In the church where I grew up there was a deacon named Fred, who was a key member of our First Baptist Church. Fred had a reputation for calling the shots. He was one who had to always get his way around church. So, people sarcastically said FBC stood for “Fred’s Baptist Church!”
Right now, this is where I attend church. It also is a historical congregation in Warwick, dating back a couple hundred years. One thing I always ask when I go to any church is ” whose church is it?” It’s never a simple answer. The obvious response is it’s Jesus’ church. As a part of the Church universal, that dates way back a couple of millennia.
But this church belongs to God. Even though it has ties and alignments, ownership of any church transcends denominational loyalties. Whatever the brand name, wherever it finds itself, the church is God’s. “You are no longer strangers, but fellow citizens of the household of God…” (Eph. 2:19)
Whose church is it? ‘Ell it’s their church. Those who bequeathed it to us. St. Paul said, “…fellow citizens with the saints…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:19-20). This church too was built upon the foundation of the vision of many saints who preceded us. Previous pastors before me added their contribution. It’s their church. They did the brainstorming, and laid the groundwork and the pastoral footwork, providing the structure. Many others of the laity have built upon it. So, it’s their church too. All the way down to those of us who recently came upon the scene, reaping the benefits of their labor. We are indeed “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” many who are no longer with us. It’s all of their church.
Whose church? In terms of ownership, it belongs to God. In terms of historical identity, it’s those who handed it down to us. But in terms of stewardship, it’s our church, who are part of it today. Because now is all we have. “No longer strangers, but fellow citizens…” In one sense, even for ol’ First Baptist Fred, it was his church, in the same way this church is our church.
But not in the sense of a private club. When it comes to duty and obligation and contribution.. this surely is your church. It falls to you to teach the people. Yours the ministry of Christ to embrace. Yours the worship and fellowship to enjoy. Yours the bills to pay.
It brings up the age-old question, is it a church or a business? Truth is it’s both. But any business there is to it is God’s business. So, this church will survive the way any business is kept alive, by the members investing is it, by digging down and digging in. Every member has a role to play, an investment to make, gifts to share. And this church will be as strong or weak to the degree that happens. From what I’ve seen, there is a lot of commitment among us.
Have you ever been looking for a parking place and found a meter with time left on it? We call that “parking on somebody else’s nickel.” Or today, a quarter! That happens in church. We are partners not parasites. Those who laid the foundation left some time on the meter, but time takes its toll, and many are no longer with us. It falls to us to leave some time on the meter for those who follow us. Because this is your church. One day it will be theirs.
Whose church? In terms of ministry and mission, this church belongs to the Warwick community and the larger world. We are “no longer strangers.” Paul never tired of saying that. Jews. Gentiles. Everybody. The church belongs to the world. It’s “it’s” church, too. And while we are here, we give what we can while we can.
Like Jesus said, “We find life by losing it” (Matt. 10:39). I don’t recall ever seeing a moving van hooked up to a hearse! My Former church in Providence backed up on “Benefit Street.” Love that name! It was an appropriate reminder that everyone who attends this church today has “benefited” from a church we didn’t build. But all of us hope to build an even better church to pass on from which we will not “benefit.” That is the nature of life. And the church.