What the Church Means to Me – Daniel Vestal


Much is written and spoken today about what’s wrong with the church. A great deal of it is deserved. Blogs and books abound in describing its deconstruction and dysfunction. I want to offer a word of witness about the nine Baptist churches where I have been a member, five of which I have also pastored.

Contrary to good ecclesiology these churches have been a Sacred Space for me. That means that the buildings where we gathered periodically hold a special place in my memory and imagination. The story of my life is wrapped up in the sanctuaries and Sunday school classrooms of these congregations. I am very familiar and comfortable with fellowship halls, parsonages, church offices, choir rooms, and prayer rooms. I know that the church is not a building, but I cannot deny the impact that church buildings have had on my life journey.

I was baptized in a church building. My wife and I were married in a church building. My father’s funeral was in a church building. I have wept, repented, and celebrated in church buildings for almost 70 years. So I cannot but hold dear the spaces where these experiences occurred. I now serve as Interim Pastor for a church where I am not a member. Outside the building is a cemetery where former church families are buried. They wanted to be buried next to and near the building where so much of life was lived.

I know that “sanctuary” and “temple” mean much more than place, but I resonate with the Psalmist “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.” I understand that God does not dwell in buildings made by human hands, but I identify with the words, “Better is one day in your court than a thousand elsewhere.”

Sunday is my favorite day of the week because of an Assembly of the Saints that gathers for worship, learning, and fellowship. Far more influential than the church buildings, the people who have inhabited those buildings have been instruments of God to shape and form my faith. Those weekly assemblies (sometimes thrice weekly and sometimes more) have brought together strange collections of saints. And I don’t want to romanticize or sentimentalize them, nor suggest that because they were saints that they were perfect.

They have included a fair share of misfits and folk who are just plain weird. Some were soft spoken and gracious. Others were loud and obnoxious. Some were winsome. Others were offensive. All have been broken and a few have been scoundrels. But in the mixture and meeting of congregational members I have discovered tradition and transcendence beyond myself. I have also experienced community, hospitality and grace. I have tasted that the Lord is good in ways that would have been impossible if I were on my own.

I love the Church because it has been for me a Caring Community of Christ followers. It has brought together the wisdom and well-being of Christians who want to share life in Christ together. I have witnessed the Spirit creating community that is greater than the sum of its parts. I have been a participant in and a recipient of spiritual bonding and spiritual encouragement.

It’s not just that I have felt love from others in the community, but I have felt the love of Christ through others in the community. And sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the differences between the two. That love has been expressed in physical ways (cards, letters, money, phone calls, handshakes, and hugs), and it has also been expressed in more intangible ways (prayer, presence, solidarity, forgiveness, and support).

And these communities called “churches” have not only cared for one another, but they have cared for those on the outside. They have cared for their neighbor, for “the least of these,” for the poor, for “all nations.” They have been passionate about being a Missional People participating in God’s redemptive love for the whole world. I don’t think there’s anything quite so beautiful and so powerful as churches who see themselves as the agents of God’s present and coming Kingdom, which is a Kingdom of love and grace.

It’s not that churches exist to have some kind of a mission to those outside. Rather it’s that God has a mission, and God created churches to participate in that mission. The mission of God (“Mission Dei”) is to redeem and reconcile the world to God’s own self through Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. And to accomplish that mission, God creates a people who will participate in it.

Again, nothing is so transforming than churches that discern God’s mission to the whole world, determine to participate, recognize their giftedness, receive the power of the Spirit, conform their life to the reign of God’s love and then become servant to the world. I have, in small measure, been a part of churches that have seen themselves in this way.

And when we have we also have seen ourselves as the Mystical Body of Christ. We realize that our local church is not all there is to the Church of Jesus Christ. Just as God’s mission includes the Church of Jesus Christ, so the Church of Jesus Christ includes my local church. My local church is indeed the mystical body of Christ, but it is not all of the mystical body of Christ. The ancient creeds described the Church with the words “one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic.” These words are important for me in that they describe how the 9 churches where I have been member are part and parcel of the greater Church.

I grew up in a tradition that defined the Church almost exclusively in terms of its being local and congregational. We saw ourselves as “the company of the committed,” or “the believer’s church,” without a lot of connection with others except those of “like faith and order.” I have come to see the Church as much more grand and glorious, including an historical and global community that represents Christ with such richness and diversity that is almost mind-boggling.

This community is bound together by one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, even though it expresses itself in many cultural forms and ecclesiastical systems. Its unifying center and life-giving power is the triune God. It lives and breathes all around the world and even into eternity. Its beauty and radiance will only grow greater as time passes until a final and joyful celebration will occur, “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” I love the Church.

Daniel Vestal is the Distinguished University Professor of Baptist Leadership at Mercer University and Director of the Baugh Center. The Baptist Deacon Network is a cooperative effort with the Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.

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  1. Pamela Hayes says

    You have been in my thoughts and prayers–particularly in recent times, Daniel. Your sermon at Wieuca regarding the importance of LISTENING for God’s voice was the most transformational point in my life. Mark Wilbanks may have told you. Some day if you are interested in knowing more and if you have time in your whirlwind of a schedule, I would be honored to share.
    Serving Him together,
    Pamela Hayes