Commentary: Let's explore what it means to 'be church'

As a pastor, I think a lot about what it means to be church. I worry about the numbers of bodies in the pews. I concentrate on pledges and how much we'll need to stay afloat.

I stretch myself wide, trying to "be all things to all people" in the hope of making up for being a small church with only one full-time staff person: me. And I wonder, how do we be church in an era when mainline Protestantism is on the decline, mega-churches seem so desirable but even they report dropping numbers, and the progressive church is almost invisible?

In the heyday of American Protestantism, everyone went to church. You went to your local church on the corner. Whether it was a Baptist, Congregationalist, Methodist or Lutheran church, every neighbor found his and her way to one of them.

However, it's not the 1950s anymore. Most Americans don't go to church. We've pretty much gotten over the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide (we know we're of one faith), and we've moved beyond ecumenism and into the realm of interfaith.

But even as our nation is much more diverse in its religious affiliation, it seems we're not going to the local mosque or the Presbyterian church. We're just less religious than we ever were.

But just because Americans aren't as engaged in religious institutions like they were in the past doesn't mean we have to dump faith.

We Christians don't have to throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater. After all, we are called to be countercultural. However, we need to be as evolving as our culture even when we are countercultural. That means we redefine church.

Church cannot be, and truthfully never has been, confined to one hour a week. Something special happens when we gather together, but the truth is church (or synagogue or mosque) is not only what happens during that hour. We're called to be something more. We're called to relevancy.

It's not really about numbers: filled pews or spreadsheets. It's about ministry. It seems to me that ministry in a 21st-century world would be pluralistic, relevant and active.

At Fairview, we understand ourselves to be Christians, but we recognize that being an inclusive church means that we can learn from our sisters and brothers of other faith traditions. Our Interfaith Dialogues have taught us that we can have meaningful and transformative worship together.

As we live on into the future, we will need to leave behind our 1950s mentality and embrace a 21st-century, wall-less, open, diverse, pluralistic church.

So in that vein, we're calling out to any and all who might be interested in such a community. I know that the religious institution can be confining, but I also know that we have the power to be redefining. I challenge you, no matter what faith journey you're on, to examine what it means to be a person of faith and what it means to actually practice that faith within or without the construction of an institution.

On Saturday, Sept. 21, Fairview Community Church is seeking to live out our middle name and celebrate our community. At our Beacon of Light Celebration, we're uplifting community leaders who live into what it means to be church — even if they never would use those words to describe themselves and even if they're not Christian.

After all, we're interested in ministry, not conversion. So we'll be honoring Ameena Qazi from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Norberto Santana, editor of the Voice of OC, and our very own Costa Mesa employees. Our awardees shine the light of justice in their respective ways and, ultimately, live out their own ministries. I think that's worth celebrating.

Fairview Community Church's Beacon of Light Celebration will held at the church, 2525 Fairview Road, at 5:30 p.m. It is a fundraising event with food, wine and other beverages. Cost is $40 presale, or $45 at the door, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

THE REV. SARAH HALVERSON is the pastor of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa.

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