A Church by any other name? How words are co-opted and meaning corruptedAugust 28, 2019
What is Church, the Church, a church? Those are the questions.
Yonat Shimron, reporting for Religion New Service, recently wrote about a church in Durham, NC that provokes a conversation about who words are co-opted and the meaning of those words corrupted. As you read Shimron’s piece about North Star Church of the Arts ask yourself:
- what is a church?
- can a church be something other than an expression of the Church?
- who might be confused by the repurposing of a historic church building for this kind of use?
- how is the confusion further fostered by use of words like congregant and celebrant, the mingling of Bible verses into the artful presentation and the taking of an offering as part of the monthly Sunday morning service?
A few excerpts:
The Freelons’ services have kept some of the trappings of church. Guest artists are called “celebrants,” and straw baskets are passed around midservice for offerings.
Trappings of church? How does that characterization make you feel? Why?
But the focus is on the arts and the ways in which artistic expression can be a vehicle for transcendence.
Transcendence is a powerful word. If there is no God – or if there is a god it is not God as presented in the Bible – then to whom or what do people transcend? And if this is all there is, why would we have a sense of needing to transcend it?
In its first nine months, Sunday services have featured the state’s poet laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, as well as a dance performance called “The Gospel According to Baba Chuck Davis,” in which some of the late American dancer and choreographer’s partners explained and demonstrated his dedication to African dance traditions.
Sunday services? Why call them services and why hold them on Sunday?
The Freelons’ son, Pierce, a musician, social entrepreneur and candidate for the state Senate, is the church’s creative director and he has wanted to plan programs that allow people to experience spirituality through the arts.
He wants people to “experience spirituality,” what exactly does that mean and what spirits and spiritualities are to be accessed or experienced through the arts – and while we’re at it: who defines what is and isn’t art?
The article exposes the closure of churches, the need for people to gather in community, the disdain people have for institutional religion and yet their felt need for “church” – the ecclesia, a gathering, albeit in this case, devoid of God.
If you look up the word church you’ll find a distinctively Christian definition. In fact, you’ll find that the word church does not have meaning apart from the word Christian. And yet, in America today we have Northstar church of the arts which might be described as distinctively post-modern African-American. But Northstar isn’t the first to co-opt the word church and it won’t be last.
I grew up in Tampa so I have long been familiar with the so-called Church of Scientology which is, most certainly, not a church. Nor is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a church. I’m not casting stones, I’m making distinctions by definition. The Mormons, aka Latter Day Saints, are nontrinitarian. They do not uphold the Bible as the Word of God nor do they understand Jesus in the same way confessional Christians understand Jesus’ person and work. We could on with the list-making of those who have co-opted the word church but who do not adhere to confessional Christianity and our list would grow quite long quite fast. But that’s not the ultimate point of this exercise.
What I’m seeking to demonstrate here is that words, like church, have been co-opted and, therefore, corrupted. We can no longer assume the shared meaning of some very basic words in the culture today which means we have to define what we mean and others what they mean in order to communicate effectively. I want to be understood and I suspect you want others to understand what you’re saying too. Next time someone says something about church, ask them what they mean by the word and be prepared to do likewise when you talk about church on the street today.