From Going to Being to Doing
Note from Shannon: This piece was written by Melissa Brussa, a dear friend of mine and fellow pastor in the Church of the Nazarene. She is the senior pastor at East Gadsden Church of the Nazarene in Gadsden, Alabama. She is married to Ed and has two cats. You can find out more about her on Facebook.
The Church has gotten it wrong.
Growing up in the Nazarene Church, I had presumptions forced onto me as well as coming into my own assumptions of how we understand church. On Sunday mornings, my family got up, got ready, ate breakfast on the go, listened to the Donut Man in the car, and went to church. For the longest time, I thought church was a place; it was a building with a steeple and if you opened the door, you’d see all the people. It was a central location that a bunch of uniform people would gather on a Sunday morning and maybe a Wednesday night. I remember my parents uttering the phrase, “Let’s go to church.” I also have said that same sentence while packing up my Bible and sermon notes on a Sunday morning. Perhaps in our heart of hearts, we truly do realize that church isn’t a place, but it is just easier to say “I’m going to church.”
For far too long, we have misused and abused language. Some would like to think it is just semantics and words don’t really matter. Yet if you have studied theology or even read the Bible, you would know that words really do matter; how we communicate is important. If we don’t do it well, then our words take on new meanings that we never intended.
For example, if we say a simple phrase over and over again, eventually it becomes the norm and may take on new meaning. Even a question like “How are you?” morphs into a greeting wherein we don’t expect anyone to respond by actually answering the question. We simply smile to passersby and throw out that phrase, but don’t stop long enough to find out how that person is doing.
Even as I am writing this, I am proofreading and rewriting so that I convey my intentions and hope that it does not take a different form (though we may all interpret it differently and even take certain aspects out of context).
Words matter. How we speak matters.
If you tell a non-church person that you are going to church, you are communicating that church is a physical place. We then picture large brick buildings with proudly displayed steeples that so-and-so put up way back when. We picture parking lots and entryways. I typed in ‘church’ to Google Images and it showed me pictures of buildings with stained-glass windows and crosses and church signs. If you asked me as a little kid to draw a picture of the church, I would have produced the same results as Google, only in crayon scribbles.
Church is not a what, but a who. We don’t go to church; we are the church. It is a matter of being rather than going. We often think that by reporting to a building on certain hours of a single day is how we prove we are Christian. I went to church on Sunday morning, so therefore, I am a Christian. Big whoop. Just because your presence graced the aisles of a sanctuary doesn’t mean you are a Christian. Just because you sang “Amazing Grace” doesn’t mean you are a Christian. Just because you prayed for your meal doesn’t mean you are a Christian. We have set some rather low standards.
Can we just admit that we have gotten it wrong? Can we just agree that words really do matter? Church is not a place. The church has never been a place and will never be a place.
We are the church. We imperfect human beings are the church. As people who have been invited to receive the gift of God’s grace, have accepted that grace, and are seeking daily surrender to God, we are the church.
Something I do want to clarify is that I don’t believe you can truly be an individualized Christian. What I mean is that you, in and of yourself, cannot be a Christian all on your own. There’s no such thing as a ‘me and Jesus’ relationship. As someone who has received the gift of God’s grace and is allowing that grace to transform, we cannot stay in our own little world.
Sure, it would be a whole lot easier to be a Christian if it weren’t for all these people. There are days where I wish that were true. Yet, Jesus did not die for you. Christ died for all of us, for all creation. You do not have the luxury of individualistic Christianity; it does not exist. By placing myself within the larger context of a forgiven people, I realize that I am not alone and that I am not supposed to be alone. It is even more humbling and rewarding to be in relationship not only with Jesus, but also with the body of Christ, the church as a whole (and not just those within the Nazarene tribe).
As forgiven people, we are invited to be the church. Being is vastly different than going. To be is to live, to experience. To be means that I have to take careful consideration of how I live, how I speak, what I think, what I believe, how I treat others, how I treat myself, how I understand God, what I do, and so on.
My alma mater, Trevecca Nazarene University, had a motto: esse quam videri, which means ‘to be rather than to seem.’ When we approach church as something we go to, we sure are good at seeming to be a Christian. Yet, to be is something much more. It’s also much more costly because it requires sacrifice, surrender, confession, and transformation. Most folks just want to stick with “going to church” because it is easier than “being the church.”
To be the church also means doing. This is the part where I feel most churches get stuck.
Recently I attended PALCON, which is a conference for Nazarene ministers and leaders. During one of the PAL Talks, Kathy Mowry, a missiologist and professor at Trevecca, discussed the church in exile. Her presentation was titled “The Church in the Land of Oz.” Incorporating material from Ron Heifenz, she said that most churches misunderstood their identity, their DNA. The majority of Christians are stuck in the mindset that church is only a people gathered – it’s just a group of like-minded people who gather together. Mowry suggested that the church has forgotten that she is also called to a place to serve, and that she is deeply rooted in the Word of God.
Let’s be honest, we have gotten to the point where we thought we were just a bunch of people who gathered to sing our favorite hymns, boast about what we did that week, bring up a list of names to pray for (but really gossip about), and shake the pastor’s hand on the way out of the service. That’s not church. That’s a routine and tradition that is missing out on the beauty of real identity and practice.
The church is a gathered people who is faithful and obedient to God, goes where she needs to go to usher other broken people into the peace of God, and is deeply rooted in the Word of God. Once again, that takes sacrifice, surrender, confession, and transformation.
To be is also to do. We can’t just say, “I’m a Christian” and be done with the whole conversation. Just because we say it doesn’t mean we are it. We demonstrate our identity by how we live, by what we do, by what we say. To be the church, we must do what God calls the church to do. It means that the way we live must look different than before we went to the altar.
During PALCON, I attended another seminar titled “Outside the Church-Shaped Box.” It was led by three ministers who embrace freedom in the diverse structures of church. Their dynamics are vastly different than the traditional churches to which we have long been exposed. Megan Pardue pastors Refuge, a house church in North Carolina, that begins with a shared meal and ends with communion, another shared meal. Caleb and Emily Haynes co-pastor Kaleo Nashville, a neighborhood church that focuses on gathering, life, and impact.
One of the presenters, Caleb Haynes, shared his passion about a church who serves. From what I gathered, service is not an addendum to their identity as a church; it isn’t something extra they do on a special day. Service is a natural outpouring of who they are in Christ. To serve is to be. What was even more striking is that their church serves simply because they are called to serve, not so people would come to their church. They don’t have this ulterior motive to do nice things in order to trick people into attending a service. They are the hands and feet of Christ, sharing the love of Christ with others, and expect nothing in return.
Caleb shared a story of their church sponsoring a community picnic in their neighborhood. They provided the location, food, seating, etc. All the community would do is show up. A few people trickled in here or there, but not as many gathered as they hoped. Surely, if we build it, they will come. Yet, what he realized is that the people of his neighborhood were not looking for a handout. As Mowry put it in her presentation, “Your neighbors can sniff out a mile away if they are your project for growing your church.” I wonder if that’s what Caleb and his neighborhood experienced. I don’t think Caleb had any intention of bringing in the numbers, but his neighbors may have been exposed to that mentality before and were paranoid that it was happening again.
So their church sponsored another event, a community potluck. They knocked on the doors of their neighbors, introduced themselves, and invited them to bring a dish to the potluck. You know what happened? Lots of people showed up. It was evident that the church was looking to create an environment for relationships, not charity, and the neighbors felt like they could partner up and share in the life that happened that day.
Doing looks different than giving that homeless man your leftovers. Doing looks different than donating $5 to the youth fundraiser. Doing looks different than handing a guest a bulletin on Sunday morning. Those things can be good and can be part of the doing, but that’s not all there is to it. There’s more to this Christian life than that. Sometimes doing church means sitting in a coffee shop and striking up a conversation with someone who is clearly looking for a friend. Sometimes doing church means stopping long enough to ask how that homeless man is and offering to take him to a local shelter. Sometimes doing church means abstaining from posting that negative comment on Facebook and instead listening to the other side of the conversation, even if you don’t agree.
Perhaps, doing church means pouring life into others. Sharing the grace of God with others simply because grace is not meant to be hoarded up in the individual. It was a gift given to all of us; therefore, we are all called to share that grace freely with every person we meet. That can get messy. It could take us to places we aren’t ready to go. It could bring up conversations that make us feel awkward. Church isn’t for the complacent or the people looking to press the easy button. It’s hard work. It’s challenging. It’s messy. Yet, it is the most life-giving community if it is in right relation with her Creator.
May we move from going, to being and doing.
Follower of Jesus, wife of Randy, ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, proud owner of Oscar, STL Cardinals fan.
I enjoy reading and binge watching t.v. shows on Netflix. I love singing in the car and dancing by myself (no one else really wants to see the white Nazarene girl dancing).
For me, this blog is an outlet where I can discuss theology, the Church, life, and faith. It has truly become a life-giving source of creative expression. Thanks for reading my thoughts, and I would always love to hear your own!
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This is a blog for challenging assumptions, building faith, and developing a stronger community. The two channels of this blog – Faith and Narrative – push us to know ourselves and the world around us more intimately. Want to learn more about us?