What is Church? Why Church? Part 4.

Today I introduce three people who have been pondering these questions and have looked at them from a life-long perspective. Katherine speaks of a place to belong. Both essayists speak of the journey, from times of not belonging; of distance, of fragility, of alienation, and then, of love, for oneself and the church.


The first person is Katherine Nicolay, an 89 year-old friend of mine who describes herself as a “free thinking Baptist.” She has been going to church all of her life.

“Church is a place to go where people think like you, believe like you and worship in a way you are comfortable with.”



The second person, Jean Leih, is an ordained Baptist minister and spiritual director, in her early sixties, who runs a center for renewal and restoration. I know her as a wise woman who sees beyond the ordinary. I suspect she would describe herself as a “free thinking Baptist” as well.

Church has been a part of my experience of living – not an on-the-side, once-in-a while kind of living, but it has been integral; I have been involved and engaged in every aspect, from cradle until now – from lay person to clergy—from musician, teacher, leader, administrator, preacher, counselor, spiritual director. My experience of Church has been shaped by my experience of church (little “c” in the localized expression of it). How I experience Church today is now broader and more inclusive than much of my experience of church.

I’ll begin with a response that comes from Scripture and that now comes from my heart, that is, what I think the bedrock of the Church is—the foundation for all that encompasses Church. And it is love. “On this rock, I will build my church.” These words come from the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John, chapter 21, when Peter is assured of what Jesus the Christ was and is about. Establishing a movement built on love that endures as a rock endures. Not a person, but the essence of relationship, love. So, yes, a person, but people gathered to work out the practicalities and realities of becoming more loving of God, oneself, and others. So, of course, another metaphor for the church is “the bride of Christ.” That which demonstrates a Church that endures, is that which has an increasing love, passion even, for Christ, God incarnate, and for others. Where does love lie? This question is always before me as a discerning question on ordinary and on pivotal issues that seem to plague the church as we decide how to love.

We have not been left on our own to muster up this love from our own human resources, but we have been created with the image of God imprinted on our soul. It is this “image of God” that ignites into desire for God and as we turn towards God who is love, and in this continual turning we also become increasingly like God. God incarnate again and again through each human person, through God’s Spirit come alive, again and again. This is our capacity for becoming a lover and life-giver as Christ was and is.

After a lifetime, at that point, of living as a Christian and a churched person, one morning I woke up and decided to believe. In that moment of belief I experienced the brilliant light of God, the all-encompassing love of God, and the life-changing grace of God. God has gripped my heart and soul ever since. His Spirit is within me, ignited and enflamed. And yet, I still forget. So I need the Church, others with the same sense of being “gripped” by God who help me remember who I am and whose I am.

What does love look like for the Church? Since I have been a part of organized and institutional church for much of my life and though I now find myself placing an “altar in the world” (Barbara Brown Taylor), I am trying to be much more intentional to listening to how God may want me to be as one who loves, heals and nourishes life in myself and others. It is my question that I now am living into.

I admire and respect the Church. The efforts that are much like Peter’s life, afraid, denying who he was for threat of his life; in his bravado cutting off the ear of the soldier that had come to take Jesus; rushing to be first to the tomb. These seem to mirror the church’s ways of being and inconsistencies as well, much of which I have been and am a part of. Making our way as humans, yet as the bride of Christ, inconsistent in our faithfulness, falsely brave, and yet still here to continue to be something that sustains, feeds, nourishes and heals. The Church is under the same transformational change as my life has been–in process in our humanity, yet attentive and intentional, believing each morning that it matters.

Church is no longer just something that I show up for at an organized and orchestrated time during the week, nor is it something that I show up to for my everyday work as clergy, but it is what I experience when I am with others who are awake to the reality of the presence of Christ here and now. Even if this is not spoken—there is a sense of Spirit energy that emanates—a sweetness that allows intimacy and closeness, and when I have been with another or others like this I sense an aliveness. I have been given a greater sense of Life. This kind of Church helps me remember who I am, and often we share bread and the cup of our Lord Jesus Christ to remember why we get to be who we are. We remember Christ is with us, in us, around us and before us. Sometimes I need help remembering—that’s when I seek out “church” or when Church finds me.

For those of us who know ourselves to be “aliens” in a strange land—longing for home—who, when gathered together take comfort and encouragement with others who also see and long for a different place, and yet find ourselves located for now on this earth and in this culture – we find home amongst each other and find home somewhere deep within our own soul – truly home, yet not at home. When God invited “open the door to your heart, I want to come in and have fellowship with you,” and my life response is a continual “yes,” (Rev. 3:20), God took up residence in me, releasing loneliness and yet increasing my longing for deeper love and intimacy with God and with others. It is because God has made God’s home in me that I walk back into this world alive, seeing and hearing with eyes and ears that carry “home” always with me.

Others who also carry “home” with them become my Church wherever I may find myself, either in a coffee shop, a spiritual direction session, a few others gathered together, an official church service. And it is how I offer myself to others who may also long for and want to find their way “home.” This is Church to me.



The third person today, is Steve Nelson (in his fifties), a lay leader, publisher and lover of two large Burmese Mountain dogs. He’s on a life-long journey with the church and tells his story honestly and cogently.


I chose “Why Church?” because I have thought and struggled with this question over the past decade.


For me, in earlier days and stages in my journey it was never a question. Church has always been a big part of my life. And by “always”, I mean “from the womb!” I was born into rather conservative “non-denominational” church where Sunday morning and evening along with Wednesday evening was considered normal attendance. My folks were committed, involved members and it was just how we lived. We prayed before meals every single time and my dad would sometimes try to get us in the habit of family devotions each night at the dinner table. Thankfully for us fidgety kids that never lasted too long!


So, I guess you could say that I had a rather typical experience of church as a boy. When I came to adolescence, however there was very little there other than the fear of going to hell if I did something unforgivable, or if my receiving Christ as my personal savior, didn’t “take.” In fact that did lead to some anxiety. As a kid, I “prayed the prayer” many, many times just to be sure. But even though I was told Jesus was now inside my heart. He didn’t seem to have much influence on me. I suppose that is pretty typical for church kids.


Later, around age 20 I was energized in my faith by the influence of some charismatic “Jesus Freak” types, and that led to a long period of devotion and more-consistent religious interest. This took me through some years working for religious para-church organizations, Campus Crusade and Young Life, as well as church lay leadership in later years.


Then, all of a sudden around age 50, due, perhaps in part to my son announcing that he was no longer a believer, I started to have grave doubts about my own faith. I decided to think and pray through this until I figured it out. Because if it’s not true, what a waste of time it is.


Over the following five or so years, I journaled and thought and prayed and read and tried to work it out. I never reached a true AHA moment! But I did find out that, for me, I can’t NOT believe in God. I guess I would say that I came to the conclusion that God is God and I am not! And he deserves my worship. Church itself is not as important in my overall beliefs. In fact some of my most dismal experiences recently had to do with my years in lay leadership, trying to sort out disputes with feuding pastoral staff!

I was exposed to fellow Christians who were as un-Christ-like as any non-Christian I had ever encountered! But after the dust settled and I became more comfortable with a pared down belief system, church again became a good place to be. Sometimes I may go for the music, singing and praise, and duck out when the preaching starts. That is actually a pleasant experience and doesn’t give me the slightest pangs of guilt!


The people I know at our church are good friends — some of them dear friends we have known for years — and we enjoy being a part of this congregation. We sometimes participate in musical or drama events. We are also currently enjoying a discussion class that doesn’t shy from controversial topics. These can be quite stimulating and fun! They challenge and lead toward growth, not just complacency or self righteousness.


So, all in all, although one can’t say I have come full circle. I certainly have been on a journey. I’ve survived the guilt, overcome some of the ugly and am now enjoying the peace. Maybe it’s the “peace that surpasses all understanding” promised in scripture, I don’t know. But at the moment, since it isn’t broke, I don’t plan to fix it!