Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. --Excerpt from the reading for a sermon for 1/27/13, from 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31.
What is the Church? This is a surprisingly complicated question, and has been since the early days of the Church. At first, it seems from what it says in the Bible, there was basically one group of adherents to the faith that came from the ministry of Jesus. Then the message of the church started to spread and at the same time the practices of Christianity began to cohere. From early times the church practiced Baptism and Communion, two sacraments still considered essential to members of Christian churches today. Even so, different groups of Christians disagree about how these sacraments should be observed. For example, must Baptism include total immersion of the one being Baptized, or will just a drop of water do? And must the sacrament of communion include wheat bread and the fruit of the vine? I had a professor of worship that insisted that at least the grape juice was necessary, but I doubt he anticipated that scientists are now saying that sometime within the next hundred years, climate change will make it impossible to produce wine.
Paul's letters to the church at Corinth (known to us now as the books of the Bible First and Second Corinthians) represent some of the earliest attempts to put a framework around what it means to be a Church. Paul speaks with authority, and his words about aspects of church life and conflict resonate with us today, but individual congregations and Christians as well as larger Christian affiliations such as denominations still struggle to define what it means to be the church.
The important thing to bear in mind, I feel, as that most of these struggles, most of the time, involve well-meaning, sincere people. There are occasions when wolves in sheep's clothing seek to take unfair advantage of people, but in general, disagreements within churches and between churches cut deeply because people put their heart and soul into the church and feel that changes in the church are tantamount to attacks on the faith that they rely on to keep them going in life.
Some of my best experiences in life come out of connecting with people on the basis of what we have in common rather than our differences. In a church some standards of practice need to be maintained, but too often church people tend to major in minors. This tendency, I believe, is a tremendous factor in church decline. So-called mega churches, though not perfect, are less prone to the sort of pettiness that creeps into congregational life too often.
While church life can be challenging, I believe the challenge can be worth it. I also think that most church people tend to cling too tightly to the comfortable and familiar, and to stake out turf and defend it as if in an actual war. I believe that any congregation of people that learn to laugh at their own foibles is likely to be a growing congregation, but that is harder to get to than it should be.