I was sitting alone in the office at Seward United Methodist Church when I heard the front door open. I wasn’t expecting anyone. But, during the summer months it is not terribly uncommon to have tourists and visitors want to peek their heads into the church. Some go on and on about how beautiful it is. I figured I better go check and see who it was.
I got up from the desk and went to the main room to greet the visitor.
It was a woman. She didn’t say “hi” or offer a greeting. She didn’t say that she was passing by and wanted a chance to see the inside of the church. What she said was the following:
“IS THIS A REAL CHURCH?”
It’s an odd question. I would argue it’s a loaded question.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect, there are follow up questions I could have asked. The big one that comes to me now is “What do you mean by “real?” But it didn’t occur to me at that point. I kind of cocked one eyebrow as I gave her an inquisitive look and answered, more sheepishly than was intended, “Yes.” Was pretty sure that “No” was incorrect, regardless of her preconceived notions about who or what we were.
She said, “Well my son is out on a fishing boat and I would like to sit and read the Bible for a little bit and wanted to know if you had a Bible I could read?”
“Aha,” I thought. “REAL for her meant having a Bible.”
But the visitor wasn’t done. She said, “I would like to borrow a NIV (New International Version) Bible…assuming that you have one.
“Aha,” I thought. “REAL for her didn’t just mean having a Bible but a specific kind of Bible.”
And I did have a few NIV Bibles for her to choose from amidst all of the other versions. She left happy and came back after about an hour and half of Bible reading.
But it’s her opening question that I’ve been thinking about since she came by:
“IS THIS A REAL CHURCH?”
For me, a REAL church would be Trinitarian. It would have a primacy of Christ and an emphasis on Scripture. It would be missional in focus and would meet for worship although that worship would be contextually unique. I guess I’d want to throw some other characteristics in my understanding of REAL. Coming from a neo-orthodox tradition I’d want to include an assent to the content of the historic creeds of the church. And, I’d want to say that a REAL church practices the sacraments. I’d also want to say that a REAL church has a heart for “the least, the last, and the lost ” (and this could be interpreted in a myriad of ways.)
This is a pretty broad understanding of church that could cover both the more conservative and the more liberal churches.
Getting to my visitor’s question, I’d assume that a REAL church would have Bibles but I don’t think that’s necessary because holding a Bible in one’s hand is often not the way the Bible is read in church. It can be up on a screen or read or on one’s iPhone. And, surely, my understanding of a REAL church is not based on which version of the Bible is used.
While I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few things in the essentials, most of the other stuff I could think of would not be essential to a “REAL” church.
What would you have answered?
What, to you, makes a REAL church?