Six word answers to the question “What is Church?”

I do not list names or ages because these were a response to a face book post by a friend of mine and I didn’t ask permission to print names. Here goes…

A temple in which to consciously receive the holy spirit

Spiritual community for support and growth

Next was a listing of the etymology of the word:-)  (over my head!)

Relationship with the vehicle of God’s love

A very human, God-infused institution!

Human attempt to institutionalize spirituality (with varying degrees of success)   That was 10 words but who’s counting?

Listening, obeying and suffering together (He says this is not original with him)


Essay on “What is Church?” by Barry Thomas who has been a pastor at churches in three states, specializing in spiritual formation and leadership development. He has a background in petroleum engineering and now works in that field. In his mid-forties, he is married and has two college age children. He lives in Texas.

If I were to use one word to describe my relationship with church right now, the word would be disillusioned. Not disillusioned in an angry or rebellious sense, but the kind of disillusionment that results from unmet expectations…expectations of the church providing purpose and fulfillment in life; altruistic expectations that politics don’t exist in church; that all church goers love each other and want what is best for each other and that participating in a church is spiritually transforming.

I grew up in a Christian home where church was a central part of my life. My family faithfully went to church every time the doors were opened: Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening. Our friends were people from church; our social activities were church activities. As a result, I formed a belief that religion and spirituality were synonymous. If someone asked if I was a Christian, I would say, “Yes, the church I go to is…” That was the proof that I was a Christian. I didn’t know how to separate Jesus and church because, in my life, they were synonymous. Spiritual growth was measured by church activity, Bible knowledge and good behavior.

With the help of a spiritual director, I started paying attention to my heart and God started working on it. I began integrating emotional health into my spiritual growth because that was the limiting factor to my growth. For many Christians, a study on the book of Romans is what is needed to grow. For me, I didn’t need another Bible study. I didn’t know how to integrate and apply the Bible knowledge I already had. I needed to learn how to identify my emotions and pay attention to what they were telling me about my beliefs. I needed to understand about the parts of myself I didn’t accept or like and learn to bring them out of hiding for God’s love to bring healing. I needed to give myself permission to get angry and to experience grief; to set healthy boundaries on my life and empathize with others. Spiritual growth became the ability to receive God’s love and, in turn, love God and others well. It is measured by acceptance, grace, forgiveness and, of course, love. But how can I love God and love others well if I don’t know how to do these things well?

For me, there is now a distinction between religion and spirituality; between church and Jesus. They are no longer synonymous. With the two separated out, I see that the role of religion is to help a person grow spiritually. In other words, my church experience should be one that helps me experience Jesus and His love in deeper and deeper ways. Religion should nurture spirituality; not get in the way.

So the question is: “What is the role of church in my life now?

As the shift was taking place in my heart (and it still is in many ways), slowly, but steadily, my beliefs changed about the role of church in my life. If it’s all about love, how does the church fit in with that? How do I engage and participate with church now?

The older I get (and hopefully more mature as well), the less my spiritual growth is dependent on church. It is still important for me to be part of a church body. It is still important for me to participate in corporate worship; to hear a message from God’s word; to partake in the sacrament of communion. What have become more important to me (and more formative for me) are the relationships. It is essential for me to be in relationship with a group of believers where I can be known and accepted and loved, and I, in turn, can know, accept and love others.

It is like a parent-child relationship. As a child, I was dependent on my parents for everything: food, shelter, clothing, safety, love, etc. As I grew, I learned to do things for myself: brush my teeth, dress myself, tie my own shoes, etc. One of the primary jobs of my parents was to teach me to be independent of them. As an adult, I am still in relationship with my parents; however, it is different now. My sustenance and safety are no longer dependent on them.

Is it possible that one of the primary jobs of the church is to teach me to have a relationship with Jesus that is not dependent on church? If so, then my expectations need to change. I can’t expect church to still be tying my spiritual shoes when it is something I need to be doing myself.

So disillusionment…what do I do with that?

The disillusionment fades as I understand that my relationship with church changes like a parent-child relationship and I change the expectations I have about the role of church in my life. And as my spiritual growth becomes more independent from church, then it is up to me to create the kind of church environment I need to help me grow. Much of my spiritual growth over the last several years has not come from a program or ministry that my church has organized. It has come from experiences and relationships I have sought out. I have built relationships with people who can be fellow sojourners with me. And at the same time, I stay connected to my church much like I stay connected to my parents as an adult.


Bobbie Spradley is an active lay woman in the Lutheran church. She is a very young 81 year-old, a retired university professor and author, mother of three step mother of four and grandmother of 14. Her recent spiritual quest has been to list as many attributes of God as she can find in the Bible. She has notebooks full of her findings. She writes her answer to “Why Church?

Why Church? My Story

Going to church has always been a part of my life. I was raised that way. It was expected. We went without question. Growing up with that expectation, I learned to enjoy singing hymns, tolerate sermons, participate in youth activities and generally feel surrounded by a faith family who knew me and cared about me.

I didn’t question why I went to church until early adulthood. Newly married, living in new places, the subject came up for fresh scrutiny. Why did I go to church? No one told me I had to any longer. Many people I knew did not go. Yet I felt drawn. Why? Deep within each of us is a God-hunger, whether or not we know it or like it. We’re incomplete until God enters our lives and makes us whole. Church was a means for me to know God. Study of Scripture, absorbing the gospel message, discovering God’s greatness and goodness in new ways, learning the value of prayer, living out my faith in
daily life – all of these were by-products of my being in a community of faith.

There were also opportunities for service. So I continued to go to church.
As time went on, however, many of my reasons for attendance were being met outside of church. Through such things as spiritual direction, work shops, retreats and personal study, my God-hunger was being met in new and increasingly deep ways. Attending church was less meaningful. Still it drew me. I wanted a faith community with whom to worship. Singing God’s praises together, participating in holy communion, hearing the spoken Word enriched and complemented my private devotional life and spiritual
journey. I wanted to be involved in service but my focus shifted toward encouraging others to engage in spiritual healing and enrichment. No doubt all this is a factor of my age and place in my own spiritual growth.

“Why church” for me has now in my later years taken on new meaning. Yes, continuing to participate in communal worship and fellowship is enriching and important to me. However, it can’t replace my need for a deeper spiritual life which is primarily met through private daily prayer and time in Scripture. Learning to know God is a joy I wholeheartedly pursue. So, why church?

I see church now as a place to give. I’m not speaking of giving money or time spent in service. I practice those as I’m able and believe they are important. Rather, I mean looking for ways to give – to reach out – to others. I feel God’s call in this and have asked God to sharpen my awareness and sensitivity to those around me. I look for opportunities to encourage and bring joy to the people I meet. I smile and acknowledge the presence of others as often as I can. I make a point of memorizing names and call people by name as much as possible. The way their faces light up tells me it means something to them.

Being a member of our church prayer chain, I know the challenges many face and am able to ask them individually how their health is progressing, express
sympathy for loss of a loved one, or encourage someone looking for a job. I look for ways to affirm people, compliment them and acknowledge their contributions and efforts. Even a touch or a hug makes a difference. These may seem like small things but expressing God’s love can promote healing and unity. Love shared is love multiplied.

The bottom line for me is that church can mean different things at different times for each of us depending on where we are in our journeys. But the fact remains, we still need God in order to be whole and we need each other to help foster that. For me, that’s “why church”.

Reflections on these essays

Both of these people separate church activities from their inner spiritual life. How do you see that in your life?

Have you made peace with the church? With what it does and doesn’t give you?

What one word would you use to describe your relationship with church?