A significant part of my graduate research pertains to ecclesiology — the study of the church (from the Greek ekklesia). Ecclesiology is a focus of theological work that asks questions about the church here and now, in light of Scripture and Jesus Christ: What is the church? What should the church be? What should the church do? How should the church relate to other religions? To governments? To the powerful, to the helpless?
Needless to say, these are big questions, and they have been answered in varying ways (often dramatically so) by different people in vastly different places around the world for two thousand years. I certainly don’t pretend have them all answered — nor will I, even on the other side of a dissertation.
But this weekend was our final Sunday at DaySpring Baptist, our church home in Waco, and so I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I’ve come to know church to be during our time here. DaySpringers refer to our little community as “a Baptist church in the contemplative tradition,” an identity reflected in our mantra, “sacred and simple.” “Sacred and simple” is an ideal for which DaySpring strives in everything from Sunday liturgy to our member-maintained grounds, from our lack of programming to our unadorned architecture. Rather than spending time and energy on these things, DaySpring’s focus is on learning to rest and renewing one another, so that we may go into our various vocations and workplaces on Monday morning as bearers of Jesus Christ’s life and peace.
When someone comes for membership, we affirm our commitment to be church to the new members, as they will be church to us. You see, “church” is not a building, or even a gathering of people or a set of rituals. Rather, church is found where and when the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ lives and moves and breathes life and love into a people who hear his Word.
Church is aching to be present every Sunday that I’m out of town, and being texted pictures of the order of worship by someone who knows I need to see it.
Church is learning the practice of common prayer for Advent and Lent with our closest friends, because we’re all burned out on Bible studies and discussion groups.
Church is listening to prodigiously talented sisters and brothers create beauty through simple music and song nearly every week, rising and returning to their seats in silence rather than applause — a practiced silence that reminds us this is not performance, but a sharing of gifts for the upbuilding of the community.
Church is the joy of sharing my own gifts and experience by leading a Sunday School class on the book of Advent liturgy that I wrote, and getting to create a companion curriculum with Tiffani Harris for families with young children.
Church is having a miscarriage, and discovering that Rachel Craig leads Cradled, a ministry to care for families who have experienced pregnancy loss.
Church is having my seminary professors as engaged participants in my spiritual formation lesson on Sunday morning, and then sitting in their class to learn about theology or ministry leadership on Tuesday.
Church is going to the pub with Kyle, to catch up with my friend and receive spiritual counsel from my minister of discipleship in the same conversation. Church is leaving homemade ice cream in the kitchen freezer in the middle of the week as a drop off point for the fellow members who bought it from me.
Church is Easter sunrise service under the old live oak, and breaking Lenten fast in celebration of Christ’s resurrection until the sun goes back down.
Church is sitting in Jenny Howell’s faculty office twice a week for a month to be talked off my ledge of existential despair as I wait for grad school admission decisions to be announced. Church is going downtown to demonstrate against the separation of families and children, and hearing fellow members speak to and pray over the crowds as an overflow of their experience and expertise.
Church is Eric Howell coming to your moving sale to buy a drill, and leaving as the pastor who also bought your old poker set.
Church is coloring with Zoe Spain-Smith in her pre-K class on Palm Sunday, and having my feet washed by her on Maundy Thursday.
Church is simplicity and silence in the midst of a world that demands noise and productivity. It is hearing the Word of the Lord today, for God’s people here and now, in a way that both convicts and brings rest, and passing the peace of Christ to one another.
I will continue to research and form ideas about what the church is and should be for years to come. These definitions will evolve and shift in emphases, deepen and change course in light of my context and studies. But the presence of God’s life and renewing activity in these people and places will remain. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in the first century, all manner of spiritual gifts and miracles will pass away, but faith, hope, and love will remain even in the perfect presence of God — and the greatest of these is love.