#SKEPTIMERGENT: why NOT “church”?

I’m reconsidering a positive use of the word “church.” I have my criticisms, but I seem to be one of a very small number of people who are so allergic to it, at least in the worlds that I live in. Recently, a few of us started a new Emergent cohort here in Raleigh, NC, which has sparked this question. But, this post is more rhetorical in nature, in order to get to a better understanding of what the word “church” might actually mean.

So, this goes out to those of you who do use the word church in a positive way…

What do YOU mean by the word?

What things or practices do you think MUST be present in order to use the word “correctly”?

What if I and a few others – ranging from progressive Christians to hardcore atheists – wanted to use the word to describe our small group? What would be the benefits and potential problems of doing so?

It seems like more and more “non-traditional” groups are using the word to describe their groups/communities. This ranges from the “atheist church” in London, to what thinkers like Pete Rollins are doingRevolution Church in New York, or even some strictly online communities.

Is the word “getting at” something profound that should be retained, despite its potential negative associations?

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  • While the word “church” does carry some very negative baggage for some, it seems to be more neutral than negative in my experience. In fact, few people find church negative who don’t also think of the word “religion” as negative as well. So my experience of this word is more tied up in people’s impressions about religion as a whole as much as about the church specifically. People who are not purely anti-religion are generally not anti-church either. In the end, I have to say that how people will respond to “church” will be based on how they respond to you, your ministry, the group they encounter, etc. And as a biblical word, it is one that can be defined and emphasize people of faith more than the institution – new Christians are more than willing to listen to teaching and adopt language and definitions if they trust the leadership in the group/church they encounter.

    • Very true! Thanks for the feedback.

  • Sam Dawlatly

    You may find this interesting reading…

    Basically, the word used in Greek translated to church in the new testament doesn’t mean church…

    • Thanks!

      Yeah, I spent a long time a few years back trying to get a better original definition of the word, related to the Hebrew synagogue and the “secular” Greek use of the word ekklesia. I definitely don’t think the contemporary uses have much of anything to do with the original ones.

      But, I’m starting to wonder if words like this can and should be hijacked…

      • Samir Dawlatly (@SDawlatly)

        Hi Rob

        I avoided your questions in my post. The link I posted was something I discovered when exploring what church means when we left a charismatic evangelic church to join a “Fresh Expression” of churhc that meets in a cafe (in Birmingham, England).

        If you notice in my opening paragraph I had to qualify the types of church I have been to recently. I think the word church has become like the word Christian – it means so many things, and different things to do different people. So I would say I am a liberal progressive Christian, formerly a charismatic evangelical Christian.

        I think church can mean
        – a building
        – a single organisation
        – a community
        – a denomination
        – all Christians in the world
        – the body of Christ
        – the bride of Christ
        – a gathering of Christians
        and probably more…

        Hence the need for qualifying descriptors.

        Before we had our third child, my wife and I ran “Church at Home” where we invited neighbours over to look at the Bible and have a meal with us. The next time we did we had a puppet show of the nativity with them and made mince pies. When one of my neighbours, who is Christian, comes over with her dinner to eat with us, because she is lonely as her husband is away – to me that feels more like “church” than sitting through a sermon I won’t remember the next day.

        So, great question. I would say your gatherings are church, but when describing it you may need to qualify what type of church, I guess.

        Peace and love


  • Good question. Probably not possible to find a universal answer. For my part, since the German word Kirke from which we get apparently derived “church,” and the original Greek and Hebrew words for “assembly” and “congregation” which we are attempting to translate all were used widely in their time, I don’t really care who uses the word today. But, it is true that the wider the uses and the users the more need for qualifiers – then and now. Example: I personally don’t use the word “church” for the building we meet in when I can avoid it, but most of my friends do; so I sometimes qualify my words saying “church building” in order to be understood.

  • Tim

    In using the word Church, I guess it all comes down to who you are naming the community for.

    For example if your community is mainly aimed at reaching those who’ve lost touch with “the church” as a result of the requirement to conform to narrow cultural or theological norms, then the baggage might not be helpful.
    If you aim to reach out to GenWhatevers who are ambivalent to the forms of Christianity they’ve seen in your community, but are interested in the way of Christ, then I’d probably say yes. One of the problems of avoiding the word Church is that you may be accused of either separatism or passing judgement on other churches.
    I’d also be aware of over-reliance on linguistics. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Christians talk about saying “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian”. It sounds really pithy and clever to other Christians in distinguishing religiosity from following Jesus, but coming from a background outside the church it just sounds stupid and superior (similar to the right wing attempts to say Islam is not a religion). If I was asking whether to use the word “Church” in a community’s name, then my primary concern would not be what I mean by it, but what those others hear when we say it.

    In terms of what makes Church (in the theological sense). I’d say that firstly it’s a community seeking to follow the way of Jesus. Secondly to that, it is INTENTIONALLY a community seeking to follow the way of Jesus. How loosely or tightly that intention is defined is down to the community, but the intentionality separates it from being just a group of friends who happen to be followers of Christ. Thirdly I’d add that the group is accountable in some way. That can be accountable to each other rather than to a wider episcopal structure, but accountability in it’s simplest form says we are mutually dependent on each other to help us in our intention to follow Jesus.
    Finally I’d add that membership is open to anyone who accepts the above. A closed group may be valuable for mutual support and fellowship, but I’d argue it isn’t church unless we are open to those who God sends us, rather than those who we like.

    In terms of how others will react to your using the name. Some outside “the Church” might want nothing to do with it unless you’re a philosophical discussion group. But I get the feeling you want more than that anyway.
    The group I was part of had a mutually defined set of rules that when we produced public worship it would not be in contradiction with the Historic Creeds of the Church. You weren’t required to believe them, and there was no problem exploring what they might mean, but part of that meant respect for those for whom that was important. We first held worship in a moderate evangelical Anglican Church (which would seem progressive to most American Evangelicals), and later moved to a liberal-catholic Anglican one (one of our members became the Vicar). The conservatives saw us as to be avoided fairly early on. The liberals had no problem (although we were often still too theologically conservative for them). Branches of the Church has seen other churches as “heretics ” since the second century, so it’s no big deal. The Advantage I would say is that you are saying that this way of following Jesus is just as valid as the other ways that people might reject. It’s an affirmation that you are part of something bigger (the Universal Church), not just a self-help group.

    All IMHO of course!