What Does It Mean to Be Church? by Fran Salone-Pelletier

Evangelizers hawk God’s warning on street corners and social media. Jews assemble to celebrate the Days of Awe. Muslims turn daily to Mecca and promise to engage a once-in-a-lifetime Hajj. Buddhists flock to their temples with offerings of fruit and flowers. Perennial “flower children” find spiritual experiences on mountaintops or in aromatic fields. People everywhere seek to discover the answer to the question which smolders, if not burns, within them. At times, it is a question erupting from anger. Moments of eagerness might rouse the words. Sometimes, it comes from curiosity or despair or disillusionment. Always the inquiry involves only one topic: What does it mean to be church?

As a hospital chaplain, I am often asked what church I belong to. The expected answer is that I mention a particular denomination. I respond, “St. Brendan the Navigator Roman Catholic Church.” Invariably, the ensuing conversation suggests this is only a partial answer. However, it opens the door to a statement repeated time and again by patients, despite their own affiliation or lack of one. Singularly, they have stated, “It doesn’t matter what church you go to. It only matters that God counts in your life.”

I knew each person is trying to affirm my belief, even if it is not theirs. At the same time, they are testifying to the fact that we are all in the same boat, even if we are not in the same buildings. We are all searching to discover what it means to be church. We are all engaging with the ramifications of building a worshipful church, more than simply going to worship in a church building.

Marvelous though our cathedrals, basilicas, and sanctuaries of all sorts might be, they do not define or provide meaning to the word church. The people of Assisi came face to face with that reality as an earthquake destroyed the frescoes and paintings that had drawn tourists and locals alike to come to their church.

The temples we build cannot contain God’s omnipresence.

Perhaps that is not news to us who already know that church is more than any building. Church is more than a place. We know what church is not. We have yet to plumb the depths of what church is! The voyage plunges us into fearsome territory where knowledge and information must yield to kenosis and transformation.

Scripture readings give us direction. Church is all about the awesome truth that God dwells among us on earth. We cannot fully comprehend that fact. It is too big for our minds to grasp. To be church is to celebrate what we cannot understand, but are trying to live. To be church is to put God first, always. It is to come to grips with the reality that God is in charge. To be church is to be people of prayer. It is to be people who ask God to “regard your servant’s prayer and his plea . . . heeding the cry . . . heed and forgive” (1 Kgs 8:28–30).

The prayer may be offered from a building, but it is important that the place be one which is filled with persons who are strangers and aliens no longer. It is crucial that the site be one filled with community insight, with people who are willing to dare a pilgrimage path and eager to walk it together.

The heart of any church building is not in its statues, mosaics, crucifix, or even in its liturgies and homilies. The heart of the reality is in the exact middle of the word church: You are, I am, we are. All of us, in the wondrous diversity which evokes unity, are one in the spirit of God. We are one because God’s spirit is already present in each of us. This is truly a sanctifying grace. The heart of the church beats with the presence of God among us. Now we are getting close to understanding the answer to the question, “What does it mean to be church?’

It means we first engage with the reality that we are companion citizens of the saints. We travel in their company and they with us. We are members of the household of God. To be church is to live as saintly members of God’s household, God’s family. Set apart as holy people who serve as beacon lights of grace to a world blinded by greed, we are “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20).

The church building finds its beauty and definition, its very form, in each and all of us. Where we are, in Christ Jesus, there is the church. Church is a movable feast. Church is a viable, vital, breathing temple of people who are constantly being built. To be church is to be in process, always being constructed into a dwelling place for the Spirit of God. If we are stuck in the past or determined to concretize a future, we lose our ability to be church. If we fear hearing truth, deny the presence of prophetic messengers, or refuse their proffered message, we are not church.

If power structures overtake prayer services, we are not church. If we opt to be silent when speech is required or speak over each other when listening is mandated, we are not church.

To be church is to take time to be with each other. It is to plan and then change plans. To be church is to give and forgive. It is to call and to be called. To be church is working and praying. Most of all church is “other-centered.” It is more about recalling wrongs that others have against us and reconciling them than it is about unearthing the hurts we have endured.

When we live in the awareness that we are living stones being fitted together and taking shape as a holy people, we also begin to understand what it means to be church.

Now, let’s go to church!

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of a trilogy: Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives. She is Lead Volunteer Chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four.


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