Everyone get your cigarette lighter handy and sing along, observing proper social distance, of course!
I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people.
The writers of this stupid little ditty (Yes, someone intended this to be a serious song, look at United Methodist Hymnal No. 558!) really, really wanted everyone to know that church is the group of people that follow Jesus, not the building.
Yes, of course, for the love, we know.
This catchphrase has been parroted for years, not usually to explain a healthy ecclesiology or liturgical theology, but by those who want to downplay the significance of gathered worship, sacred architecture, or church polity.
So please stop saying it now, in this season, to people who grieve the absence of liturgy and sacrament in their lives. Closing the buildings during a pandemic is out of necessity, nothing less. It is a sacrifice we make out of love for our neighbors, not because liturgy is only one facet of ministry.
The liturgy that takes place in those buildings is vital to the Christian life. The celebration of Word and Sacrament is what teaches us how to be the church together and strengthens us for that task. If there is no liturgy, your understanding of Christian mission and service falls apart completely. As we worship, so we believe, and so we live. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.
You can worship anywhere in one sense. You can have personal devotions anywhere. You cannot worship fully as the church in that sense, though. Of course, the folly of modern worship has exacerbated this misunderstanding. It wants to give you worship your own way, and in doing so, has unwittingly taught a generation that they can find worship wherever and in whatever gives them a felt sense of meaning. But that’s not how it works.
We are called to assemble. To participate in a historic liturgy based on and saturated with Holy Scripture with those who are called and have united themselves with the body of Christ.
This is where we are made into the church. Because as we feed on God’s Word and those tiny elements, we find that they consume us.
And then we go out, the Word of God in our hearts and the body of Christ like burning coal in our stomachs, and we begin to see things just a little bit differently. Like the body and blood of our Savior, we are fractured and poured out for the world around us.
Yes, we are the church, but we need to go be a part of that congregation in those oft-maligned buildings in order to be the church we’re called to be. This is why having liturgy taken away from us is a big freaking deal. This is why, however necessary it may be, it is a tragedy that we cannot worship together.
Until we fully make that connection, please, for the love of God and His church, let’s stop saying that the church is not a building. It may technically be true, but the sentiment behind it is dangerous.