Rev. Kathy Neary

What makes a church a Church? 

As I have traveled through the PNW Conference, visiting smaller congregations, I have had to ask that question again and again. I have visited congregations that are alive in the Spirit and actively seeking deeper relationships with God and Christ. I have visited others exploring new ways to become and make disciples of Christ. Size doesn’t matter: some of these congregations have six people in Sunday worship; some have 50. 

Unfortunately, I have also visited congregations that have completely forgotten why they are a church. How this situation has come about is complicated. One reason is that in Pacific Northwest cultures of white, middle-class folks, talking about matters of faith is definitely a no-no. We have lost the language to speak of God, Christ, faith, calling, and Spirit. Test this for yourself: have a conversation with your fellow church members and drop the words “salvation” and “evangelism” in the mix. I bet you will see folks running for the doors! By the way, many of our fellow church members from other countries are much more comfortable with the language of faith. We need to find ways to learn from these folks and their experiences.

I am feeling called to jumpstart this conversation on why God calls us to be Church together. Churches that know their purpose are thriving. They may not be the biggest church in town, but they connect to a deep well of understanding that draws them closer to God. I’m just now toying with ideas to help small churches discover their purpose. I recently held two workshops in the Puget Sound district for clergy and laity about this very topic. I asked what the best thing was about each of their churches. The answers invariably centered on the mission projects the churches run. No one mentioned anything to do with spiritual growth or connecting with God’s love. No one said that worship was the best thing, or that they had grown closer to God because of the church. I will say that when prompted about these “faith” things, then folks began to say that these things were important. As I said, talking about faith is not our strong suit. 

If you want to run a test in your congregation of its understanding of the purpose of church, ask a few leaders how their church is different from social service clubs like Kiwanis or The Lions Club. Both of these social clubs are excellent organizations: they have clear purpose statements and goals, rituals helping people to feel a part of the larger organization, mentoring programs to raise up new leaders, and they serve clearly defined needs of the poor, especially children. They are not churches, though. Many of our churches right now resemble social service clubs more than churches.

I would love to hear from you about your understanding of the purpose of church, and your experiences in your local church. How does your church keep focused on God and Christ? How do you connect your mission work to your faith? What do you expect from God? Our collective wisdom on these matters should be shared. Blessings!

Rev. Kathy Neary serves as Transitional Ministry Developer for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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