Re-imagining Church: What’s the Point of it All?

April 6, 2008

A prayer for the church, adapted from the Galasian Sacramentary:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; and, by the tranquil operation of your eternal providence, carry out the work of humankind’s salvation; and let the whole world feel and see that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and all things are returning to perfection through him through whom they took their origin; even through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen

Old Testament Reading: Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O people, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

New Testament Reading: Acts 2:44-47, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Today we begin by asking the question, “What do people think about church…faith…Christians?” The book, “UnChristian” by David Kinnaman reports on 16 – 29 year-old Americans speaking out about church, faith, Christians and their impressions. Common perceptions about present-day Christianity include:

• Judgmental (87%)
• Hypocritical (85%)
• Old-fashioned (78%)
• Too involved in politics (75%)

The percentage of “non-Christians” in their late teens and twenties saying that they have a “good impression” of Christianity is … take a guess! The answer is nineteen! In other words, those who have a ”less-than-good impression” of Christianity make up 81% of this group.

The most frequent, unprompted images that young people called to mind, mentioned by both non-Christians (23%) and Christians (22%), are:

• “Christianity is changed from what it used to be”
• “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”

What did it “used to be”? Here we have Scripture as a guidebook, if we can learn how to use it. One of the helpful ways to envision Scripture and the ongoing narrative of God’s people is as a meandering river – one full of twists and turns, yet one that is heading in a specific direction overall. A second helpful way of thinking about Scripture is as an invitation, an invitation to enter the river and to participate in the journey towards its destination.

These images suggest why it is so difficult to answer the questions one often hears about some small snippet of Scripture, i.e. “How do I apply this to my life?” The question sounds like an understanding of Scripture as an invitation to go to the river and scoop out some water and then walk off in a direction that could be quite different from the direction of the river’s flow, occasionally drinking from the water scooped out from the river. This is very different from seeing the invitation as one that invites the reader to enter the river and follow its flow towards its destination, completely immersed in the water. When young people say that “Christianity has changed from what it used it to be”, perhaps it is this type of issue that they have in mind.

When we enter the river and examine the flow as it creates for us an image of “church”, what do we see? From chapter 2 of the Book of Acts we begin to see phrases such as, “All who believed were together” and “they spent much time together” start to appear, signaling for us the building of a community of people. In fact, several readily available Bible dictionaries show us how the term that we translate as “church” was understood in the flow of the narrative:

Easton’s Bible Dictionary – Church: “Derived probably from the Greek kuriakon (i.e. the Lord’s house), which was used by ancient authors for the place of worship. In the New Testament it is the translation of the Greek word ecclesia, which is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal of the Old Testament, both words meaning simply an assembly…”

Harper’s Bible Dictionary – Church: “… In the New Testament, ‘church’ always denotes a group of people, either all the Christians in a city (Acts 14:23; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1) or those gathered for worship in a particular house (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19) or all Christians in all the churches, the whole church (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22). It never signifies a building or a ‘denomination’.”

We see, then, that “church” as conceived originally was about people and community, not about buildings! Further, in Acts 2, we see the expression “day by day” appearing which shows us that “church” was not conceived as a place to which one goes once a week, but rather as a new way of daily life for a community of people. Using this approach to examine the flow of the narrative, the groups of people who first gathered in people’s homes to discuss forming The University Church developed a picture of what “church” looked like – it is of course an evolving picture because the river is not static but continually flowing towards its destination. We saw that “church” was characterized as follows:

• A community reaching out to all of God’s people, seeking peace and justice
• Christ-centered and Spirit-led through prayer
• Teaching, mentoring and guiding through small group interactions
• Seeking to meet the needs of individuals and the community
• Transforming individuals, the church, the community and the world
• Worship that is relevant, vibrant and alive
• Openness, honesty and integrity in all things

If community is a central concept in the idea of “church”, we wondered what questions people ask when they first encounter a community. It seems from research in this area that people have five big questions when they encounter a community, which they may or may not decide to join. We sought to list and answer these questions in ways that were faithful to the flow of the narrative. Here are the questions and the responses we developed:

#1. Do I fit here?

If you are interested in being part of a community that welcomes all people, that cares about individuals and the neighborhood, and that seeks to live in meaningful ways, then you fit here.

#2. Does anybody want to know me?

We see relationships as central to living as an authentic church community. If you are looking to understand yourself, build meaningful relationships with others, and to find, build or develop a relationship with God, then you will find much in common with the people here.

#3. Am I needed?

We are people who seek transformation of our community, and that cannot be accomplished unless we work together. Your skills and interests will find new meaning as you explore how you can make a difference in the world.

#4. What will be required of me?

We don’t expect you to think a certain way, dress a certain way, or act a certain way. We do ask you to explore,
ask questions and then to decide if you’d like to commit to being part of this community in a way that works for you.

#5. Why would I want to be part of this?

If you have wondered if your life has meaning, if you have a purpose and if you can make a difference, then The University Church offers you the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself that will make a difference in your life.

As we see it, our description of the core values that characterize “church” and our responses to the big questions that people ask provide responses to the perceptions of young adults, i.e. “Christianity is changed from what it used to be” and “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”

At The University Church we see two ways in which people might be involved in the ongoing narrative of the Christian story:

Option 1: Come and explore the possibilities

Option 2: Commit to creating a re-imagined church

On Easter Sunday this year, we held our very first baptism and confirmed two teenagers as the first two founder members of The University Church. We saw this as symbolically important; a church founded upon the fragility of two teenagers who had made a commitment. These young people entered into a covenant to support the community through…

…their prayers
…their presence
…their gifts
…their service

We encourage you to consider entering into such a covenant if you are ready to commit to creating a re-imagined church. We offer two possibilities:

Member: A member is one who has committed to the covenant of responsibility with The University Church and who has no ongoing relationship with another church family.

Adjunct Member: An adjunct member is one who has committed to the covenant of responsibility with The University Church and also has an ongoing relationship with another church family.

Adjunct membership may be appropriate for persons who:

• belong to a church in their home town and yet will be in the Toledo area for an extended period of time (for example, college students)

• live part of the year in the Toledo area and part of the year in distant location

• have a historic family tie with a church and yet are regular participants in the life of The University Church

Recall the words of our opening prayer from the Galasian Sacramentary, an ancient and enduring prayer for the church: “…let the whole world feel and see that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new…” This seems to capture the dream of re-imagining church, and who wouldn’t want to be part of something like that?

Thanks for visiting!