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?
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.