We are proud of our beautiful building and all that takes place here to honor Christ and serve our neighbors. But “church” is not just what happens onsite. I am particularly reminded of this truth during the summer, when congregational members and participants are scattered far and wide.
Of course it is true, as the delightful children’s chorus goes, “The church is not the building, the church is not the steeple; the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.” In the words of Holy Scripture: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). And also, I have tried to lift up continually in my preaching and teaching that we represent Christ and make His presence visible and tangible not just through church activities, but in our circles of family, neighbors and friends, and in our schools, work places and recreational venues. But there’s something else exercising my thought here.
We regularly meet “at church” on Sundays, Wednesdays and other days for scheduled services and activities of our congregation. But these meetings are only the tip of the iceberg of “church.”
When Pastor Rick Francis and our young people, and their adult leaders, go to San Francisco’s Chinatown this month, to come alongside the young people of that congregation in service to their community, and to strengthen bonds of love within the group, that’s church. When Pat Forrester pulled together a group of men, of varied ages, to begin a new men’s fellowship, for mutual support and encouragement in Godly living, that’s church.
When Mary Olson and Darcia Hing and a number of other women gathered in Darcia’s home for several weeks to study scripture together, using the evocative videos of Beth Moore, that’s church. When participants in women’s missionary circles have met in varied sites, from Portland to the Oregon coast, to learn about and support the work of Christ in places around the globe, that’s church.
When volunteers from FBC, from nurses to medical students to participants in hospitality and prayer teams, join some 400 volunteers from other congregations to welcome a thousand or more guests to free medical, dental, visual and chiropractic services at “Downtown Compassion,” carried out for a fourth consecutive year this month at the Portland Memorial Coliseum, that’s church. When a team of men with strong backs and a van at their disposal gather to move a brother displaced from his apartment, that’s church.
When Pastor Peter Im and members of our Cambodian congregation gather each month at somebody’s home for food – always food! – prayer and Bible study, that’s church. And when they gather two hundred strong with members of other Cambodian congregations in the campground at Ft. Stevens State Park this month, that’s church. When we are at Arrah Wanna as campers or counselors – and some of our teenagers will play both roles this summer – that’s church.
When Pastor Ed Stelle visits a hospitalized friend or when a member of his team telephones a homebound member, that’s church. When Pastor Rick and our young adults are at the movies or in somebody’s home, opening the Bible and discussing life issues, that’s church. When we go as a congregation to Oaks Park this month, to gather around the picnic tables and – for some of us – to disperse down the midway, that’s church.
All of these gatherings and activities, and more, build the Body, deepen relationships, and help us live out our Christian faith in all of the venues, professional, recreational, civic and commercial, that are not, in any meaningful sense of the word, “church.”
Our English word “church” comes from the Greek ekklesia, which meant an “assembly,” most commonly civic or political. Among the first Greek-speaking Christians, it came to designate the local assembly of believers, for fellowship and worship. For us today, in this increasingly secular world, it is literally, as Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered together in My name” (Matthew 18:20), whether “at church” or off-site.
—Dr. David L. Wheeler