Every day I drive past a tiny gazebo in a huge side-yard. It’s not a place you’d gather for lunch. It’s ornamental to dress-up an empty space. A little cheesy.
I once viewed the church like that gazebo. A gingerbread feature on the corner of Elm and Main Streets, occasionally in need of paint. You mow around it. I didn’t take these places too seriously with their finger sandwiches and popcorn ceilings. Some people who led them had my respect, but I didn’t see the connection of church to the rest of life. Until I did.
Imagine stepping up into that gazebo to discover it’s built around an old well. Not just any well. A source tapped into the water table supplying the whole community. Quite literally, that image describes the local church. One church I know of is responsible for hundreds of wells across Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. They don’t toot their own horn about it. No banner on the gazebo’s railing. Just another season during which villages without any other water supply nearby suddenly have one.
And, their approach includes in-country leaders and businesses, plus the sweat of the villagers themselves. They don’t show up as American heroes or run over anyone’s dignity with charitable condescension. Words to describe this effort are, inspired, strategic, generous, visionary.
French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville studied American culture during the 19th century. He recognized the local church as the secret sauce that made democracy hum. Unsponsored by the state. Voluntary. How many trusted friendships grew from these places over generations? What organizations were launched, marriages started, mouths fed and leaders inspired? How much common cause has grown from their common commitment?
What is a church really?
A church is a relational wellspring. It’s an unofficial network with vast social capital. Passersby may never know how much they owe to the place. I understand an old structure can give an impression of austerity. But a building isn’t the church.
Andrew Carnigie said something about his business I’ve often applied to the church. He said, “Take away my people, but leave my factories, and soon grass will grow on the factory floors. Take away my factories, but leave my people, and soon we will have a new and better factory.”
That old rhyme about “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple,” has it wrong. The people make up the church.
There’s plenty broken about them. Sometimes they use their social capital to reinforce cultural hegemony—projecting whose town it is. Sometimes they are behind the curve and slow to set things right. But even then, by virtue of giving of time and treasure, these places cannot help but leak generosity.
I never imagined leading one of these establishments when I was a young rascal. And even as I grew older I had arrogant thoughts about lending my services to fix everything they had wrong. But after pouring out what little I have to offer, I’ve found my cup filled again and again.
How little most of us will ever know what we owe today to the voluntary, often private investment of so many people. The U.S. system of government itself is modeled after the Presbyterian church. People who show up each week allow a seasoned, inherited wisdom a voice in their lives. And as a result, they pass a lot of it on.
This quotation at the end of George Elliot’s book Middlemarch summarizes well, in honor of the story’s heroine. It’s a fitting description for the local church.
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
“The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).