What does church mean to you?
Growing up in a typical Christian home, I put on my best clothes every Sunday and asked my parents for a coin to throw into the offering basket.
Even though church was not always exciting, I enjoyed Sunday school where the aunty on duty told us the stories of people like Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus. As I grew up, I noted that church became a place I looked forward to going to because it was a place where I met my friends. And as I grew more in faith and started having a relationship with Christ, church became a place where I was spiritually nurtured, engaged in worship and participated in conversations about faith.
Nonetheless, the meaning of church for myself has changed over the years as I have had many different experiences throughout the adventure of my missionary journey, thus learnt many new things.
One of the most beautiful expressions of 'church' that I have encountered is reflected in the rural villages of Zimbabwe. Infused with so much contagious joy and laughter, the faithful travel long distances to gather under a under a tree or at a member’s homestead.
In one village in Zimbabwe, an elderly man walked over 30km every day to attend an OM evangelism training. Feeling sorry that he had to walk such a long distance, we made arrangements for the man to stay with us for the duration of the training but he politely declined insisting, “I have to go home to make sure my cattle and goats are well-sheltered lest they get killed by hyenas.” Touched by his commitment, another bright spark we had was, “Let’s go and plant a church in the man’s area!” However, another hitch – neither that man nor other church members in the area could read well enough to be effective teachers of the Bible.
I learnt that day that people attended church so that they could hear the Bible being read. An AudioBible answered part of the need of this man and others, although that is not to say the commitment of people driven by the hunger and thirst to know the Word was fully satisfied.
Another striking definition of church I have experienced is that ‘the church’ is people and not a place. One day, after visiting a pastor in a rural area, I asked “When are we going to the church?” With a face that showed a lot of surprise, the pastor politely responded, “All the people you see here are the church.” He went on to tell me that they met at a church member’s home and at that home - church happened.
I was later to learn that each member who hosted also bore the brunt of organising most of the logistics. And yet this was never a burden but an opportunity for that member to give back to God and bless others. As one church member would remind me that day, “Would you not fight for an opportunity to host Christ at your home?”
Despite all the above views about what church meant to me at certain stages of my life, there is no escaping a picture and a thought which defines ‘church’ as a ‘building’ in a certain location. The building, often beautiful and well ornamented, ultimately takes pride of a place above the actual worship of God. With that in mind, ‘church’ becomes a place where we gather and sing songs, listen to a sermon, fellowship and then go back home to the normal routine. This is unfortunate but is by far not the worst misconception of what the church is.
For some indigenous African communities in Zimbabwe and other places in Africa, many regard the church as a ‘burial society.’ Here, people become part of the church because of the expected benefit of assistance upon their, or a family member’s, death. Churches usually provide funeral assistance to bereaved members inclusive of the supply and cooking of food required to feed the guests, relieve the bereaved family of any domestic work, and attend the traditional night vigil in honour of the deceased with the minister/pastor conducting the funeral rites. Because of the above notion, it is not unusual during evangelism rounds to hear someone remark that “I want to join the church because I will need others to bury me one day!”
In the end, going back to the roots, the word ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ which is defined as ‘an assembly’ or ‘called-out ones.’ The root meaning of ‘church’ is not that of a building, but of people. The church is the body of Christ and the body of Christ is made up of all believers in Jesus Christ.