I know this sounds like a silly question because you probably have been there recently – at least I hope you have. Your five senses give testimony to the reality of the church building’s physical structure. You can see it, touch it, hear the people (or creaky floors), and even smell and taste the goodness of the Lord on Communion Sundays. But is it real?
The question came to my mind as the Cabinet was discussing the approval of starting an online church. Needless to say, it was a lively and theologically invigorating debate about the nature and identifying characteristics of a church. A tangential thought began to formulate in my mind about what makes a church (a.k.a. The Body of Christ), real. We all know the church is not a building for God as much as a people of God, but beyond our five senses what tells us that we are living, breathing models of the kingdom of God?
So, is your church real?
According to Merriam–Webster, “real” is defined as, “actually happening, and not imaginary.” By that account, we must be real. We actually meet and actually worship and actually break bread along with all the other functions and traditions that identify us as church. However…
In this age of virtual realities the lines between reality and perception have become quite blurred. Virtual Reality is defined as, “being close to being something without actually being it.” We go through the motions every Sunday, but is Christ’s presence actually being experienced in our words and in our practice? If so, do we actually leave any different than we when came? In other words, are we close to being church without actually being it?
In the move, The Matrix, that great philosopher, Morpheus went a long way in helping to dismantle what was left of my 20th century brain. He explains to Neo, “If real is defined by our senses, then real is nothing more than electrical impulses interpreted by our brains.” He follows this by asking, “Can we trust our senses?” Thus, what we define as real can be an illusion. I hated that movie.
In our Cabinet discussion, I was questioning whether a church that existed primarily in electronic form could truly be a church. Besides, how much have we read lately about how social media has produced more loneliness and anxiety among our population? If social media only produces the illusion of intimacy and creates more social isolation, wouldn’t an online community be counter-productive in creating a healthy spiritual family formed around relationships with God and neighbor? Can we be sacramental while being so disconnected? I was quite impressed with my astute insights.
Alas, my righteous reasoning all fell back into my theological lap as I’m pretty sure I heard God say to me, “Really? These are your concerns? What about all those “real” churches stuck in another reality altogether? How are you helping them becoming agents of God’s mission once again? Luther used the new technology of the printing press and Wesley went outside the church walls to field preaching. So what? You are fretting over using a new media to reach new people when so many are struggling, afraid and confused because they no longer know how to navigate in your so called post Christian world” (I will not go into more detail about what happened next but it did involve much repenting).
So when is a church real?
Maybe a place to start is asking if church is where we can become real before God. Can we be honest enough to confess our sins and seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ? Can we disagree on divisive issues and still love one another? Perhaps it is when we become agents of the same reconciliation that we received from God, we become real to others. Besides, it makes sense that if we are to be the real Body of Christ in the world today, we will do all the things Jesus’ earthly body did when he walked upon the earth, (e.g. being full of compassion, welcoming, feeding, caring, loving, forgiving, healing, etc.).
I believe those outside our walls are skeptically asking, “Are you guys for real? Do you really believe Jesus is alive?” An article I was reading on church growth stated that the reason most visitors will return to a church is that they felt the people in worship acted as they believed Jesus was alive. When we gather with a sense of joy and expectancy that God might really show up, it shows! When we truly welcome as Christ welcomes us, it shows! If perception is reality then how are we being perceived by those watching us?
According to John’s Gospel (Chap. 20), Thomas missed Easter. He was absent that Sunday when the resurrected Jesus first appeared. He demanded proof Jesus was alive by touching the wounds on his hands and side, which Jesus obliged a week later. Likewise, perhaps people will know our church is real not by our buildings or even by our great traditions, but by our wounds; our sacrifice; our service; our love. You can debate any doctrine or argue any social principal you want, but it’s hard to dispute unconditional love.
A great definition of what it means to be real comes from a wonderful theological masterpiece by Margery Williams Bianco, entitled, The Velveteen Rabbit. At one point the stuffed bunny asks the wise skin horse, “What is real?”
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse, ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
Is your church real? Be patient, remain calm, keep focused and keep loving. It doesn’t happen all at once.