Monday, September 29, 2008


This business of visiting a different church every Sunday has brought to a boil several questions that were simmering on the back burner of my mind: "What is church?...What should it be?...Why do we get together?" Lately, as I slip into the back row of a new house of worship each week, another compelling question has surfaced: "If Jesus were visiting churches, where would he feel most comfortable?" In other words, "Where would Jesus attend church?"

The stately Episcopal church with its vaulted ceilings bordered by stained glass windows commemorating executions, consecrations, and coronations of saints, bishops and kings, its organ processionals of white-and-green robed vestry members solemnly brandishing gilded crosses and candlesticks (the leader holding high a golden Bible), its book (copyright 1979) containing verbatim prayers, creeds and psalms that have been recited and intoned every Sunday for decades, if not centuries, the communion rite with its silver chalices and special garments, the reverential bow toward the cross as one approaches, all echo Old Testament images of Hebrew worship. Would Jesus feel like he'd stepped back in time? How would he feel as the object of adoration and cause for pomp?

Or take the genial Presbyterian congregation, with a spacious-yet-warm meeting place full of educated, kind, committed, concerned citizens who want to emulate Jesus and represent him in the world and the neighborhood. (After the service, so many of them stopped to chat and invite us to the greeting hall for coffee and refreshments that by the time we got there, all the cookies were gone.) What would Jesus have said during the Sunday school discussion on poverty, the role of the church and the role of the government?

One recent drizzly evening CP, NS and I visited a church-in-formation. They met in a community center for soup, cornbread and cake before the worship service. The woman in front of me in line had come from Salvation Army, she said, and was glad to be out of the rain. A man with slick gray hair shuffled up to me, mumbling something about getting in line. I let him cut in front of me. He was clearly intoxicated, and soon he and the woman were bickering over who was hogging more food. The congregants were also college students, a few older folks, youngish couples with small children, and every category in between, from stylized-neo-hippie-with-dreds to clean-cut-with-jeans-and-hoodie. I spent most of the sermon time in the improvised nursery playing with Legos, but sensed vitality in the somewhat disorganized gathering. Could Jesus have been slouched on the couch in the back?

What about the informal, yet reflective group of young-to-middle-aged professional folk (plus clumps of college students) who remember him weekly in communion? They sing together, with apparent heart and skill (some of them are even professional musicians) and invite each other home for lunch after every meeting. How would Jesus feel, as a newcomer, pulling a chair up to the circle?

If only I were qualified to answer my own questions, I would know just which church to choose.


  1. I think he would start a church. You better get busy.


  2. Hi, there. I'm a friend of Mama JJ's and enjoyed your post. A book I read a couple years ago may be of interest to you. "Church: Why Bother?" by Philip Yancey. Blessings to you as you search!:-)

  3. I like Yancey's stuff. . .maybe I'll check out that book, too. If you read it, let me know what you think. Also keep me posted if you ever answer your question.

  4. I think Jesus would be just like you, visiting lots of churches, only he would probably be asked on the spot to read scripture or preach...

    Kris Shank Zehr

  5. I think Jesus would be just like you, visiting lots of churches, only he would probably be asked on the spot to read scripture or preach...

  6. I'm glad I don't live in a part of the world where visitors are always asked to speak!

    The book suggestion reminds me of another excellent book I read a few years ago and should probably re-read. The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser, has a chapter called "The Spirituality of Ecclesiology" which discusses similar questions about the meaning of church. -ME