Last night we ate dinner with my parents and grandparents. My grandpa was a boy when he emigrated to the U.S. from Russia. We sometimes get him to talk about his World War II days or even further back to when he first moved to America and only spoke Low German. But most frequently, the conversation will revolve around the local Mennonite Brethren church. They like to compare the church my family attends with the church they attend since both are of the same M.B. denomination. It’s never in a competitive spirit (my church is better than yours), but more of a quantitative comparison. They want to know the ages of members, the race of members, how many families attend, how many children go to Sunday school, what songs do we sing, how many organists there are.
They talk about the days when their church used to be made up mostly of “our people” (Mennonite Brethren defined as being Germans from Russia or their descendants). They lament the smaller choir and lack of organists and pianists. They mourn their friends who once overflowed the Sunday school classroom. They miss the special music at youth night and Sunday evening services. They are hesitant that you can really learn the Bible sitting in the living room of someone’s house (unless it’s the youth group). They don’t understand why people now walk in and out during the church service; people didn’t do that before.
Of course I don’t debate with them. I never do. This is their faith; in a world that has changed so radically they want to wear their faith like a favorite sweater. It really has nothing to do with fear of change as some may think. It’s more that they’ve embraced so much change already, their faith is the steadfast rock they turn to. Life’s complications can be endured as long as there is a pulpit and an organ on Sunday mornings.
The church my family attends is hard to quantify. Just taking attendance on a Sunday morning reaps questions. Does it count if people come in for the last 20 minutes? Last 10 minutes? What if they tried to make it but the bus was late? Does it count if they are “here” but not sitting in the pew? We frequently hear the phrase “I’m a member of your church” from strangers. We know they have not taken the membership class and been officially received into membership, but their children come to the sports club or tutoring club. What if you only come on Wednesday nights, but you come every week. Does that count for anything? What if (gasp) you worship on Saturday nights so you can have Sunday free? I’ll take it one further: what if you attend every meeting put on by the church at your apartment complex, but you’ve never actually set foot on the church campus?
What is church? By defining church, are you being exclusive when you think you are being inclusive? What influences shape a church compared to the direction leadership wants it to go? What about defining the legal aspects of being a “religious institution” 501(c)(3) and yet living in a world that separates church from state? I think it is going to be harder and harder to define “church” in our society, but the followers of Christ will continually turn to the Bible (Acts) for foundational guidance. Forgive my rambling thoughts, but this doesn’t even address the biblical issue of resting on the Sabbath. Can you go to the Saturday night service so you can sleep in on Sunday morning? Does that count?