October 20, 2020

What is Church?

churchChaplain Mike declared in a previous post that he was a Liturgical Christian. I cannot say the same for myself. While I have a lot of respect for liturgical and sacramental traditions, my own significant spiritual growth did not come in a liturgical church setting. In fact, you could argue that it did not even come in a church setting.

Here is my question. What do you call a group of believers who live together, eat together, worship together, pray together, are ministered to from the Word together, study the Word together, do works of service together, laugh together, cry together, care deeply for each other, and add to their number on a regular basis?

For me, for four years, this was my Church. For me, it was as real a church, in fact more real of a church, than any other I have ever been in, before or since. Only we weren’t a church. Our leadership said we weren’t a church. Our leaders’ leaders said we weren’t a church. Outsiders said we weren’t a church.

What were we? We were a campus ministry at the University of Western Ontario called Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

We didn’t baptize and we didn’t celebrate the Eucharist (except on rare occasion), but in every other way I feel that we were so much more of a church than what we see passing itself off a church these days. One person in our group led his entire residence floor to Christ. Others, including myself, saw friends embrace Jesus for the first time. We weren’t involved in endless theological debates, instead we were focused on being the body of Christ on that campus. I attended other churches during those four years, more out of a sense of duty rather than anything else, but they weren’t my church. My church was on campus, where I was growing in faith surrounded by other Jesus followers, who were, along with me, on a journey of “Jesus shaped spirituality.”

To quote from Douglas Adams’ book Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency:

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.


  1. “…instead we were focused on being the body of Christ on that campus.”

    You know, because the body of Christ never baptizes people or celebrates communion together. I guess if we get to define “duck” however we want, I rode one to work this morning.

    • I am a big tent Christian, and I guess that I am a big tent definer of church as well. Some of my baptist friends would tell me that most liturgical churches aren’t baptizing either they are doing a ceremony with infants that they pass off as baptism, and that the true body of Christ is that of [age of understanding] baptized [by immersion] believers.

      I disagree with that, but as soon as you start narrowing the scope of what must be done in order to be church, you start excluding true fellowships of believers.

      • I guess I don’t understand how insisting that the church do the things Christ decided she should do is “narrowing the scope.” This isn’t to say that God wasn’t present in your group. Of course he was. People experience God just as much (or more) in AA meetings, and the church can learn a lot from the honesty in such groups. But AA is not a church, and neither was your group–as much good as it did and as much fellowship as you had. It’s just a little arrogant to change the definition of something that has largely had the same definition for a couple thousand years. Or you can equate that with a small, periphal dispute over the definition of baptism if it makes you feel better.

        • I would have to agree that something (a method and practice) which developed quickly in the early church should be regarding as having pretty solid grounds. They did not tend to just make things up without apostolic and/or theological reasons.

    • And I would ask: Why didn’t you baptize people and/or take communion together regularly? (Though if you ate together and during those times blessed God for the meal in Jesus’ name and for His and His Body’s sake, then you were in fact “communing” with Christ as a “church” – ’cause that certainly walks, talks, and looks like how Jesus “communed” with others – quack, quack, so to speak.)

      Did you feel that since you were a parachurch ministry you didn’t have the “authority” to baptize people or serve communion?

      Would it have cost you the support of local churches?

      Did/does IVCF forbid its student members to baptize and host communion because that takes away from the “job” of the “local church”?

      Or what?

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    I do, however, like Luther’s definition (of what a church is);

    “A church is where the pure gospel is proclaimed, and where the sacraments are administered in accordance with that gospel.”

    And where there are people who believe it (my addition to Luther’s quote).

    • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

      That’s pretty much how our tradition defines it also:

      Article XIX. Of the Church
      The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

      I’d bet the reason why IVCF doesn’t call itself a church is because of the Sacraments bit of that. Full-well recognizing that some folks (like Baptists) prefer the term “Ordinances” over “Sacraments,” and for the sake of argument considering those two terms as synonymous, I’d say the difference from a fellowship or Christian community or para-church ministry and a full-blown church.

      Of course, in some churches the Sacraments/Ordinances are rarely administered anyway, which is why there would be almost no visible difference between something like IVCF and many churches. And if they’re doing a really good job of proclaiming the Gospel and preaching the Word, they may even look more like a church than many churches!

      • “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached…..”

        I’m an Episcopalian, and the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion seem to me to be essential for the definition of the Church, but I’ve always wondered how the existence, and presence, of the Church can be dependent on “pure preaching” of the Word of God.

        Does this mean that where the person occupying the pulpit fails to preach “the pure Word of God” on any particular Sunday, the Church stops existing in that place and at that time? Or is the definition of “preaching” wider than that, including the lectionary readings and the recitation of the Creeds?

        I’ll tell you, if the existence of the Church, and its presence in any particular place, is dependent on the appointed preacher getting it right, then the Church disappears on a regular basis in many or most of the churches every Sunday morning across the U.S. and the world.

        • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

          Considering the Articles’ historic context, I think the issue was the problem with preaching in the pre-Reformation medieval Church. In fact, the state of clerical education and resulting preaching was so bad, that Cranmer and the other bishops wrote the Two Books of Homilies to distribute to the congregations. And preachers were not permitted to preach anything other than to read from the Books of Homilies until their bishop was able to evaluate them and license them to preach on their own.

          The theory these days is that when a person is ordained, part of their curacy is for the bishop and parish rector to give them some OJT and evaluation of their preaching. Of course, this is not necessarily so anymore.

          Does that mean that the Church is not present where the preacher is getting it wrong? I’d hesitate to say that. But faithful clergy is so very very important.

      • Fr. Isaac,

        For those of us who are Anglican, besides the proper administration of the Sacraments and the proclamation of the Word, isn’t it also necessary that a local congregation of Christians be under the jurisdiction of a Bishop in the apostolic succession for the church to be fully present? Isn’t the historic episcopate the way the local congregation belongs to the church catholic?

        • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

          That’s an echo of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 and 1888. The purpose of this document was to establish a basis for reunion of the broken pieces of the Church, especially to talk about terms for a potential reunion with Rome and the East.

          The four elements that were decided were essential for restoration of Unity were:

          (a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
          (b) The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
          (c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself–Baptism and the Supper of the Lord–ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and elements ordained by Him.
          (d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

          One could certainly draw from this the conclusion that this is the bare minimum for what it means to be part of the Church Catholic. But the context was not to de-church congregationalists or presbyterians, but to start a way toward reunion of the Church.

  3. A good definition of church is “Christian community”. (Nearly all the time the word ‘church’ is used – a congregation, a denomination, the body of all believers, etc – “Christian community” fits).

    There are lots of organised instances of church. A student fellowship is one, a conventional congregation is another, a home group that prays and studies the bible is another.

    The student fellowship doesn’t baptise or share communion, but it recognises the other pieces of church where that does happen. All the pieces of church labelled “para-church” are the ones that recognise they are just part of the picture, and encourage most of their members to be part of a conventional Sunday church.

    As a uni student, the uni Christian group was my primary Christian community, rather than my Sunday church. I probably had too much church and could have mostly done without the latter.

  4. Alison Griffiths says

    Mike – I was once part of a community like the one you describe. It was a difficult but special church to be part of – difficult because it demanded a lot of me relationally and spiritually but special because we were very much united in Christ.

    I think the rest of my life will be spent trying to get back to that type of church – in fact I am steering the traditional church I lead in that direction at the moment.

    We can get too prescriptive about what is church and what isn’t just as we get too prescriptive about other issues in life – why do humans have this need to categorise and organise what is of God? I have a strong hunch that God doesn’t really care whether we are ticking the boxes as long as we are being the people He created us to be.
    And yes – I do think we need to get doctrine etc right and avoid false teaching but too often we have made what should be a living Body an institution and there is something very wrong about that.

  5. Doubting Thomas says

    The Holy Spirit blows where it wants, we can’t control it. God may see fit to work among his people in times and places that don’t fit our organisations.Maybe this very meaningful time was meant for that time and place. It would be nice if we could conjure up God by having the “right” kind of church. But I don’t think it works that way.

    • Final Anonymous says

      Sadly, I’d have to agree at this point. My most Jesus-filled church-like experience was a small group, through church but separate, and well past college, but the Holy Spirit was noticeably present. I have often wished it was as easy as finding the right doctrine, or style, or mission, etc.

  6. “Church” may have a more extensive meaning than what you have described according to some, but I do remember that Matthew 18:20 states Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” So, whatever it was you were doing, you were doing it with Jesus present. How much better can it get?!

    • I would call what you describe a community of believers, a brotherhood, a group of apostles (not unlike many Catholic orders of brothers and sisters, albeit more loosely organized and organically grown).

      I would not, however, call this a church.

      Your group of brethren, IMHO, lack the structure, public worship, and leadership/division of labor that I consider inherent to the word.

      But, coming from a Catholic with very specific ideas about “Church” and “The Church”, I would readily admit that my standards are unlikely to resound with anyone from a non-liturgical background, especially if they do not place much value in tradition, history, and authority.

    • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

      As the context of that passage is Church discipline, not just what qualifies as a church (see below), I wonder if this oft-quoted verse may be of greater significance. That passage talks about excommunication from a community! That implies something institutional to me. But I may be wrong…

      15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f] in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
      21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

      • Fr. Isaac, what do you think Jesus meant by his, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

        • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

          The Church Fathers typically consider that verse to mean say that the authority of the Church to exercise disciple comes from Heaven itself. Augustine, for example, considers the “binding on earth” to refer to when a brother is excommunicated from the Church, and “loosing on earth” is when he is reconciled and forgiven by the Church, but then goes on to admonish very careful justice in this process because it has eternal (“in heaven”) consequences as well.

          The Fathers also emphasize that by refusing to repent of his sin, brother who is to be excommunicated has ultimately put himself into bondage and that his repentance is what really will loose him. They also use this passage to emphasize the continuity between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven.

          I should also point out that the “you” in the passage is plural (hence “ye” in the KJV), showing that this is a community thing, not just authority granted to Peter or something like that.

          • Thanks, Fr. Isaac. I did google this after I asked the question and the things I read pretty much coincide with what you have written here. It’s interesting that the passage you quote ends with Jesus saying that they have to continually forgive people. So, even though he says right before this that the people can basically kick someone out of their church if they do not amend their ways, he still says we need to forgive people. So, I guess we can refuse to have anything to do with people but still forgive them. I bet that person is not going to FEEL forgiven, though.

            I read somewhere where a person was trying to have us believe that the section that says “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” means that we have to show even more love to them because like Gentiles and tax collectors, they are very needing of that love.

          • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

            Yeah, I could see that as a good application. The Church NEVER wants to see someone damned or permanently de-Churched.. Excommunication is always supposed to be a “tough love” scenario that will lead someone to repentance. That’s why in Anglican circles (and I’d assume the same is true of Catholic and Orthodox and LCMS and other such circles), the bishop is supposed to get involved when it comes to these kinds of things. It’s not just a lone cleric or pastor willy-nilly exercising harsh church discipline. And, for us anyway, it’s supposed to be for issues where there’s “notorious evil living” or where there’s a feud between church members. I.e. someone who’s struggling with sexual sin wouldn’t need to be excommunicated (that’s why we have Confession and Absolution, even in a corporate sense). But someone who has moved with his girlfriend and refuses to either get married or live apart in the way that the Church and Scriptures have commanded just might be.

            And “excommunication” for us liturgical types almost always specifically refers to denying them Communion. I can think of very few situations where someone would be “shunned” by the Church.

  7. Off topic, but in breaking news, Bill Gothard is put on administrative leave. thanks to IM and all that helped bring (sadly) attention to a situation that needs lots of healing.

    • petrushka1611 says

      Check recoveringgrace.org for more information. They’ve probably been the single biggest catalyst for this. (I’m sure you know that, but others might want to know where this all is coming from.)

      • I will put the link on the IM BULLETIN BOARD.

        • Note to readers: Chaplain Mike usually doesn’t get to see what I post on Fridays before I post it. (Usually because it is finished right before midnight.) Sometimes he gets advanced warning of a topic. Sometimes I change direction at the last hour. I do appreciate the lattitude that he has given me.

  8. “We were so much more of a church than what we see passing itself off as a church these days.”

    Aye, there’s the rub.

    Theologically I agree with Chaplain Mike, Steve and St. Martin Luther – the church should be marked by the ministry of Word and Sacraments. And those very things should also call us and transform us into the very type of community you found at.your group.

    It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in American Christianity that so often, we are forced to choose between these two things that I highly doubt God intended to be separate.

  9. Great post, Mike. It articulated much of my own thinking on the subject (heading up a campus ministry myself).

    I’d be interested to hear why your group didn’t baptise/take communion, was that a policy of the organisation? Would you have liked to? Would you do so now, if you were in the same context? What happened when you had someone come to faith in the ministry?

    Even more so, I’d love to read more on iMonk exploring the theology of baptism in particular… Anything in the vaults? An idea for the future?

    “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized ?” – Acts 8:36

    • Or to sort of quote Peter in Acts 10 – “Can anyone tell me why we shouldn’t baptize these people?”

    • The idea of the historic sacramental traditions is that as Baptism gives one their spiritual life, so communion sustains it. Therefore, it is irresponsible to be creating lives you have no intention of caring for. That is why it is important (but not an absolute law) that Baptism be done in the context of a congregation that will continue to grow a person in their faith. Being done outside of this context, though still effective, gives the subtle implication (especially in our hyper-individualistic society) that the church as a local itself isn’t actually necessary any more, since I received Jesus outside of her.

      But of course, if you don’t believe that Baptism saves, then in many ways, the church kind of is an optional supplement to our spiritual journey that can be edited out of our story when we cease to perceive it as helpful.

  10. Speaking as a former campus minister and someone who was deeply involved in campus ministry while in college, I understand where this is coming from. I think, for one thing, that the relationships we have with people in college are often the most meaningful we ever have. If you’re at a university where you’re living in the dorms or even in an apartment near campus, it gives you the opportunity to spend time with people that you really can’t do otherwise. I think perhaps this is why it’s been for me to have experiences that I find as meaningful now as the ones I had back then.

    After I graduated from college, I hung around the town for awhile, worked full time, and did the campus minister thing as I mentioned earlier. I remember talking to my dad on the phone back then, and he would say things like, “how are things up there in the non-real world?” I finally understand what he was getting at, I think.

    • That’s a great point. I had similar experiences, and while I look back on those times fondly and see it as a time of great spiritual growth, I can’t bring myself to call it church just because I enjoyed it a lot–or even because I grew a lot. To call such a homogeneous group of people, who are all the same age, the body of Christ is stretching it a bit–especially when they don’t practice baptism or communion. Not that they aren’t part of the body of Christ necessarily; it’s just a strange and potentially dangerous thing when college-age kids separate themselves from people in different walks of life and call THAT church…

    • I feel much the same regarding similar experiences that I had while in undergrad school. Youth and idealism and being in a basically homogeneous group – it’s a unique time. After university, other realities take over.

      So Mike, I think you were not in a church so much as you were in a group of peers where everyone was attending the same school and living in similar setups and making some big transitions. I formed many close bonds with people at that point in my life, in similar circumstances. But I don’t think it all adds up to “church” per set.

  11. I’d like to take up Tim’s question and extend it out a bit. What if a campus ministry actually moved from a “campus activity” mode to a church planting mode? Intentionally planting student churches in dorms. Training shepherds, ordaining them to minister the gospel, to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To meet together to share the word and to partake in His Table.

    With the explosion of “multi-campus” ministries, certainly these groups could be developed under the oversight of a “full” (meaning a body comprised of a more heterogeneous population) local church. Of course, turnover would be constant, but would provide fertile training ground for minister of the gospel to go out and serve in “full church” as lay ministers or even as ordained clergy.

    What if?

    • Dave, have you come across ‘Crowded House’ church in Sheffield, UK? Their story is similar to where your musings are going although they ended up centralising (traditional church strategy: “convert and retain”) rather than expanding (Jesus’ strategy: “train and release”)

  12. As for the duck illustration — I guess I would classify your campus group as a sort of church — a kind of pseudo or perhaps proto church. It may smell like and sound like church, but it was missing a few parts. As Spiderman said, no doubt the Spirit was present among you and worked mightily through you.

    But you framed the question in terms of defining Church. My guess is that your supporting organization specifically prohibited you from being a “church.” And by that they specifically meant that you would neither baptize, nor share the Lord’s Supper as a regular way of functioning. So the organizations very understanding, based on what they prohibited you from doing, means that you weren’t a church.

    Apparently, you were able to do all kinds of church like things excluding those two. I would suggest a better question to ask (as per my post above) is why were you prohibited from doing so? Does that make sense? If you are going to do a bunch of what church does, why not embrace it and go all the way? Adapt the structures accordingly, place the group under oversight and be in full what you really are in part? I realize that’s not a question for your local group so much as it is a question for all nonprofit parachurch campus ministry organizations to consider. Perhaps it’s time to take those feet and wings you cut off that duck and put them back on so that it can swim in the deep water and fly as it should.

    I’ve never been afraid to extend a metaphor just a little too far. 😉

    • +1 for those questions

    • When I was attending San Diego Christian College, which is an extension of Shadow Mountain Community Church, David Jeremiah put a stop to the college celebrating communion in it’s chapel services. He was adamant that chapel not replace the local congregation in the life of the students, and that they had best be celebrating it in their own respective churches. Even though he is strictly Baptist (and dispensationalist) in his doctrine, he nonetheless recognized the ritual as a defining element of our understanding of church. At the time I thought he was nuts. I now respect him for making that decision, which at the time, was very unpopular.

    • Alison Griffiths says

      It’s only by avoiding the celebration of the sacraments recognised by the liturgical churches (if that’s the right name for them as a group) that allows Christians to worship together across the denominational boundaries. Decide to ignore these beliefs of such denominations and offence is easily taken.
      If we meet with certain denominations now to worship as a group of churches, only their ministers/priests are allowed to administer the sacrament of communion to all of us – they will not receive it from those of us not ordained in their tradition and would rather absent themselves from the gathered church completely. And our baptism must be confirmed in their tradition – it is insufficient in itself to qualify as true baptism that allows admittance into their churches.
      As long as we ignore the issue of the sacraments we get on brilliantly!

      • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

        This is a REALLY important point. I don’t remember where I heard it, but something that has stuck with me for years was when a leader of a large parachurch organization said that the reason his organization exists is because the church isn’t doing its job and the job needed to get done.

  13. Steve Newell says

    First, the Church is the body of Christ. The body of Christ is defined by what we believe, teach and confess about ourselves and Christ.

    In the Lutheran and Catholic traditions, the location church is referred as a parish. This implies that the local church is part of the larger Christian church with a common set of doctrine. The Church is defined locally as a group of believers gathering together for worship and spiritual growth, but it is always part of the church catholic.

    In American Christianity, many local churches are not part of a larger church body either locally or nationally. This results each church being a denomination unto itself. In addition, we have developed a very individualistic view of Christianity were we are our own pope and we defined doctrine individually and not collectively.

  14. David Cornwell says

    While I readily accept the definitions given to “Church” in these conversations, it seems to me that we would be well advised to hold these descriptions lightly less we fall into unneeded legalism. If we hold to them too closely then the church door has been closed to many of our ancestors, and at times to ourselves.

    I grew up as Methodist, and being old, Methodism still runs deeply in my blood. My ancestors gathered in frontier settings and were served by circuit riders, lay preachers, and others. The sacraments were not fully observed at all times and in all places. Yet these, though far from achieving any level of perfection, became a people who believed in the transforming power of Jesus and whose character grew out of that power. Little churches, sometimes in the hills along a country lane, at a crossroad, or in a town were where they congregated, sang songs and hymns, and heard the Word proclaimed and made them what they became, for better or worse.

    And I think the same can be said of other groupings of Christians that congregate on Sunday mornings or other times and and various places. Some may have a strangeness, to us who are somewhat different. However as to whether they are the Church or not, I’ll let God be the judge.

    • I don’t think what anyone has suggested here approaches legalism. It seems like the general consensus is that God can and does work outside of the church. And God is present outside of baptism and communion and the proclamation of Scripture. Hell, he moves and works in and among the Buddhists and does whatever he wants whether the Gospel is preached or not. He’s certainly not bound to the ways I (consciously or subconsciously) attempt to confine him (or her, I guess!). And while we can call any and everything a church when we play it fast and loose with its definition, it doesn’t change the fact that certain groups do not constitute a Christian church as defined for centuries upon centuries by Christians following the institutions of Christ. I’m not saying the frequency that a group practices certain things matter all that much; just that maybe, at some point, it might be a good idea to do what Christ said if you’re going to call yourself his church.

      • David Cornwell says

        “And while we can call any and everything a church when we play it fast and loose with its definition, it doesn’t change the fact that certain groups do not constitute a Christian church as defined for centuries upon centuries by Christians following the institutions of Christ.”

        Thanks for settling all this once and for all. Now I know.

        • All snark aside, David, if it were just me settling the issue, I’d probably agree with Mike Bell on this.

          • David Cornwell says

            Apologies for the snarkiness on my part. However I do believe the true Church has been present, in one way or another, even in the remote areas of the United States, perhaps not in ways that optimally fit a definition, but present nevertheless. And that this was not just God being present as He might to a Buddhist. And many of those traditions continue on today. And I do not have a problem with Mike Bell’s experience.

            Reform is needed within Protestantism so that the Church better becomes the Church. I do believe this.

            So I suppose we have our differences.

          • No worries, friend. I’m prone to snarkiness, myself. And I think we might agree more than we realize.

    • So along these lines, let’s consider the experience of the first century church, not as a prescriptive, but perhaps as a descriptive of how God seems to operate in building his church. Let’s go to Acts 10.

      There was gathered around the house of Cornelius, a gentile follower of the God of Israel, a group of like-minded devout. He was specifically instructed to send for the Apostle Peter so that he might receive an important message from God. Peter was also instructed by God to go to Cornelius. He did. He explained about Jesus. Before he could even complete his message the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered group — certainly we would call them a church at that point. Then Peter moved immediately to baptism — and presumably he stayed on as the text says to teach them more, including the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Presumably — but I think not an unreasonable assumption.

      So the Spirit moves. Gathers people to Himself to worship. Then it seems normative — expected by the Spirit — that they should take on a certain form that would include baptism and communion. It seems they still remained outside the synagogue. It seems they stayed in Ceasarea and in the house of Cornelius but they did not stop with their unformed state but moved into a more mature form.

      So certainly, we could call country churches such as you describe a church. But we would say that they are not fully functioning as the Spirit would have them without the baptism or communion. My guess is that they did practice these rites — to their own level of understanding adapting to the local culture and conditions. If the Word worked on them enough to convert I imagine they went the next steps as well.

      But what about in a situation where the group/church is specifically prohibited from baptism and communion as in the campus ministry described by MB? They did not even self-identify as a church — they avoided the label. There are likely good reasons for it — although I haven’t seem them articulated. And I suspect it was an unnecessary boundary and in some ways may have been harmful.

      If I would call them a church, I would consider them a church with some limbs amputated. Just as I would NEVER assert that an amputee is not a whole person — I would have to admit that having no legs does mean that he would have some limitations on how he could live life. And certainly, there are adaptations and accommodations that could be made for such a person — yet the best thing, were it possible — would be to simply give him the legs he has been missing so that he could walk. (again — streeeetttching the mataphor).

      That’s why I think freeing these kinds of groups to Be Church in every way is a better alternative.

  15. Mike,

    I appreciate what you wrote here, and am reminded again of situations in my life where I experienced sweet fellowship and the presence of God outside of “church” (one particular small group came to mind) – and also of instances where I sensed a spirit of oppression and dread in an organized “church”. I do appreciate your “big tent” perspective, and am thankful for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or ecclesiology. However, I also echo previous commenters, in that I think there is an irreducible minimum requirement to be the faithful church, and that requires baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I know we are quibbling with vocabulary now, but these were instructions that God gave his church, and while all kinds of Christian ministries are helpful, fruitful, and blessed, I don’t believe we can consider ourselves faithful if we are not fulfilling the great commission (baptism) and administering communion (commanded by Christ). My 2 cents.

  16. I feel that we were so much more of a church than what we see passing itself off a church these days.

    There could be many reasons for that, including the strong sense of authentic community you had amongst its members. However, we must maintain that it is possible that genuine church is existing in all its spiritual vibrancy in places where we feel it is not, possibly in the places we see “passing off as a church.” Jesus loves the people in those lame local institutions and died for them too. The true church is not always visible to the emotions. It is defined by objective criteria, by the words of Jesus, and not by the subjective of positive experiences.

    I attended other churches during those four years, more out of a sense of duty rather than anything else

    You worshiped with other congregations. Those weren’t necessarily the church either. There’s two ways to ask and answer this question: “What is the church?” and “Who is the church?” The problem is that the answer to the second is usually given to the first. When asked “what” the church is, people are often told it is those who truly believe in Jesus, aka the “invisible church.” The congregational assembly is merely the outward expression of this and not to be confused with who the church actually is.

    But this skips the question: it doesn’t tell us WHAT the church is. So these people believe in Jesus. What are to be their defining characteristics? I propose that following Jesus as disciples is absolutely essential. And by this, I do not mean adherence to a moral code. I mean holding to his words as the source of our life, because they actually deliver us from death, through the preaching which creates faith, and the sacraments which sign, seal, and deliver it. Ergo, where the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, there you have the Church. Genuine faith in Jesus and holding to his words produces this.

    The collegiate fellowship was the church, in the “who” sense: they were believers in Christ, and they were seeking to express that faith and follow in discipleship. But apart from the Word and Sacraments, you don’t have Jesus himself feeding you spiritually and keeping your faith alive.

    Now, of course, this creates a problem with non-sacramental Christianity. How could you define “church” by a doctrine you reject? You can’t. And you will never define it any other way: living together, eating together, worshiping together, praying together, being taught from the sacred texts together, doing works of service together, laughing together, crying together, caring deeply for each other, and adding to adherents regularly are all good things for Christians to do. But non of it is specifically Christian: you can do all that for just about any religion. Therefore, they don’t define Christianity: Jesus does, His Words alone, and his death and resurrection given to you in water, bread, and wine.

    • Good work. Much more fleshed out — you give a very balanced and more complete explication of the thoughts behind my posts. Thanks.

    • Alison Griffiths says

      Migel: which churches do you define as ‘non-sacramental’? I am hard pushed to think of any church that does not celebrate communion or baptism in some shape or form. They might not place the same importance on the sacraments as you do but there must surely be very few who do ignore the Lord’s Supper or baptism completely.

      • Fr. Isaac (or possibly Obed, but definitely not Fr. Obed) says

        Well, there are churches that celebrate the Lord’s Supper and Baptism but refuse to use the *term* “sacrament” in favor or “ordinance” or something. The only “denomination” that I can think of that doesn’t do Communion or Baptism is the Salvation Army, but I don’t think *they’d* consider themselves a church or denomination either. They’re more like IVCF.

      • Non-sacramental churches are those who deny the efficacy of the sacraments as means of grace. While many Baptists and Presbyterians may commendably maintain a consistent and frequent practice of the Lord’s Supper, their doctrinal formulations for the most part either insist the bread and wine are strictly symbolic, or there is some kind of spiritual presence where we are caught up to heaven in our hearts by faith to commune with Christ there when we eat was is just bread and wine. If you’re not actually eating the flesh and blood of Jesus, it isn’t really sacrament-al. It’s not about how important we say they are: it’s about WHAT we say they are, and what they do.

    • +1

      • Two groups come to mind that, unless I am mistaken, neither baptize nor observe communion — Quakers and the Salvation Army. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

        Alison, “celebrating communion” is not the issue being raised. The issue is whether communion is viewed as sacramental or non-sacramental. The sacramental crowd (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) believe that grace is imparted in the taking of the elements and that Christ is truly present in some way. The non-sacramental crowd (Baptists, Presbyterians, Reformed, others) believe communion is not a sacrament but an ordinance, and that it is a memorial only (do this in remembrance of me) but that grace is not imparted in the taking of the elements.

        • Louis Bouyer of the Oratory, a Lutheran convert to Catholicism, suggests that the Last Supper should be seen in light of the Jewish zikkaron prayer so that the “in remembrance of me” that Christ requests his followers do is not a reminder or remembering to themselves of Jesus’ death for their sins, but a prayer to God to remember Jesus’ death. See his book http://www.amazon.com/Eucharist-Theology-Spirituality-Eucharistic-Prayer/dp/0268004986/

        • Alison Griffiths says

          @been there done that:
          When you include the ‘non sacramental crowd’ I think you should be careful of grouping Baptists en masse on this particular issue. You are probably talking about US Baptists but it isn’t specified and Baptists are a very wide ranging international non conformist group – diversity should be our middle name – some of us definitely believe that grace is imparted in the taking of the elements and that Christ is present. It is certainly more than a memorial. ordinance, act of obedience etc.
          As an ordained Baptist minister I have fond memories of the lengthy arguments about this very question at the college where I prepared for ministry – the views stretched from what could be called ‘high church’ to ‘low church’. I was astonished.

  17. Good post, Mike. Thanks for sharing your experience. Once a year, my family attends a Christian conference center in Cannon Beach and I always marvel at the different denominations represented in the chapel meetings, yet we all worship together in unity of Spirit in praising the Father and Son. It may not have some traditional church things, but it’s most definitely “church”.

  18. I think better questions are “Who is Church?,” and “What is Worship”? More specifically, what is gathered worship by the Church? The Church is ontological before it is functional. The Body of Christ being Christ to the world qualifies as Church. And worship can be done alone, with a friend, or with family, or at a small group.

    However, I have come to believe that liturgical worship in Word and Sacrament with a gathered community of believers for the purpose of re-enacting and remembering the drama of the Gospel is the most nurturing and sustaining practice. In worship we remember who the Church is, not what it is, and that is the most important touchstone of our life lived between the Font and the Feast.

    • David Cornwell says

      Excellent explanation.

      Several years ago I read “The Great Giveaway; Reclaiming the Mission of the Church…” by David E. Fitch. About two weeks ago, I reread this book. Part of what he discusses is how to go about returning liturgical forms of worship, i. e. Word and Sacrament, to churches of evangelical tradition. He sees the best way of going about this is with new church plants and with the support of his denomination.

      Both liberal churches and evangelical churches have been captured by certain modernist categories and presuppositions, so both need internal reform. It may be slow in coming.

  19. Another former IV person here. I agree with everything you said. When I was in college, I also attended my home church, but Inter-Varsity really served as “church” for me. Decades after college, I still have get-togethers with my old IV friends and marvel at what caring, insightful,and kindly people they continue to be.

    How did you ever adjust to post-IV life (without resorting to becoming IV staff)? In many ways I feel like I never adjusted.

    • I was in IV when I was in college too. I remember that it was difficult to get involved with local churches mostly because IVCF filled so much of that role (along with the time). My best friends to this day are people I met through that fellowship.

      For seniors, my chapter recommended reading Richard Lamb’s “Following Jesus In The Real World” to help prepare for the post-college life. (I should probably take it off the shelf and re-read it.)

      I don’t know what exactly you mean by “adjust” but I ran into a bit of culture shock (if that’s the best term) after college. My fellowship was extremely good at being a safe place for the community of believers and I kind of assumed that that’s how all churches were. Big mistake. (Oh well, what’s a little sandblasting to get rid of the naiveté?)

      Anyways, if you are having trouble adjusting and are having trouble finding a church to join I want to encourage you to not give up. It may take a while – it may take a long long time – but it is possible to find a deep community w/fellow believers after college.

  20. The youth group is just one para-church group that might, depending on your criteria, be interpreted as a “church.” What about the ladies auxilliary? the men’s auxilliary? the church bowling team? the “community” of people on a website such as this one? etc.

    Can we simply agree to say that x is a church if it calls itself a church, and seems not to be engaged in obvious fraud by doing so? Of course not all churches will be acceptable to one another (the Church of Satan, anyone?), but that needn’t detain us here.

  21. An observation: For a readership that has largely engaged around its experience in the wilderness, I am surprised at how particular some here are about what constitutes meaningful worship.

    Do we emerge out of the wilderness only to find a new ideal to cling to?

    • I have yet to see a comment about “meaningful worship.” That’s a bit of a misrepresentation of this conversation. What we’ve been discussing, as far as I can tell, is the definition of “church.”

    • I see it as an artifact of the elevated language we use. To some, “the Church” is this abstract or supernatural thing that connects all Christians (kind of like the Force), and can never be sullied, no matter what human scandals may arise. Of course this raises the question of which human churches can be considered part of “the Church,” and what the qualifications must be. To others, “church” is a worship activity which all Christians (it is assumed) must attend, probably on Sunday, with further debate about what forms this worship must take. “Church” is also interpreted as the community which organizes this worship, and perhaps undertakes other functions as well, though here too it is unclear what sort of social group qualifies.

  22. Radagast says

    What is Church? Reading what is happening in modern trends these days it is …anything.

    Church is whatever I am feeling at this point in my life, until I grow tired of that formula then move on to something else that interests me. Fast church, slow church, action church, tolerant church, no organization, all organization, big church, house church, liturgy, hanging out with friends. Sheesh… its all about me.

    For most of what I read about the different formulas it seems to boil down to one thing, how I feel. No thanks. Too many individuals think they have a better way. Feelings aren’t always rational and are always focused on self.

    I belong to an old traditional church. Since we rent out our gym I get approached by pastors about a new church plant that has a new formula for worship about once a month (they want to set up church in our gym). They are all very focused on growth; more members ,more focus in the community, in a community saturated with every type of church you can find. What better way to find followers already attached to other churches than to set up in an established church, why there’s lost sheep right within this here building….

    My thoughts….