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SATURDAY, JANUARY 22, 2005
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James L. Evans

'More than just a church' hurts church essence

What do a Lutheran church in Minnesota, a Catholic church in Missouri, a Presbyterian church in California, and a Baptist church in Alabama all have in common? Along with what characterizes all Christian churches, these, and some others, employ an interesting marketing strategy. They bill themselves as being "more than just a church."

Think about that for a moment — a church that is more than just a church.

In my tradition (Baptist) we struggle constantly to make a distinction between the church as a building and the church as people. In fact, it's fun to watch people make the shift in mid-conversation.

"The church is so beautiful, I mean the building not the people — not that the people are not beautiful, too. Well, you know what I mean."

One church I know of takes care of the matter right out front. Their sign reads, "The meeting place of Crosscreek Baptist Church." The building is the place where the church meets.

The Greek word that is translated church originally meant "called out." The idea was to be part of a group that felt called out of the world to live a distinctive life of devotion and discipline.

Hymns like "This world is not my home" gives voice to the belief that there is a necessary tension between the world of the church and the reality of the world. And it makes sense if we think about it. Many of the things Jesus taught us to practice — compassion, forgiveness and mercy — stand in stark contrast to the dog-eat-dog value system of our world.

But something has happened to church — the people, not the building. Even though many buildings look less like churches and more like shopping malls these days, the real difference is in how folks see the church. There seems to be less emphasis on discipline and more on convenience. Churches that house fast food chains come to mind. There seems to be a concerted effort to soften the tension between the world and the church. Church marketing gurus will tell you that in order to reach people the church needs to look and feel less churchy — the building, not the people.

There is another piece to this. As idealists called out of the world, our views have not always been taken seriously — and that bothers us. We want everyone to embrace our truth and affirm it as true. But since the world as a whole has not done this voluntarily, we have lately felt the need to find ways to force it upon them — if we can just find some sympathetic judges to help keep the constitution out of the way.

I understand the evolution of this. We want to be "salt and light," as Jesus instructed. But what began as an effort to influence society with the ideals of our faith has now become a movement to Christianize the body politic — and not even with real Christianity. What's offered instead is a flattened out version of the faith that is preoccupied with a narrow range of concerns, most of which Jesus never said a word about.

At any rate, this departure from the church's proper purpose explains how someone could say with a straight face that they have a church that is more than just a church. Unfortunately, the world really doesn't need a church that is more than just a church. There is enough of that in the world to go around. What would be helpful is a church that is seriously just a church — the people, not the building.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, AL. He can be reached at faithmatters@mindspring.com.

James L. Evans James L. Evans

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