I was raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It’s a liturgical church, and to this day I can recite the LCMS order of worship. When I visit my mother in New Orleans, I’ll attend church with her, and while a few changes have been made (like the pastor chanting part of the service), it is still the same liturgy I knew as a child.
The church building was an A-Frame, with four or five classrooms along the side. The first Sunday School class I can remember was in one of those classrooms, and it was taught by Miss Gail, who was pretty and young and now must be in her 70s. About 20 years ago, a new church building was constructed, and the old A-frame is now mostly a storage area. When I see it today, I can’t believe how small it actually is – it seemed huge me to as a child.
I also learned certain hymns by heart, because our Lutheran pastor liked them and used them a lot in the worship service. I’ve always thought of them as “Lutheran hymns” because that’s where I learned them. Some were written by Martin Luther, like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” so that’s a fair claim to make. Others, however, like “Fairest Lord Jesus,” can be rightfully be claimed by all Christians (but I still “go Lutheran” when I hear it and sing it).
Today I’m a member of an Evangelical Presbyterian church, Central Presbyterian in Clayton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis and the county seat of St. Louis County. It’s an old church, by American standards, founded in 1846 with the present sanctuary building constructed in the 1870s (back when all the riff-raff lived in the county and the well-to-do elites in the city) (times have changed). Clayton is one of the wealthiest suburbs in St. Louis, in Missouri and in the United States. The church is more diverse than that, attracting people from all over the metropolitan area, but by any standards, it is a wealthy church. And it’s a generous church, doing what a church is supposed to do, funding ministries and missions all over the community and the world. It also occasionally has “Lutheran hymns” in the worship service.
But by themselves, my childhood church home in New Orleans and my current church home in St. Louis are not “the church.” They are local manifestations of the church, and the church realities I’m most familiar with. But, by themselves, they are not the church. No individual congregation is. No denomination is. And certainly no political party is, even though plenty of us think that way.
So what – who – is the church?
The church is the pastor of the underground house church in China who’s been arrested four times and tortured twice because he is a Christian who has to keep serving his Lord.
The church is the man in Rwanda who stepped in front of a machete to protect a neighbor who belonged to the wrong tribe.
The church is the pastors and churches who took to the streets all over Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990 and helped take down an evil empire simply by standing for truth (even if the news media likes to forget that fact).
The church is the couple with four children in Brazil who belong to a charismatic church and speak in tongues.
The church is the young man in Norway who seems to be fighting a one-person battle against an onslaught of secularism determined to destroy him.
The church is the faithful blogger who lives in Michigan and wears her faith on her sleeve, with no embarrassment and no apologies.
The church is the mother in New Jersey who is homeschooling her kids because she wants them educated in academics and faith.
The church is the couple in Colorado sending their children to public school to be in this world but (they pray) not of it.
The church is the dirty, smelly, unkempt, alcoholic bum who just became a believer in the basement of a Salvation Army mission in Seattle.
The church is the murderer and rapist who became a believer because a businessman with Prison Fellowship cared enough to visit and pray for him.
The church is the narrow-minded hypocrite who sees and often comments on everyone else’s faults but also knows that God loves her and is working on her mean spirit.
The church is the artist who is determined to paint the gospel, the writer with a heart for telling stories to the world and the poet who is broken enough to speak truth.
The church drives a Cadillac Escalade and a Honda Civic hybrid; rides a bicycle with patched tires and the bus; and walks six miles each way to and from church on Sunday because that’s what you have to do to worship as a body in rural Kenya.
The church prefers traditional worship, contemporary worship, orchestras, praise bands, choirs singing classical music, suits and ties, jeans and cutoffs, video, big auditoriums, meeting in someone’s family room, and meeting behind closed doors because they have to for safety.
The church is that sweet lady who prepares the coffee every Sunday for the fellowship time between worship services and never asks for recognition, and the quiet man who shows up for every work project at the church building because that's what he knows to do.
The church is the man and the woman who struggle with and doubt their faith and doubt God and keep coming for worship anyway.
The church is the young 20-something who wants to bring Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and multi-media into the church because he’s convinced it will grow the ministry.
The church is that 13-year-old Catholic girl and her almost 50-year-old Catholic mom who’ll together be traveling to Washington in January to stand in silent protest in front of the Supreme Court.
The church is the 30-something man who turned his back on a promising and successful corporate career to take his family to serve in the mission field in Central America.
The church is sinners and saints because they’re the same thing.
The church is not bound by denomination or color or creed or nationality or geography or time zone because it is all of these things and more, because it belongs to God and God is not bound or defined by man or woman.
And the church, I suspect, sings Lutheran hymns.
(This post is part of the One Word Blog Carnival hosted by Peter Pollock and Bridget Chumbley. To see more posts on “church,” visit Bridget’s web site.)