One morning last week, as we were standing on the sidewalk waiting for the school bus to arrive, my daughter asked me why someone was putting a sign up on the street in front our church.
Unbeknownst to her, this was an employee of the Vashon Pharmacy, preparing for that day’s rounds of COVID-19 vaccinations. Our church had been housing the vaccine clinic for a couple of weeks, and my daughter had noticed lots of new people going in and out of the church.
“Dad, I’m mad that other people are inside our church building,” she said. “This is our church, not theirs.”
I was surprised by her reaction, but in that moment I realized that my daughter was confused why people she had never met were using the church building during the week. Wasn’t the church just open on Sundays for our members?
“Well,” I said, “Lots of people use this building. The church is here to help people. People come here to get food when they’re hungry, take showers when they’re dirty, receive counseling when they’re sad, and sometimes we even provide resources when people are sick; like vaccines.”
That’s the best I could come up with. Thankfully, my daughter seemed satisfied with my answer. A minute later she hopped on the bus and likely forgot all about our conversation. I, however, did not.
Our conversation left me thinking more deeply about the role of our church in this community. What are we doing here? Are we making a difference? We say we want to help people, but how exactly are we helping people? Certainly, every church is different and unique in its own way, and I can’t speak to the identities of other churches, but I did want to dig a little deeper into our church’s purpose. What’s the point of church anyway?
The earliest written descriptions of the Christian church are found in the New Testament, a collection of ancient texts written in the first century by at least nine different authors. The word they used that we now translate as church is ‘ekklésia.’ This word is written more than 100 times in those 27 books.
This Greek word is defined as “an assembly of people called out from the world to God.” Interestingly, the word doesn’t refer to a building, but to a group of people. A group of people committed to their shared faith in God. (The concept of church is not exclusive to the Christian faith. All major world religions share a similar concept; local assemblies of believers that gather regularly to worship, pray, and serve).
As far as we can tell, the authors of the New Testament, and the earliest Christians, did not meet in church buildings. They met in their homes in small groups to share meals and financial resources and to study the sacred texts and pray together. They also worked together to provide for and serve the poor.
Eventually, as these small assemblies grew around the world, they began to construct buildings. While these buildings were primarily designed as meeting places for regular services of worship, they also housed other social services like homeless shelters, health clinics and food banks. Worship and service are two foundational elements of every major world religion, and these sacred buildings became safe spaces where individuals could find spiritual, physical and emotional nourishment.
In light of this history, we might define the church as a group of people with a common faith that seeks to grow in their knowledge and experience of the Divine through worship, study, and service. While we gather together each Sunday to sing songs, pray, break bread, and listen to earth-shattering and intellectually-stimulating sermons (wink, wink), the real work of the church happens on the other six days of the week. This is when we worship God by loving our families well, showing respect to all people, speaking up for the marginalized and oppressed, and by sharing our time and talents to make the world a little better.
In essence, the church exists to help serve the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of the community. This looks different depending on where you live. So, I began to think about our island. What does our community need the church to be, and how can our church help bridge the gaps that exist here? That will likely involve lots of new faces coming in and out of these old sanctuary doors.
So, the next time my daughter asks why there are so many people in our church I’ll tell her, “Because it’s not our church. This church belongs to all of us. It’s here for any person searching for hope, help, or just looking for a friend.”
— The Rev. Dr. Mark W. Wagner is senior pastor of Vashon United Methodist Church.