Church is . . .

June 6, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 12
Phil Wagler |

Every Sunday evening our church hosts a community dinner. The peculiar mix of human diversity and dysfunction is beautiful. They are, in a word, authentic. What you see is what you get.

On Mother’s Day I encouraged the group with Psalm 27:10: “For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.” It is a relevant passage for those shaped by parental neglect and foster care system failure. In the middle of my talk a man announces that he has no parents. He is unwavering as the people around him guffaw.

Later, the truth trickles out. Born prematurely, his parents were killed on the way to visit his struggling little life in the hospital. He never knew them and defends his parentless dogma, while proudly displaying the “mom” and “dad” tattoos that cover his orphaned heart. He yearns for what family is.

What does a family do? Through no fault—or great fault—a family can do incredible damage or good. However, you can’t really pin a family down on what it does. Do families do better if their kids are in sports rather than the arts? Do they do better if they are vegetarians instead of meat lovers? Do they do better if they avoid classical music for the sake of rock and roll?

Families do a host of different things, but a healthy first start depends not on what a family does, but on an understanding of what a family is. A family is the first place of knowing God; of refuge; of identity and belonging; of living with the diversity of the sexes, ages and personalities in that primary microcosm of a worldwide web of people.

When a family knows what it is, then what a family does becomes the organized expression of a unique and healthy identity. Our family dysfunctions are not changed by simply doing a bunch of new things, but by getting to the root of what we believe a family is. That is what my Mother’s Day friend was missing most.

That’s a long introduction to this simple question for church families to ask: Is what we do as churches reflective of what the church is? Craig van Gelder helps focus this when he points out:

  • The church is.
  • The church does what it is.
  • The church organizes what it does.
  • The starting point for a healthy missional church is understanding and articulating the nature of the church. What is she exactly? What is the theological and biblical nature and mission of the communion of the saints? From there we can identify what a church is to do. And only at that point can we begin to organize what that looks like for our culture, context and gift mix.

    Many long for what a family is more than for what a family does. I have also learned that many long for what a church is more than for what a church does. I wonder what orphans might find the home they were looking for if we, who have been enveloped into the family of God, started with “is” and organized ourselves from there?

    Phil Wagler ( is a pastor, husband, father and son living in Surrey, B.C.

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