Where Do People Get Their Ideas of Church? Part 1

Part 3 of series:
What is a Church?

Where Do People Get Their Ideas of Church? Part 1

People today have a wide variety of ideas about what a church should be. If you ask a dozen people you’d probably get a dozen different answers.

One of my favorite answers to the “What is a church?” question came during a children’s sermon preached by a young seminarian. This story was related to me by someone who was in the congregation that fateful day. For those of you unfamiliar with this genre, a children’s sermon comes in a worship service when the folks twelve and under are brought forward for a sermonette by the pastor or some other church leader. Often the sermon begins with a question like, “What is God?” The preacher gets a bunch of funny – and incorrect – answers, and then offers the right answer, usually with a visual aid.

At any rate, a young man was doing his seminary internship at a church. As the low man on the totem pole, he got tabbed for the children’s sermon and decided to talk about what the church really is. He gathered the children together in the front, and began with his question: “So, boys and girls, what is a church?” He fully expected that the kids would say a church is a building and a place to go on Sundays and so forth. He’d get to wrap up with the correct answer, that the church is not the building but the people. As soon as the seminarian uttered his question, one of the boys shot his hand into the air.

“Yes,” the young preacher said, “what is a church?”

“The gathered assembly of believers in Jesus,” was the boy’s answer.

The seminarian was speechless, not knowing where to go from here. The kid had stolen his punch line. From the seminarian’s point of view, there wasn’t anything more to say about the church. So after a few seconds of embarrassed silence, he thanked the boy for his answer and dismissed the children. (What the seminarian did not know was that the theologically-precocious boy was the son of a seminary professor in the congregation, and should never have been called on first!)

Most people don’t get their ideas of church from their seminary professor fathers, however. Rather, then get them from a wide variety of less sophisticated sources. Let me suggest a few obvious ones.

1. People get their ideas of church from their past experience of church.

Indeed, this is surely true for people who have spent some time in church. These days, more and more people come to church with no religious background whatsoever. But most folks still have at least some prior history of church, even if it’s limited to weddings and funerals. As a pastor, I’ve found that people usually have both positive and negative experiences from which to draw. They want a church to be like what they’ve experienced in some ways, but not like other aspects of previous churches where they’ve been involved.

People tend to have diverse feelings about their past church experiences. Some come with negative memories. Others look back through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. For example, I’ve known people to complain about some innovation in worship and talk about how wonderful their church was growing up. When I ask if their church helped them to know Christ, to grow as his disciple, or to have a desire to worship God, they’ll say something like, “No, but that’s not the point.” Looking back, they love what they remember about worship in their childhood church, even though it didn’t help them know God better.

2. People get their ideas of church from pop culture.

Even folks who’ve never stepped into a church might have seen the television show 7th Heaven (about a minister and his family) or The Simpsons, which frequently portrays The First Church of Springfield with its lovingly hypocritical pastor, the Rev. Timothy Lovejoy. Countless millions of people have seen the church through the lens of The Da Vinci Code, with its deluded believers and diabolical bishops.

On a happier note, millions of others have read about the exploits of Father Tim, the beloved, Episcopal priest in Jan Karon’s Mitford Series. Here, there are no sinister plots in church, only a bunch of ordinary, small-town folk sharing life together in a traditional, small-town church. One of my favorite series of novels, The Starbridge Series by Susan Howatch, explores the psychological, theological, and spiritual struggles of religious leaders in the Anglican church.

Of course there are dozens of other images of the church in pop culture. These often shape the expectations of Christians and non-Christians alike. Unfortunately, it seems that often these images are negative, with pastors and church members pictured as judgmental hypocrites or unthinking extremists. Churches and church leaders can be pretty messed up, I’ll admit, but there are some good ones out there too. So, pop culture may not be the most reliable source of ideas of church, even though it is influential.

Tomorrow, I’ll consider two other common sources of ideas about church.

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  • Evan


    The depiction of the Church in general and clergy in particular by the Elite Media is striking in its overall negativity today. The infamous political quote about “people that cling to their guns and religion” pretty well sums it up.

    Consider just this: What do you think is coming if you hear a newscaster announce, “Our next story concerns a Catholic priest who worked for years with young boys”? Nine will get you ten it will concern a crime. In the 1930s or 1940s, however, you would first think of Father Flanagan and “Boys Town,” with Spencer Tracy winning an Oscar for playing Flanagan in the movie, or “Going My Way” with Bing Crosby, who also won an Oscar! I am not trying to minimize the bad apples in the clergy and their detestable actions, but the pendulum in the Media has swung from Utmost Respect to Utter Contempt. The only exceptions are clergy that champion the causes favored by the Elite Media, ie, Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking.”

    (The DaVinci Code business would be laughable except that so many people think Lee Teabing is both real and correct.)

    Of course, positive portrayals are also few and far between for ordinary Christians as well. Of course, Jesus pointed out that if they hated Him, they would hate us as well. It is still dismaying.


  • Father Flanagan. There’s a Boys Town facility right down the road from us. In fact our street turns left, and if you go straight the street name becomes Flanagan road.
    But I digress. Last night I met with our church’s youth group kids to listen to them talk about the recent Barna Group research on why young people leave the church. A few comments really stand out in my head this morning.
    One was the young lady who said, “All we want is to be accepted, and it’s hard to be accepted when you’re not doing things your friends are doing.”And one young man talked about how it’s “Not fair” that someone who grew up in a non-Christian country might miss his salvation because he never heard the gospel. That comment really summed up the tension our kids feel, I think. 

  • Anonymous

    Sheila, thanks for this comment. I’m actually reading David Kinnaman’s book right now, the one based on the Barna reserach you’re talking about. You Lost Me is an important book for people who care about the church and about the next generations.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Evan, for your comment.

  • Don

    Let’s not forget Reverend Alden on Little House On The Prairie!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, indeed. A positive image, too.

  • Nelsonmuyaba

    But we should also realise that the church did not just start all of a sudden,it under went changes and adoptions which can be traced back to other forms of worship..

  • I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts on it, Mark.