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Chaplain's Corner: What is church - a building, a community or a mindset?

By Chaplain (Capt.) Brian Musselman | JBER Protestant Staff Chaplain | Feb. 11, 2015


The "Chaplain's Corner" offers perspectives to enhance spiritual/religious resiliency in support of Air Force and Army Comprehensive Fitness programs.

Comments regarding specific beliefs, practices, or behaviors are strictly those of the author and do not convey  endorsement by the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Air Force, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or the 673d Air Base Wing.

Not too long ago I sat down with a few of my closest friends and asked two questions: Do we as Christians have to go to church? If so, why?

This healthy discussion was revealing. In fact, I felt challenged to relearn why I value attending church and being a part of a community. My friends honestly shared that sometimes they don't feel like going.

Another said "sometimes I go because it is the only time during a busy week that I can quiet my mind and focus my attention on something other than myself." Another said going to church is like "a parked car in a garage with no gas and a car that is needed to get from point A to point B, and it needs gas to travel." The church is her gas to keep going - fuel for life. Collectively, they said perhaps people attend church on Sundays (or other days) because of the guilt they carry  around the days or night prior - the church is a cleanser for them.

The Greek word for church is ekklesia, and means 'assembly.' Often, we envision church as a structure of brick and mortar, and to some extent, it is.

In fact the church is compared to structures, objects, and vegetation throughout the New Testament (branches on a vine in John 15:5, a
new temple in 1 Peter 2:5, a harvest in Matthew 13:1-3, a building in 1 Corinthians 3:9, a field of crops in 1 Corinthians 3:6-9, God's house
in Hebrews 3:6, and the pillar and bulwark of the truth in 1 Timothy 3:15). As I look around Arctic Warrior chapel where I help lead services,
or Midnight Sun chapel where my office is, I ask myself, 'what is the church? It can't just be a building, can it?' Then it dawns on me - it  becomes a church when people are in it.

But that just feels awkward, like asking if a tree makes a sound in the woods if no one is around.

Hundreds of people are in JBER's chapels every week. What if there were no structures - no brick, mortar or electricity to give us a place to meet and worship, to have ceremonies, funerals, squadron parties and the like?

What would the church be then?

Recently I heard a story called "The Lonely Ember."

"A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.

"After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him. It was a chilly evening.

"The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a big chair near the fireplace and waited.

"The pastor made himself comfortable but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the play of the flames around the burning logs.

"After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember, and placed it to one side of the hearth
all alone. Then he sat back in his chair, still silent.

The host watched all this in quiet fascination. "As the one lone ember 's flame diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and 'dead as a doornail.'

"Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. Just before the pastor was ready to leave, he picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.

"Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.

"As the pastor prepared to leave, his host finally spoke.

'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon,' the man said. 'I shall be back in church next Sunday.'"

The church is more than a building. It is about being in community with others, sharing the same core beliefs, relying on the hands that build the walls and not the walls themselves. The church is people.

The author of the book of Hebrews included the word "meeting" in 10:25. It is the word - you guessed it - assembly. It is not the ekklesia previously mentioned, but nonetheless means a grouping of people.

In Deuteronomy, God says, "Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words" (4:10). The Hebrew word used is qahal.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the writers chose the word ekklesiazo. Look familiar? Ekklesiazo means
to summon an assembly.

The author of Hebrews chose specific words to catapult our minds toward assembling - like "let us," "our hearts," "cleanse us," "our bodies," "hope we profess," "let us consider" and "spur one another on" (10:22-25).

But I'm still left challenged by the author when he writes, "let us not forsake assembling together as is the habit of some."

More than 1,000 American adults were polled by the Barna Group and asked their thoughts on going to church.

About 30 percent said attending is very important, about 40 percent were ambivalent, and 30 percent said it is not important at all.

The ambivalent gave two main reasons - 40 percent "find God elsewhere" and 35 percent find church "not personally relevant."

I can understand this response; God is omnipresent and people are imperfect. But the beauty of the church is that it is made up of different people experiencing God in all walks of life.

I can't imagine attending a church where all the people were exactly like me. I love Brian Musselman because he is wired and knitted by God's design, and God makes no mistakes, but it would drive me bonkers to be around so many Brian Musselmans.

The church is people. People make each other better, like iron sharpens iron. I have room for improvement, and God makes this happen through others.

Perhaps some resist attending church because it may involve change that is, at first, uncomfortable. I can't - nor do I want to - take away this experience from anyone, because it is essential for growth.

But the church - the people - will make each other better while in community; worshipping together, studying together, caring together, and doing life together.

Do you have a community like this?