Why do we have a church? Is it so we can come together to convince ourselves that we are people of value? To form alliances and committees to effect societal change? To feed the poor? To use it a means of reflecting and implementing the prevailing cultural enthusiasms? Is it to enact elaborate rituals and make beautiful music? Is it to soothe our bruised and broken souls before venturing out into our post-Christian world to live, or try to live, our Christian lives? To all these questions the answer is: No.
The church exists to bring us (note the plural) into contact with the Almighty God. When this happens, we are changed. We were created to glorify God and to grow in our knowledge and love of Him. When we are true to our reason for being, certain blessings come to us, by-products of a God-centered life: we receive Grace (help) to enable us to live as we were meant to live. We learn how to love – sharing, serving, forbearing. We discover how to obtain forgiveness, and so, how to forgive. We come to see the difference between what is good and what is worthless; right from wrong; what leads to wholeness, and what is hurtful. We grow in our relationship with Jesus, and by God’s Grace we become acutely aware of our own besetting sins.
The essential venue where all this is lived out, is the parish church. When someone asked C. S. Lewis why he so often worshipped in a country church instead of the magnificent cathedral and chapels of Oxford, with their brilliant sermons and exquisite music, he related the experience of kneeling next to an old farmer with squeaky boots, and over time, coming to the realization that he wasn’t worthy to wipe the boots of that old saint.
The parish church is the place where the Christian Faith is discovered and lived, where all sorts of people, young and old, rich and poor, simple and educated, black and white, single and married come together under God to learn lessons of love: to teach and be taught, to admonish and be admonished, to forgive and to be forgiven, and to receive the discipline of prayer. It is the only place where all this can happen.
The parish church may be seen as a type of the Christian Faith, a sacramental, if you will, where the faith is lived out in the lives of its people. To be healthy, the parish church (and indeed the Christian Faith itself) should be true to its reason for being, its purpose.
The purpose of the church is three-fold: 1. To worship God. 2. To offer a setting where people can grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. 3. To share the blessings of the Christian Gospel.
What goes on in the parish church is analogous to our relationship with God. We begin as passive receivers of God’s grace: His love, acceptance, forgiveness and solace. As we grow in our relationship with God we become more Christ-like. We move beyond just the solace of the faith, to accept its challenges. We learn the joys of serving, sacrificing and giving. And we develop a desire to share this way of life with any and with all.
All the churches I have been privileged to serve, large or small, have had one thing in common: a core of committed people that do most of the work. These are the ones with an active lay ministry. They care about the well-being of the church. Often they grow weary and experience burnout. They fret if the church is not growing in numbers and in money. They are tempted to see these problems as ends in themselves, and devise ways of solving them through elaborate programs, studies and strategies. They have forgotten the purpose of the church: To worship God in the beauty of holiness – a converting experience that draws us closer to God as we encounter Him in Word and Sacrament, growing in the knowledge and love of the Lord through study, service and social interaction, and developing a desire to share the blessings we have been given. When we are true to the purpose of the church, wonderful things happen. The core of the mature Christians is replenished and increased as people move from just receiving grace into being empowered by it. As we become more Christ-like, we learn the blessings of giving more of our money in a sacrificial way to the church, and we begin to share our blessings with others, by inviting our friends and neighbors to come to church with us, which is the best and most effective form of evangelism. This will have the side-effect of increasing those moving from a passive understanding of the faith into one that can respond to its challenges, as well as expanding the core of the committed. As all are moving closer to Christ, they grow in their concern for those outside the parish church. This has significant implications for evangelism, outreach and missions, but all as by-products of being true to the purpose of the church, and not as ends in themselves. As we are true to the purpose of the church, wonderful things will happen.
Fr. Terence Jordan