There is a movement that is always afoot in Christian circles. It’s a movement to return to the worship ways of the early church, the one that formed in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion. Some folks will become disenchanted (not without cause) by the ways of our, yes these are the right words, industrialized and institutionalized churches. Cathedrals, elegant old churches full of stained glass, lofty pulpits, and a certain amount of liturgical formality, can sometimes become false gods. And so, these early church movements scour the records of the first few centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection and try to reclaim it in some way in our contemporary era.
Early “churches” where nothing like what we understand today as the building and institution that is “Church.” These first places of worship were not places of worship at all, at least they didn’t function as only places of worship.
They were living rooms and dining rooms, atria where people could gather to eat and pray and baptize and teach. They were house churches, places that became church as soon as the work of the people undertaken inside them involved prayer, agape meals, and Christian fellowship. It was only much later, as the Christian institution coalesced and was sanctioned under the
Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300s, that churches as we might understand them began to be erected.
When the Christian, Justin Martyr, was pressed by the Roman authority in the second century about the meeting place of Christ followers, he responded, “Wherever it is each one’s preference or opportunity . . . [i]n any case, do you suppose we can all meet in the same place?” (This quote is from the Christianity Today article found here: bit.ly/EarlyChurchCT.)
Because Christians are not an assembly in one place, but a beloved community in many places, all part of the same body. In many ways, our churches and denominations obscure that most basic reality. Do we truly suppose we can all meet in the same place? So when some folks, out of a sincere desire to be a more authentic church, begin to insist that we abandon our pews in favor of our couches, they have a point. But may I suggest that the point is not that everyone should return to their dining rooms to worship because that’s the only authentic way.
Instead, let us be more authentic wherever we meet. Let’s open our eyes to the possibility that being church is what we do and how we pray together and the bread we break and pass to one another–no matter where that happens, no matter under which roof we assemble, and even when we assemble in our modern, virtual spaces.
We will never stop being the church, friends, so long as we remain a community of faith, a family of believers (and questioners, of course!). So while we no longer meet in our sanctuary in Angola, take heart and know that wherever we meet, whether over the phone or the internet or in person at coffee shops or in our own building, we are still the church.
All good things through Christ who is present wherever we gather,