Church: place or people?

“I’m going to church.”

To which of the following is that statement closer in meaning?

(a) “I’m going to the building at the corner of Fifth and Main Streets.”
(b) “I’m going to hang out with my family.”

We use the word “church” both ways, to refer to a place and a people. It’s often said that a church is not a place, but a people — a corrective to the idea that showing up in the building on Sunday morning somehow earns you righteousness points with God. But, odd and self-serving creatures that we can be, we sometimes use that as a convenient justification for not going: “I don’t have to go if I don’t want to, because after all, the church isn’t a place. I can worship God anywhere.”

Um, yes… The problem is, the worship of God is also meant to be a communal affair, a gathering of the faithful for mutual edification and encouragement — and if the only place the faithful are gathering is on a Sunday morning in a church building…well, you get the idea.

It’s wise, though, not to over-identify “church” with a particular place, lest we also compromise our understanding of worship.

In the previous post, I suggested that the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well of Sychar was a spiritual seeker. She had theological questions, and was hoping for answers from this rabbi with obvious prophetic gifts.

In the time of Moses and Joshua, Mt. Gerizim had been the mountain from which God’s blessings were pronounced over the people as they entered the promised land (Deut 11:29; 27:12; Josh 8:33). After the reign of Solomon, the kingdom of the Israelites split into warring factions, with Samaria as the capital of Israel to the north, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah to the south. After the exile, Mt. Gerizim became the site of a Samaritan temple rivaling the one in Jerusalem; it was later destroyed.

“Who’s right?” is the woman’s implied question to Jesus (John 4:20). “Where is the proper place to worship?”

Jesus’ answer, in essence, is “Neither”:

Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … [T]he time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth. (vss. 21-24, CEB)

The Israelites had been a nomadic people without a home. It was important to have the tangible, visible presence of God — in the pillars of cloud and fire — with them wherever they went. Eventually, they settled down and built permanent dwelling places for the divine presence.

But Jesus points to a coming time — a time that has already dawned — in which the answer to the woman’s question is no longer location, location, location. Already in John 2:19-21, we have Jesus standing in the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple, declaring his own body to be a temple, the presence of God. And later, through the gift of the Spirit, believers too will be temples in which the Spirit dwells (1 Cor 6:19).

The point is not that bodies aren’t involved in worship. Nor is it that church isn’t a location on a map. It’s that we no longer have to make pilgrimage to the specific place where God resides. As we’ll see in the next post, God was with the woman at the well in the person of Jesus (cf. Matt 1:23).

And in the person of the Holy Spirit, God is still with us, wherever we go.

So don’t say that you don’t have to go to church to worship. Go to church to encourage and be encouraged by other believers, to be a body of Christ united in the one Spirit. And then worship wherever you are.

Even there.