discuss a passage of scripture, share how last week’s theme has impacted their life, pray and care for one another, and then leave to serve their neighborhood homeless with coffee, donuts, conversation and prayer, is that a church?
If 120 people gather on Sunday mornings in their church sanctuary, sing, pray, hear a sermon, take an offering, share the Lord’s Supper six times a year and their elders meet every month to review their membership rolls, is that a church?
According to our Belgic Confession Article 29, the true church can be recognized if it has the following marks:
- The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel.
- It makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
- It practices church discipline for correcting faults.
I never imagined that defining a church would be challenging… but in the twenty-first century, does a sixteenth century definition still serve us?
Is a faithful gathering of transforming disciples of Jesus without elected elders and deacons a church?
Is a congregation with no local missional outreach a church?
What do we count when tabulating our annual ecclesiastical reports?
What does the government count as a non-profit, charitable organization?
Our love for tidy accounting, and doing everything decently and in order, is getting messy.
Next generations aren’t generally concerned about such details. They don’t carry the same loyalty to the institution as their ancestors. They just want to live out a Gospel-transformed life in community and do impactful ministry.
What structure is essential?
What is preferable?
And what is unnecessary?
What about professionally trained clergy?
The RCA has prided itself through the centuries in its well educated ministers. What if 15 hospital workers, upon concluding their 3rd shift on a Sunday morning, gather in a seminar room to discuss scripture, share burdens and pray about impacting the lives of co-workers and patients before going home to bed? Can they be a church without a commissioned pastor or Minister of Word and Sacrament?
The same holds true for a group of Nepali-speaking refugees who find each other in a foreign land, wanting to worship God in their native tongue without anyone trained to lead them. More and more, people are congregating in the crevices and loving God and one another without the traditional components of the church.
I don’t have answers to this myriad of questions, but they are real and require discussing. All I ask and pray is that we don’t allow these unanswered questions to restrain us from making more messes.