We had a great time with one of our Urban Expression teams yesterday evening - reflecting on the stories from the past year, reviewing progress, setting some goals. In the course of it, all kinds of thoughts started buzzing round my mind.
The biggest was the one that's been there for years: exactly what is church, then? How do you know when you stumble into it? What marks it out from other gatherings?
Time was when church planters were working with a blueprint. They had been sent by their church to reproduce it in a new location. So a group of the willing set off to find a venue in a place where there wasn't a church like the one they'd come from, and they started one. They brought musicians, screens, projectors, hymn books, bibles, chairs, lecterns, an urn to boil water for coffee; they invited people from the neighbourhood; and hey presto - church!
Maybe that still works in some places. But it doesn't actually answer the question at the top of this post.
One of the things I'm discovering as I talk with people involved in UE is that answering that question is nothing like as easy as we thought for two reasons.
The first is that all the religious trappings of a gathering don't make it church. As the young son of one of team from last night observed 'church isn't the building, it's the people, silly.' Quite right. But which people?
The second is that Paul planted churches all over the Greek Roman empire with none of the trappings noted above in evidence. No special hall, no musicians, no projector, screen, chairs, books, etc, etc.
We don't doubt that his gathering in a workshop or an upstairs room was church, despite the absence of anything we seem to think is essential. So, what made it church? And how did he know when he'd planted one? And would his answer help us in the situations in which we're trying to do mission and plant churches?
Answers on a post card, please...