I remember the first time I walked into the church I grew up in. Until that point, my family had gone to small church out in the countryside. For various reasons that, as a nine year old, I didn’t totally understand, my parents decided to try going to a new church. The moment I walked inside the doors I remember my first thought being, “This doesn’t look like a church.” It was a large, modern building, with its own separate wing for elementary-aged kids like me and a sanctuary that could seat 2,400 people. It had lights and drums and fun songs.
The older I got, the more I grew to love that place. The shock at the beginning quickly faded away for me. The pastor at that church is an amazing man. He knows how to speak into the lives of the people who congregate in that building, boldly declaring the words of the Bible into my life. In high school I found my own little niche inside the massive body of believers. I volunteered on the tech team, running cameras during the service and later interning there during the week. It was “home,” I guess.
But now I am not living in that town anymore, since I’m gone away to college. Here my roommate and I had to find another place to gather and worship at on Sunday mornings. With a sinking feeling, I realized there was not a single church in the area like my church back home. The small, country congregations complete with hymns and pews did not feel like “church” to me. Suddenly I was nine again, wondering what kind of place these churches were.
What is church? That’s the question that’s been staring me in the face since I’ve been here. The lowercase “c” church that I attend on Sundays is less than five miles from my dorm room. It’s a Baptist church with about 40 members. The pastor is friendly and his words tap at my heart. When I go to church back home now, I’m struck by the beautiful music and synchronized lights. But they aren’t Church.
What makes a building a church anyway? As a kid, I thought it was the steeple with a cross on the outside of the structure, but the new church we went to didn’t have those things. Later I thought it was a place where Christians gathered to “worship” and listen to a skilled preacher proclaim the truth of the Bible. Now I’m not so sure. The Church, it seems to me, has less to do with the place and more to do with the people. We could gather in a tavern, for all God would care, if we were gathering as Christ’s hands and feet.
I guess I’m frustrated at my own reluctance to readily accept these believers in other congregations as my family. It’s not that I think they aren’t Christians — far from it. It’s just that they don’t sing like I do or pray like I do or lift up their hands. They don’t do “church” how I do church. Why on earth do those four walls and a stage mean so much to me? If God can indwell a burning bush, can He not indwell me? And since He can — and I know He does — why do I allow this Americanized version of the church change the real meaning of who the Church truly is?
The Church is me. The Church is my roommate, the pastor at home and the pastor here, the woman who plays the trumpet for “special music,” and the little boy who stands in an angel costume and proclaims “good news of great joy that shall be for all the people.” Church is not a building, it is Christ with us, in us, for us. If I really let that truth saturate my heart and change how my mind thinks, then it doesn’t matter what building I stand in on Sunday mornings. The Church is the same wherever the faithful have gathered in the name of God.