By Ed Thompson
Maybe you remember this song from church camp or perhaps Vacation Bible School: “The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people. I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together.” It was written by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh back in 1972.
The words came to mind during the recent kerfuffle about churches supposedly needing to reopen. While some church buildings have been and maybe still are closed for in-person worship, that doesn’t mean the church is closed. Because as Avery & Marsh put it, “The church is not a building. (…) The church is a people.”
The church is a people who worship God. Just because we’re doing it online rather than in person in a building dedicated to that purpose doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. It’s still worship whether it happens live on a Zoom meeting or on a conference call or in a prerecorded video. Scripture is read, and we have a chance to reflect on how God is at work in the world and in our lives. We can lift up hymns of praise or songs of lament. Plus, we can pray.
The church is a people who pray. It still counts even when it doesn’t happen in a worship service or in a prayer meeting or in a building dedicated to that purpose. It still counts even if it’s not offered by someone who gets paid to do that. It still counts even if it doesn’t happen before a meal. We pray for one another whenever the mood strikes us or perhaps whenever the Spirit inspires us.
We pray when we read the paper or listen to the news. We pray when we hear about people who are sick or people who have died. We pray when we hear about people who have recovered and give thanks for those who have cared for them. We pray for our political leaders whether we voted for them or not. We pray for our church session and our presbytery leadership as they make decisions on if, when, and how we can safely gather together and if, when, and how we continue to serve.
The church is a people who serve. We serve by supporting food banks and other community ministries. We serve by providing space and support for AA and NA groups. We serve by having preschool, afterschool and tutoring programs. Even if our buildings are closed, we continue to serve in different ways than we did before because we care about our communities, we care about people who are struggling with hunger and with addictions, and we care about children even if they are not part of our congregation. We serve by helping people rebuild after floods and by helping those living in substandard housing. We serve by reaching out to people in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior living apartments. We serve because we believe no one should suffer or live in fear. We serve others because we follow the example of our Savior, who came to serve.
The coronavirus has changed a lot of things. While it has changed how we do church, it has not changed the church. We are still a people who worship, a people who pray, a people who serve. While we may close our buildings for a while, nothing can close our hearts and our minds.