What makes a church, and why does it matter?

by John Bowen

Change and tradition sometimes seem like opposites. “We Anglicans have our traditions. We love them and are proud of them,” we hear. But we also hear, “The church needs to change with the times. We need to find ways to be relevant.” 

I’ve thought about this a lot, and finally stumbled upon one insight which I find very freeing: change is actually part of our tradition. There is a famous scholar of mission—a missiologist—at the University of Aberdeen called Andrew Walls, who has quietly influenced many Christian leaders without drawing attention to himself. He gives a lovely illustration of how this works. 

Walls asks us to imagine an Interplanetary Professor of Comparative Religions from another planet, who visits earth at intervals of several centuries, to try and understand this thing called “church.” 

  • First, he visits a group of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, a few years after the time of Jesus. They look largely like other Jewish folk of that time—worshipping in the temple, circumcising their babies (unfortunately, they are not yet familiar with the Letter to the Galatians), and emphasizing family life. What makes them distinctive is their belief that Jesus is the Messiah foretold in their scriptures. 
  • The professor’s next stop is in the year 325 CE, when he visits the Council where the Nicaean Creed is being hammered out. Far from being Jewish, these people are somewhat hostile to Jews. Clergy are not married. Their concern right now is to find the precisely correct Greek terminology to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. 
  • The third visit takes our professor to Scotland in the 6th century, where he observes Celtic monks. Some are standing in ice-cold water with their arms outstretched, praying the Psalms. Some are sailing off in a little boat, bearing beautiful manuscripts, to evangelize some of the pagan Scottish tribes. 
  • On his next visit, the scholar visits England in the 19th century, where a group of well-dressed evangelical gentlemen in London are discussing the evangelization of the heathen in Africa, some 6,000 miles away. They are also passing motions to try and abolish slavery. Many of them carry Bibles containing the same documents that each of the other previous groups had valued. 
  • Finally, the professor, now thoroughly confused, visits an indigenous church in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 21st century. There, the people are processing through the streets on their way to worship, claiming to be Cherubim and Seraphim, and proclaiming the power of God to speak and to heal. 

For these different forms of church, worship looks very different. The marks of their life together are very different. Their attitude to the outside world, to marriage, and to the activity of God, all vary wildly. 

So what makes them church? Walls suggests: (1) They all focus on Jesus Christ. (2) They all take the Bible as their authority (though the first group have no New Testament). And, although there are some differences, (3) each group practices baptism and communion. I would add: (4) each group feels compelled to share the love of God with the world in deed and word, though (again) in different ways. In other words, they are engaged in mission. 

As we think about the future of the church, why should it not look different, as radically as the Nicean church was different from the Celtic church or the Nigerian church? We might not like such a church or feel comfortable with it. But that is hardly the priority. The priority is finding a container that makes the water of life accessible to those who have not yet tasted it.

I suggested last month that the Gospel is like water—the living water of the Good News—and that different kinds of container can be used to hold water. But in spite of that, there are certain characteristics that any container must have: 

  • It must be rigid: it’s tricky drinking from a water balloon.
  • It cannot contain contaminants, or the water will no longer be safe.
  • It needs an opening, usually at the top (though a tap at the bottom would work too). The water may be pure, but if it’s not accessible, what’s the use? (Hmm, there’s a sermon there, I’m sure.) 

Andrew Walls helps us see what are the requirements for a Gospel container: a focus on Jesus, through whom we experience God’s determination to mend everything broken; a reliance on the Bible as the story of God’s renewing work, which helps orient and direct our lives; baptism and communion, which seal our participation in the work of God; and a desire to express that love in the world. 

All this opens the door to what are often called “fresh expressions of church.” After all, change is part of our tradition. The possibilities are endless—if we are open to them.


John Bowen

John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto. He is a parishioner at St John the Evangelist in Hamilton.