As a junior newspaper editor in the mid-1990s, I remember editing articles about war crimes trials taking place in Europe. I noticed that I was always having to edit out the word “The” from “The Hague.” Some dingbat journalist clearly was pranking all the hard-working editors in the world. And my boss was in on it, because for every “The” that I removed from “Hague,” he put one back! Soon enough, I figured out that the name of the place is in fact The Hague, which on consideration makes perfect sense. As does “The Wichita” and “The Scranton.”
So if you’re like me, you might think that the only difference between “The Church” and “church” is the first guy’s desire to get rid of extra Scrabble letters. Not so, as I’ve learned. Here’s how I understand the difference:
· The Church is the collective body, across eternal time, of all mankind’s followers of this Guy named Jesus, who earned for us the title Christ. The faithful followers, therefore, are Christ-ians.
· Church, as distinguished from The Church, is the building where church-going Christians get plugged in with each other in order to carry out their faith, as actors of the mission and vision of God.
To unpack it further, and at great risk of muddying what may now be coming clear: Christians are, by definition, elements of The Church. Even those supposed heathens who don’t bring their faith into their neighborhood building with any regularity. To take back an idea that the tech sector borrowed from Christianity: church is the brick-and-mortar outlet of faith, while The Church is in the cloud.
“To take back an idea that the tech sector borrowed from Christianity: church is the brick-and-mortar outlet of faith, while The Church is in the cloud.”
Like football and couch-naps, church happens on Sundays; also like football, it increasingly takes place on other days of the week than just Sunday. Soas to not compete with this other American religion, Christian churches are content with Wednesday and Saturday nights and Sunday mornings and evenings, thus preserving Sunday afternoons and Monday and Thursday nights for the gridiron faithful.
Unfortunately, lots of people have made value judgments about church — about what takes place there and about the types of people who make up the body. To the extent that these value judgments are flawed and negative, likely reflects a lack of first-hand experience in church — although you might be surprised at how many regulars also have a poor opinion.
Our churches, like Solyent Green, are made of people — normal people like you and, ahem, me. People who are for the most part simply trying to know their Savior better, and to let His Spirit work through them. As a stiff-necked people, too often we don’t let Him into us, nor into our buildings, but most of the time we’re doing our best.
When it works as planned — when Christians get together with the Holy Spirit in a big building to worship and celebrate — we/they create an otherworldly place: a mystical place with its own customs, music, hierarchies, roles, language and practices. Divinely guided and rooted in thousands of years of tradition and ritual, today’s church – even in its most modern, progressive forms – can present as both Holy and mystical, and wholly mystifying, to those who don’t have experience with church culture.
If you’re intrigued or even just mildly curious about where this all is going, stick around for a few more posts. Try to understand why so many of your friends and neighbors — the ones you thought were rotten and the ones you thought were normal — skip the snooze button or the links in order to spiff up and head to their local church for a couple hours each week. They might just be onto something. Something that you’d like to be a part of, too.
The Faith Deconstructed category offers an occasionally thoughtful, sometimes glib, always faithful look at today’s Christianity, from the perspective of a reformed skeptic.