What defines ‘legitimate’ church?

Lately I’ve been thinking about how people define the word ‘church’. Rachel Held Evans wrote a guest blog post on CNN’s belief blog a couple of weeks ago about millennials leaving the church.  It produced a veritable firestorm of feedback, with comments and responding blog posts on both sides of the issue.  While I’m not here to debate that particular issue, the article and responses got me thinking about the assumptions people make when talking about ‘the church’.

The traditional view would say ‘church’ is the meeting of a group of people, with a common belief, in a church building, most often on Sunday mornings.  There will probably be singing and a sermon or homily; liturgy may or may not be involved. There are different styles and flavours of this thing called ‘church’ yet I think most people boil it down to the above definition. Unfortunately I believe this is but a small part of the true meaning of church. And in reality I believe church can exist even without most of the above elements.

From my reading of the New Testament, the life of the church seemed driven so much more by relationships one with another than by attending a service.  And just to clarify, yes, I’m saying that I believe the life of the church can happen without attending a ‘service’.  At this point in time someone will probably pull out the verse in Hebrews as an admonishment to not skip the Sunday service: “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do…” (Hebrews 10:25). And I would counter that this verse is not referring to the ‘meeting together’ as we define it today (i.e., church services).

I must confess (for those who don’t know already) that I do not currently attend a church ‘service’ on Sunday mornings. I am part of a network of ‘house’ churches. What is a ‘house’ church? I would say it is a group of people with a common belief that meet in homes. They may or may not eat a meal together; they may or may not sing on a regular basis; sermons generally aren’t involved. There are different styles and flavours of this thing called ‘house church’ but I think it is just as legitimate a form of ‘church’ than any Sunday morning service.

There are people who would disagree. There have been times when I have told people I am part of a house church and I got the distinct impression they were thinking, “So you’re not part of a ‘real’ church.” This frustrates me and makes me sad. As I have not attended a Sunday morning service in a number of years, my definition of ‘church’ has broadened. For me, ‘church’ doesn’t just happen as a ‘service’. It is so much more than that. ‘Church’ is when I have breakfast with a friend whose life circumstance is difficult at this time. There’s no preaching although I may offer an encouraging word or two, but most often I listen…and she knows she is not alone in her struggle. ‘Church’ is when I have lunch with my son and I tell him (once again) that he is loved and accepted (and hope that one day this truth can really sink in and he can begin accepting himself). We don’t even talk about anything ‘spiritual’.  ‘Church’ is hanging out with my husband, sharing what God has been revealing to each of us.

Emmanuel (God with us) lived out God’s grace and love in the day-to-day life of the people he dwelt with.  We do a disservice to the Gospel, the “Good News”, when we water ‘church’ down to Sunday morning. It’s about relationships not programs. But too often our experience of ‘church’ is just that: the Sunday service, Wednesday night Bible Study, Friday night Youth Group, worship team practice, women’s group, etc.  I’m not saying there aren’t relationships in these things but I wonder if the emphasis is too much on the ‘program’ instead of the relationships fostered within them.  Are we limited to thinking about ‘body of Christ’ relationships in terms of the programs we attend and don’t look beyond that to the rich web of relationships we inhabit outside of those programs?  And what if we don’t attend any of those ‘programs’?  Does that make us less ‘spiritual’?  Although people might answer ‘no’ to that question, I know from my own experience that’s not the truth we live.  We assume people who don’t attend our programs, who don’t go to church on Sunday morning, must be back-sliding Christians.  They must be struggling in their walk with God.  This may be true for some people, but there are a lot of people who are doing just fine, thank you very much!

I would say that for those of us who have grown up in ‘Christian culture’ our perspective is very limited when it comes to what we believe are ‘legitimate’ expressions of church.  When I stopped attending a Sunday morning service, my perspective expanded significantly.  I’m not here to advocate one expression of church over another.  The Church is diverse and varied in its expression (that’s the beauty of it), and different forms will minister to different people.  I’m just saying, “Don’t look down on those people who experience church in a vastly different way than you and assume they’re not part of the ‘real’ church.”  I challenge us all to rethink our assumptions about ‘church’ and be open for God to expand our horizons on what living this ‘life in Christ’ can be.