What Is Church?

What is church? We often think we know, but the experience of church is much more diverse than most of us have witnessed. I think it’s important not to box “church” into one vision. It’s a gathering of Believers, but that can look may different ways. In this guest post from Elisa Johnston, she shares how her view of church has transformed over time, through the unique experiences of her life. I think you’ll find what she has to share wise, grounding and important in such a times as this:

Church in the Grocery Store Parking Lot

Before walking into the store, I stopped at the petition table by the sliding glass doors. I connected with the people manning the booth instantly; our brief exchange was joyful. Their propositions were bipartisan and would help our community. As I signed my name, I couldn’t understand why others were sliding by, as if the large sun shade over us was invisible. 

One of the men was wearing a shirt that quoted, “faith without works is dead,” from James. As soon as I realized he was a Believer, a desire to encourage him through our conversation rose up within me.

>>>>>> Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women

As I left, he called out, “you’re my hero!” He was alluding to the fact that I had succeeded in taking four kids grocery shopping–including a newborn. He didn’t even realize that I had also been recovering from nine months of a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease that had ravaged my body. I did feel like a warrior walking out of that door–it was the first time I had gone shopping by myself with my kids! I left expectant that God would help me in my new, challenging life.

The way I see it, we had Church that day in front of the grocery store. I was able to recognize it because God has been pushing me out of the box I was trapped within to participate in the expansive, beautiful organism he designed his Church to be — fellow Believers connecting anywhere and everywhere.

Church in the World

Long before Church on the sidewalk, I experienced a unique way of being the Church as a missionary in Hawaii/Fiji and then in Spain/Italy. There, we had a communal style of living, and spent an equal amount of our lives pursuing God, deeper community, and loving our neighbors with the good news.

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We were a messy people and many of us were young believers. Yet, that meant expectations of church weren’t established. The frequently seen side-effects of years in church life–religious security and pride in theological knowledge–weren’t part of our culture.

With little money or stability, but with great faith, we moved on mission, working together to reach others and push one another towards God. Without relying on Sunday services or buildings, we were able to be flexible, being the Church wherever we were–on a stuffy bus, on the river while washing laundry, in old homes throughout Rome.

Looking back, I felt like we were close to what the early Church looked like, but in the context of the 21st century. 

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Overseas v. United States

Despite “living the dream,” this didn’t seem plausible when I came back home to the States without my team, let alone when I became a mom in the suburbs. It was easy and natural for me to fall back into attending and supporting the church methods, traditions, and structures I grew up in. Nothing ever came close to being that living, breathing organism of the Church that I experienced as a missionary. 

I lived in tension. I wanted to be the Church like I had experienced, wide, moving, alive! And yet, church-life consumed my time and energy. I constantly gravitated into heavy involvement in my local church’s meetings, leadership, and pushing ministries and programs. There was nothing wrong with these; many were considered the best church practices in America!

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However, I couldn’t help but notice they were ineffective at making disciples that multiplied and filled the region with Jesus, like I saw in the Biblical narrative. I was living beneath our calling, in something smaller than God had intended the Church to be. I was trapped by a religious hustle.

Then COVID-19 began. Within months traditional church services had shut down and when they reopened, many discovered their methods were working anymore. Being immunocompromised, often I was forced out of the system simply because I couldn’t gather like the healthy could. In addition, pregnancy, sickness, hospitalizations, and then having a newborn drastically altered my church experience.

The Sacrament & the Struggle

And yet I still needed the Church and it needed me. I began earnestly praying for God to guide me in how to be his Church. I started by studying the Bible, renewing my understanding of the Church. Then, over the last three years, I walked into the uncomfortable.

I practiced Church sacraments outside of church buildings. Relationships went much deeper since I could only meet with small groups or one-on-one. I experienced God’s people providing for my family month after month, a light to my unbelieving friends. These friends–who’d never go to a church service–were exposed to stories of God’s faithfulness.

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I stopped brushing over deep Church hurt, and began the long road of healing through prayer, therapy, and months of hard conversations with church leadership. I let go of roles and responsibilities to be able to follow God into where his gifts could flourish through me.  Competition with other congregations ceased. I stayed in close spiritual community with people who left my congregation.  The list goes on!

Now I believe that I can live out “meeting” and “encouraging,” (Hebrews 10:25) with a fellow believer in front of the grocery store. God’s Church is so much more expansive, beautiful and alive than I knew!

I am still uncomfortably navigating around church walls and traditions, insecure. But I am thrilled to be coming out of the church box and I’m hungry to follow God on the adventure of being his Church. You’re invited to join me.

*This piece is part of the “Reason to Return” blog series to discuss ideas within the new book, “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women” by Ericka Andersen.

Read more from this series:

Elisa Johnston empowers ordinary people to be fully alive while making the difference they were born to make at Average Advocate, procrastinates on Instagram, and brings freedom to the exploited through Blackout Trafficking. Whenever and wherever she can, she explores with her four littles. Thankfully, God, her husband, and other favorite introverts are all particularly grounding, because otherwise her Enneagram 7 passions would compel her into a creative oblivion.

If this subject matter interests you, check out “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women” today.

*You can hear from all kinds of Christian women leaders like Elisa on my podcast, “Worth Your Time,” where I interview tons of women doing incredible things. Recent guests include Jennie Allen, Joni Earekson Tada and more!

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