Going to Church v. Being Church
January 19, 2017—I caught myself the other day. When the snow started falling across the east coast, I told my daughters we were not “going to church” that Sunday.
My language suggested church is a building, an event.
If you are reading this article, chances are that you understand church in a way that is similar to my real working definition. So you understand when I say “we are the church!”
It is possible, however, people who have attended church all of their lives understand church to be the place—the event, not the people. The activities of the worship experience become the primary basis for assessing the quality of a church. The rest of the church’s mission is irrelevant in some people’s religion.
So how does that notion of church impact the working definition and practices of evangelism in congregations across the United States? Could it be we invite people to an experience, not a relationship? We invite people to a place, not into a community? Maybe the answers to these questions are the reasons for our building projects and investments in the production of worship; while paying less attention to intentional discipleship and faith formation. Better buildings and worship experiences are not bad things. No one wants to go to church in a shabby building. No one wants to go to church with a choir that is off key or a preacher who is boring. At the same time, defining church as the place and the event diverts attention away from the gospel.
The gospel is the good news of God, incarnated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That good news is an interpreted reality, however.
I learned this in my first preaching class in seminary. Dr. Miles Jerome Jones, my professor, stated plainly that Jesus is an interpreted reality. If the gospel is based upon his life and proclamation, it would also seem to require some level of interpretation. Jesus is one who is and can be interpreted in many ways. If you do not believe me, thumb through all of the books on Jesus. Reza Aslan’s recent book on Jesus is different in perspective and tone from Charles Stanley’s last book on the one we call Christ.
From the Historical Jesus movement to Fundamentalism, debates persist on such a “straightforward” person from history (whose documentary trail consists of biographical material that was written decades after his life).
If you allow for that hint of irony, please know I wrestle with interpretation fifty-two Sundays a year.
As a pastor of a small congregation in central Virginia, I seek God’s face for the meaning of the Christ event for the people I serve. I believe in the power of the gospel. I believe in the power of the gospel to transform lives. I am clear, therefore, about this idea: the gospel is Jesus’ teachings and demonstration of what it means to be human. In other words, Jesus empowers and equips his disciples—those who follow the Way—to be what God created us to be. What is the good news? You have permission to be a human being.
How does Jesus’ life and proclamation, then, inform the church’s mission through evangelism for today’s world?
The church can learn from his life and proclamation to lift up the value of community as a central location for being human. Jesus reminded people often about the importance of being in relationship. The “Golden Rule,” the “Greatest Commandment,” and the “Lord’s Prayer” are all instructions about being in community. To be sure, to understand these passages to be about community might divert attention away from heaven.
Songs and preaching can sometimes reduce the gospel, even Christianity—our religion—to a personal relationship with Jesus that reserves the believer’s seat in heaven. Heaven, however, can take care of itself. Jesus addressed the nature of this gift called life. Jesus focused on the dynamics of human interaction, human relationship.
Such an interpretation of the gospel could remind us of the distance between Jesus’ ideal and the need for or emergence of movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. In other words, the gospel called for the Kingdom of God (Commonwealth, if you prefer). That Kingdom was/is about the now.
Evangelism that serves this present age can help us spread the word: Everybody is God’s Somebody! And one does not need to “go to church” to receive this Christ-centered message. At the intersection of protests and praise may be the place where the church parks herself in order to aid our nation and world in understanding the gospel. To communicate the power of this good news, however, it will be important to embody that message in community—to be the church.
About the Author: Adam L. Bond is Associate Professor of Historical Studies and the Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Leadership at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology of Virginia Union University. He was a 2017 Thompson Scholars keynote speaker. In addition to his responsibilities at the school, he is the Pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Ashland, Virginia.
Bond is a graduate of the University of Memphis (Bachelor of Professional Studies) and has earned degrees from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University (Master of Divinity), and Marquette University (Master of Arts in Theology and Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies). An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), he maintains a commitment to the local church and denominational life. He commits himself to being a resource person for students, congregations, and community groups.
Bond has been the recipient of prestigious awards and is a published author. He was the recipient of a First Book Grant for Minority Scholars from the Louisville Institute and a Dissertation Fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education (now Forum for Theological Exploration). He is the author of the book I’ve Been Called: Now What? (2012), The Imposing Preacher: Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Black Public Faith (2013), and co-editor of the book Church on Purpose: Reinventing Discipleship, Community, and Justice (2015).
He is married to the former Ronda Smith, and they have two beautiful daughters—Raychel (Ray-shell) and Alana.
The Thompson Scholars seminars address the intersection of social justice and evangelism. For additional information, including a link to the application, click here.