Recently, I asked one of my congregations what made the church the church?
They responded, ‘the people,’ and ‘ritual.’
Important though people are (especially against a backdrop of endemic isolation) and important as ritual is for human flourishing (and all the more-so in chaotic times of rapid, discontinuous upheaval) if this is what makes the church the church then it is no different from (and in so many ways not as good as) the running club.*
When I ask my Iranian sisters and brothers what makes the church the church, they speak of Jesus. Of how Jesus found them; and exchanged their anger for his love, their anxiety for his peace (in, frankly, circumstances that would cause anxiety). And of the church as the community that introduced them to Jesus and helps them to follow him (sometimes, on the good days, by modelling love and peace; and sometimes, on the bad days, by making us angry and anxious and giving opportunity for Jesus to say, again, Let me do your heavy lifting).
If you have been part of the church for seventy-plus years and cannot articulate something about Jesus in answer to the question, What makes the church the church?, then something has gone badly wrong, for most of that time.
No wonder my friends prefer the running club.
*parkrun, for example, is highly ritualistic. We meet at the same time each week. There is a first-timers’ briefing (churches could learn from that). We acknowledge first-timers, visiting tourists, the volunteers making today happen, and milestone runs. We remind ourselves that we are not sole users of the park, that dogs should be kept on a short lead, and that children under the age of eleven must keep within arms-length of their responsible adult. We walk/jog/run 5K, and afterwards we share coffee and eat together. And every parkrun in the world inhabits this prescribed ritual practice in their own way.