When we make statements such as:
- the “church” should do...
- the “church” should be...
Exactly what do we mean? The word “church” seems to have too many meanings and the meaning often depends on the person making the statement. Let’s take a quick - and not necessarily well thought out look - at what these statements might mean uttered by an insider and uttered by an outsider.
Let’s be clear here. We’re talking about Christian churches. There are, no doubt, other bodies that might identify themselves a “church” although with the bad rap that the Christian church has consistently gotten I’m not sure that’s such a wise move; and here I am saying that as a Christian church goer!
So, let’s start from the inside. Most Christians agree that the church should help the poor and needy. Most Christians believe the church should spread God’s word. But what does that mean? Sometimes this is used as a form of criticism, implying that the church doesn’t do enough of what it should be doing, if doing any of it at all. At other times it could be a call, almost a command to the church to actually do whatever it is that we’re supposing it should be doing.
Hence, the first form “should do” could be a gentle encouragement, a command, a criticism. It could even be an explanation and even an apologetic. This innocuous term “should do” turns up in so many forms but I feel its most insidious form is the form of negative criticism.
The issue here is that when you get a bunch of church goers, insiders as it were, all debating what the church should be doing, they paradoxically forget what the church should be doing: being a witness to the kingdom of God, inviting all to a change of heart that they might share in the life of the triune God.
Trust me, when you see church goers all in heated debate with each other they’re not always particularly nice about it. If you sense one person or faction is really throwing metaphorical “brick bats” at the other side you’re probably not seeing things. They very well might be.
Outsiders, I sense, use the two words in the same sense and more for constructive or negative criticism. The problem is that they often fail to identify that although there is “one holy, catholic and apostolic” church they’re not all one denomination. The biggest confusion that I find outsiders committing using these two forms is that they honestly don’t quite know to what they are referring.
Not all churches are mega-churches. Not all church goers like the types of services typified by the Hill Song church. Not all churches enjoy liturgical garb. Some churches seem not to exist for a reason that Jesus might recognise at all. This doesn’t mean one can suddenly turn around and say “The church should do/be...” simply on the basis of that one church or part of a church.
Is this a problem of English usage? Yes and no. Today the word “church” often holds negative connotations for outsiders and even some insiders and the word “should” upsets our individualistic, “I did it my way” enlightened attitude. Given these, it might be somewhat useful to unravel the words and find something less likely to cause an unproductive squabble, rant or rave and something that actually discusses what the church should be or should do in a calm, civilised manner.