The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


The fourth expression

Editor's note: A version of this reflection originally appeared on Matthew E. Bolz-Weber's blog.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we like to say there are three expressions of the church: the congregation, the synod and churchwide.

Despite the natural inclination by many people to think that churchwide is more important than the synod, and that the synod is more important than the congregation — or even, perhaps, the inclination to think exactly the reverse —  the ELCA goes to a lot of effort to emphasize the equal importance of each expression of this church and to communicate that different types of ministry happen by way of each of these expressions.

And while I don't disagree with what the church says about these three expressions, I believe we're painting an incomplete picture. It seems we've left out a fourth, arguably more important, expression of the church. Maybe we've left it out because it's not part of the institutional structure, but that doesn't make it any less significant or important. 

The expression I'm thinking of is the household. As much as church leaders seem to try to elevate our impact or importance for faith formation, ultimately people spend exponentially more time in the household (family) than they do in the church (and especially the church building). I'd even argue that pastors' kids (who sometimes have to spend evenings at the church building while pastor-mom or pastor-dad participates in meetings) spend more time in the household than in any other iteration of the church.

I'm at least as guilty as anyone else, but I wonder why we spend so much time and energy on congregational (or synodical or churchwide) infrastructure, or even on ministry, when we spend relatively so little time and energy on supporting faith formation in the home.

What would it be like if we modeled and practiced faith-filled conversations in the congregation, bringing generations together (instead of always separating by age groups) so we could learn to talk to each other and learn to listen to each other?

What if we created activities: movie nights, craft activities and church work days that were intentionally intergenerational, and that would get people talking with elders and youngers they wouldn't otherwise get to know?

What if we introduced long-distance grandparents (those whose grandkids are far away) and long-distance grandkids to relationships that have the potential to surprise everyone?

What if we did all of these things with the goal of intentionally encouraging those same kind of activities and conversations in the household? And what if we sent every household home with a copy of the Small Catechism (you know, that pamphlet Martin Luther wrote so parents could teach their children the faith in the home) and instructions on how to use it?

What would it be like to talk about four expressions of the church? It might not change anything —  but it might start to change the faith of the households in our congregations.


Robert M. Glover

Robert M. Glover

Posted at 4:49 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/1/2010

As I see it, any "expressions of the church" can only "start to change the faith of the households in our congregations" when those "expressions of the church" are on the same theological page with the Scriptures - until this happens, it will "not change anything"!  As long as the church leadership insists on "barging" ahead with its "winds of doctrine", seemingly oblivious to the Pure, "unwrested" Word of God, the church will continue to "drift" as long as we are not "of the same mind". How can it be otherwise? Putting our trust in the Truth of the Scriptures (Scriptura Scripturam Interpretatur) should be "the first order of the day".

Chris Duckworth

Chris Duckworth

Posted at 1:25 pm (U.S. Eastern) 6/2/2010

While I love the intent to elevate the role of the family in the ways we speak about and nurture faith in the church, I think it is a mistake to speak of family or household as a "church." Church is a gathering in faith at the foot of the cross and around the Word and sacrament where sins are forgiven.  Church is the experience of hearing the Good News, sharing peace, receiving Christ's unique presence through community and meal.

Family, while blessed and holy in its own right, is not church.  It is not a gathering around Word and sacrament.  Family is limited to blood and kinship ties; church is not.  The household's primary calling involves all kinds of duties that the church doesn't generally do - provide shelter, meals, clothing, and so forth.  Families (generally) do not baptize or share holy communion at home.  Family/household life is just different than what the church does.  Not less or more important ... just very different.

Instead of stretching thin the word "church" so as to also include family, I think we would be better off to strengthen our understanding of family/household as a distinct, blessed and holy setting of faith nurture and activity ... Congregations can support the household and uplift the family without needing to call that place of love, nurture and faith "church."  Family movie nights, parenting classes, home blessings, fellowship meals in homes ... all of these can and should happen as part of the church's ministry of strengthening the household as an arena of God's activity.  For God (and our fatih in God) is at work not only in church, but in our places of work, play, community, rest, etc..  Yet these things are not all church ... blessed places of holy encounter that they may be.

So instead, let us call a thing what it is. "Church" is that place/activity/event/gathering that happens when God's people are called to hear the Word and share the sacraments, and those ministries that directly support or flow from that central act.

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February issue


Embracing diversity