Photo by: Marc Pether-Longman (own work) [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

This is my Church

“This is my church,” she said to me, waving her hands to indicate the majestic canopy of trees, the forest floor, the glimpse of blue sky beyond, and the streaming sunshine giving our surroundings the look of an enchanted and mysterious fairytale land. It doesn’t matter which person said this to me most recently, because it is the kind of statement that I hear all the time. When people discover that I am a priest, they often have an uncontrollable urge to explain to me why they are not part of a religious community. That someone would feel closer to God outside in nature rather than in a building at an appointed time on Sunday morning, is a common and understandable explanation.

If I were to name how I feel closest to God, it would be through music, hearing a song throbbing with emotion, questions, praise and storytelling, joining my voice to the voices of others to sing. Sometimes that happens for me in a church service, but often it happens outside of any explicitly religious space. I have no trouble appreciating then that there will be many people for whom God feels closer in places other than traditional sanctuaries. And it is not at all hard to imagine that one of the most natural places to feel this closeness would be in surroundings where the miracle and beauty of the world in which we live is so unmediated by human interference, where you feel as if you can glimpse the mind of God in the superfluous diversity and the intimate interconnectedness of the natural world.

I appreciate and relate to this often-expressed sentiment. But it makes me sad. It makes me sad, not because I believe that the person in question has chosen a lesser closeness. Rather it makes me sad because somehow the church has failed to really communicate who it is and what it offers.

This misunderstanding starts with language that supposes church is a place to go to pray and worship and draw near to God. If I can do all of those things elsewhere, then no wonder church becomes redundant. Church, however, is not necessarily based on the promise of God drawing me near. What I might discover in Church Land, in fact, is that God is pushing me out.

That reality begins in realizing that Church isn’t a place to go. It is a community I am part of. That community exists in places, denominations, and cultures all across the world, and unlike, say, a hiking club or book group that I might join, church does not promise to connect me to like-minded people. I can assume only the tiniest sliver of common ground with other members: nothing more than the shared suspicion that my life is not just my own but has been claimed by God.

This is challenging to our modern consciousness. When we are taught so relentlessly to pursue those touchstones of affirmation, seductively offered in constant “like-size” helpings on our social media landscape, it is no wonder that we also boil religion down to just one more thing that I pursue so that I am fulfilled, so that I get something I need out of the equation. Maybe it’s only when I start to face just how empty these modern affirmation structures end up leaving me — even if I do surround myself with a thousand Facebook friends — that I become willing to wonder if there is more. And the ‘more’ the church offers is that God doesn’t care just about me. God can’t care about me without caring about others too. And God can’t care about others without caring about the relationship between us. Jesus’ inaugural act in his public ministry was to call disciples. When he made this Good News proclamation — “the kingdom of God has come near” — he was clear that if we are not willing to be tethered to our neighbours, then we don’t really know God. I don’t go to church in order to find a place where I feel close to God. I become the church, I am a part of the church, in order that God might push my soul outward from my own lost rabbit hole of self-concern into relationship with the people and places around me. Whether I like them and understand them. Or not.

Which is why, although church isn’t a place, it does indeed help to go to a specific place repeatedly in order to be the church. It helps to meet in one spot so that the doors of that spot can be opened to the stranger who will need to know where you are when they are looking for food or sanctuary or welcome or prayer. It helps to meet in one spot so that the church can then go out from there to care in very specific ways for the neighbours and neighbourhoods outside of our doors, because venturing out of our own comfort zones to care for the people and places around us is essential in opening our hearts to the love of God.

Wherever it meets, the church is built according to the pattern of Gathering and Sending. We are gathered out of our own individual bubbles into the life of community. Our own worries and heartbreaks are combined with the worries and heartbreaks of our neighbours, and together we pray for ourselves and our world. Our ears are trained to hear in other voices a more complete picture of God’s purpose and love, to see in new ways how the world around us is teeming with the blessings and beauty of God. Our souls together allow my soul to be more complete. This soul can then be sent into the world, to all of the places where God needs each one of us to participate in how God will be made alive to others.

Once we have all been pushed out, then we should also expect to discover a new sort of nearness, and that nearness will occur for us in any number of different ways, most likely not at 10am on a Sunday morning. I might feel it while singing along loudly to a favourite song in my car. For you, it might be under that canopy of trees.