*Part 2 of 4 in a new blog series by Matt Bridges
Breaking Down the Word: What’s the Big Deal?
Now, here at the outset is a disclaimer: anyone who knows me could tell you that I play pretty fast and loose with language. Language is fun, and it is messy. The English language in particular can be messy because it incorporates so many words from other world languages and is therefore continually growing and changing. English could possibly be compared to a youngest child who gets all of the hand-me-downs and not all of those hand-me-downs fit, but who cares because at least the youngest is clothed. But I’ve come to recognize a certain bank of words that I have had to rethink and get back to the roots, not to discover or further burden with new meaning, but rather the meaning that was always there and got lost in the handing down to me. I believe “church” is one such word and I want to attempt to get back to the original meaning. I want to revive the richness this word in meaning and usage can offer the church today.
The word church, in its most basic form is the derived from the Greek words kyriake (roughly “belonging to the Lord”) and Εκκλησία, or ekklesia (“assembly”). These words together form the sense “the worshipping assembly called forth by God” (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms). In any definition I have come across in any translation, and traced back to its nascence, “church” is in reference to [a] people. Even in referring to an “assembly” of people, it is not in the act of “gathering as a people” or gathering at a location, but the already “gathered” people (in physical presence or Spirit). A slight difference; however, I want to cover my bases. Theologian Paul Minear wrote a book titled Images of the Church in the New Testament and counts some ninety-six different images or analogies of the church found in the New Testament alone, which is fascinating in and of itself. You could take on a new image and analogy of the church every couple of days and live it out! Hehe, now that would be an interesting experiment. In taking a deeper look into Scripture as an exercise in searching for meaning, even in the references the Apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians, that “[we] are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9), whatever the structure looks like, it is made out of people, the assembly; and Paul goes on in the remaining verses to describe this in great detail leading to the popular verse 3:16 about how we are a temple. The word refers to the people gathered who faithfully practice together their faith as followers of Christ. In the letter to the Corinthians, the body individually and collectively therefore becomes a dwelling place for the Lord to do the Lord’s work.
The word “church” has transformed in usage over the years, the centuries. The word itself describes subjects, or a collection of subjects into an assembly, all bound together. But the original definition and intent has given way in common-speak to refer to or attract people to a place or specific event in time (like worship). And the church has engaged in many, many different tactics to accomplish these goals (with varying degrees of success if the goal is to attract to a location or event). But the location and/or event meaning does not stand alone. Other solutions to reclaiming the word “Church” have been proposed.
I’ve listened to the argument of expanding the word “church” to become a verb as well, that through adaptation the word can actually morph into a new part of speech. Many words do this in colloquial usage, sure, and I am certainly no purist when it comes to language and usage. But I think the way we have adapted this word in objective definition, usage definition, and certainly practice, is rendering the word useless; it is eroding “the church” in the same way our church buildings—our half-century old (or older) fortresses in some cases—are eroding. I see many parts of the church attempt to expand and stretch the meaning of the word to attract and empower believer and non-believer alike, but the attempts often end up being localized to attract to a location or particular mode of accommodating worship style. While I find myself agreeing with the goals and intentions of various attempts and campaigns—of which many are trying to get people to discover God in a rich and powerful way (Amen!), I still see the limitations these efforts present and unknowingly impose on people’s relationship with the Body of Christ.
We try to expand a definition and meaning in an attempt to empower people of the church in new ways, but it ultimately distracts the believer from embracing an identity as a follower of Christ among followers of Christ as the church. I am all for an active faith in any aspect one can live out their faith in Christ, but being an active church is a people who follow Christ and use their facilities and gatherings in healthy ways to be active and growing. The distinction is crucial for understanding the big picture idea of believers being bound together in Christ. I just want people identifying with others first as the Body of Christ rather than a building, a particular denomination of faith, or an event. And embracing this identity as a person will lead to the active part of our faith. It is much healthier to identify as a people bound together in Christ first and then after that celebrate the ways and opportunities we practice and experience our faith together.
Yes, we all are paying a price for the church not reclaiming the word “church” and putting it back into its rightful place as identifying a people, not a place or an event in time. We need to reclaim the word from the institution the church has become.
*Stay Tuned for
Part 3 Nov 15 “Okay, So What?”
Part 4 Nov 22 “So What Do We Do?”
Matt Bridges is an ordained elder in the United Methodist church and currently serves in New Mexico as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lovington. Matt has served in ministry in one form or another for the last seventeen years. In particular, he has a passion for music ministry and other types of worship ministry. In all of the things he’s learned in ministry, if he were to write a book on worship right now it would most certainly be titled1001 Times (and counting) I said “Well, I’ll Never Do It ThatWay Again” in Worship. He is joined in ministry by his wife, Corinne, and daughter Emilie. And they all love being the church together.