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Recently, I curiously opened an email with this word–Church?–in the subject line.  It was from a friend in Boston, raised Presbyterian and Jesuit educated, inquiring with a couple friends about the real meaning and purpose of “church” after an interesting gathering he attended on the subject. He wrote:

[The speaker] attempted to show why church is different from a Christian fellowship group on campus that meets weekly and does many of the same things that a church will do… So it got me to thinking about the differences between “church” and edifying meetings between Christian friends. What are your thoughts? Why do we (you) go to church? What difference does it make if we’re celebrating the mystery of God in a “church” with a designated program or in our homes with and through the people we love?

I was struck by the real difficulty of these questions.  Many of us on the email list, including myself, were raised “in the church,” that is, in Christian, church-going families, yet our consistent experiences in official “churches” didn’t provide easy replies and explanations.

Although my thoughts on this are in no way complete, this is what I came up with in my response to my friend: Communal ritual. While the informal (or less formal) fellowship of a friendly gathering or weekly fellowship surely have the potential to be spiritually significant and formative, most of these gatherings do not engage in certain Christian rituals that are both definitive and transformative.  With the ever evolving non-denominational church service, identifying exactly what these symbols and rituals are becomes complicated, but from a Catholic perspective, these weekly communal rituals/symbols are communion and the proclamation of the scriptures. That means that a weekly “bible study” can be a substitute for a weekly, formal “church” if scripture and communion are shared ritually during every gathering. This is what the earliest church looked like, from what I can tell.

These rituals serve as a unifying component not only for the members of a local church, but for Christians across the world. When I participate in Eucharist every Sunday, I (technically) celebrate with all the Christians across the globe. This ritual brings us together across language, location, and even difference in certain theological positions. Christian baptism, for instance, could be performed among friends, but when it is performed (if done so in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit–or whatever synonyms you choose) 🙂 this community of friends enters “communion” with the Church through this ritual, and thus, becomes a part of the “church” in at least some sense.

What about ‘churches” that don’t engage in communion/Eucharist on a regular basis? This gets tricky. The definitive ritual of a lot of churches today seems to be the proclamation of scripture alone. If this is enough to make something “church” then a bible study, or a spontaneous lunchtime convo about a bible verse doesn’t seem much different from “church.” This may not be a bad thing…Ultimately, I guess I am saying that a group of friends can be ‘church’ if your definition permits it (which some reasoning can, I think). But for me, personally, I think that Christian ritual is central to my experience of church, particularly because I think belief cannot be the unifying aspect of Christian church experience. It is the rituals we enact to encounter God, and the scriptures we employ to make sense of our own spiritual narratives that unite us a “church.” Since the scriptures can be a bit messy, especially a lot of preaching about the scriptures, I actually find Christian ritual to be the more significant and stable unifying element of church. Fellowship, both within and outside of “church” walls is probably the most formative of all–but that is not to say this component has not been greatly enriched by my experience of communal ritual.

As I noted earlier, these are my initial thoughts about this issue.  I would love to know what you think…


  1. Λεωνίδας says:

    I would say that if you opt to have a Bible Study once a week and you don’t go to church, then that Bible Study is your church (which is also part of the larger church). At that point, if you don’t participate in sacraments, you ought to have a good reason.

    Also, one might ask the question of why some Christian isn’t going to church in the first place. I would say that every division in the church is harmful, and when you stop going to your church and just have your weekly Bible Study, and you thereby create your own church, you’ve made another division.

  2. Jeff says:

    Λεωνίδας, I disagree with your analysis of divisions within the church. A church-goer myself, I go to one church and not another because of (for one thing) location. In my estimation, that doesn’t need to separate me from churches around the world. If one church comissions a group of people to go start another church in another location with a different program, then how is that not a “division”? By your logic, it would seem that everyone needs to go to the exact same church (because to do otherwise would be “harmful”), but I’m sure I’m just not understanding your logic properly. Please clarify.

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