Reshaping the Church

Retired Stonegate Fellowship pastor examines ‘What is church?’

Posted August 20, 2021

by Savannah Howe

What is church? Is it tidy pews and shared identical Bibles stacked in neat rows? Is it sunlight falling through stained-glass windows to illuminate dust stirred as congregation-goers file in? Is it a steeple piercing the sky and double doors swung wide to allow in the masses?

Or is church something much more intangible, something that extends from the heart of one churchgoer to meet the heart of the other?

Is it the smell of coffee brewing in the lobby as warm hands and familiar smiles extend in each others' direction to bid one another good morning? Is it Bibles that are worn, traveled, highlighted and marked as the importance of different scriptures have ebbed and flowed, the past of each Bible as different as the pasts of the people clutching them?

Pastor Patrick Peyton joined Koinesune for an interview to discuss the answers to these questions.

"Church is, to me, defined as the gathered body of Christ, whether that's three people, four people or 4,000 people," Peyton said. "It's a place for encouragement, accountability and spiritual nourishment. It's a family."

When most people hear the word church they think of a building, but biblically speaking it's actually a community of believers that have a specific nature and purpose, according to Focus on the Family. The Christian role is to worship God, nurture and enhance and reach out to a "suffering" world with the "saving message" of the gospel.

Edification is also a role of the church, which includes "edifying" believers as well as nurturing, building up or helping believers to "mature in Christ."

Church, Peyton said, can be a place where people go, or it could be a habit, a duty or a necessity. But at the root of all the branches that have grown from the different interpretations of church there has always been family.

As a whole, is the Christian community starting to interpret the meaning of church differently than it has in the last 10 to 20 years?

"It's accountability, safety and gathering," Peyton said. "There's a lot of discussions taking place about what that looks like and what forms that takes, that are much different than they perhaps have been understood."

How can different individuals explore the meaning of church to discover how they uniquely define it? That, Peyton said, is "a very good question," one that people are starting to ask in increasing frequency.

"That is then causing them to say, 'OK what do I need to go serve? What do I need to go see? What is this thing that's called the church offering me?''' Peyton said. "Maybe it's this idea that we're more as a country and as a people calling almost every institution into question, the way that we thought institutions were supposed to operate."

After two decades as a pastor at the Stonegate Fellowship, Peyton says his personal relationship with the word "church" has evolved. He used to view it as institution, but has seen that belief change, especially in the shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic. Coming from a position at a church that he described as very institutional, Peyton was encouraged to look at the word from a different lens.

"We've become so institutionalized in it and now, reflecting a bit and looking around the world at how COVID has changed some things," he said. "People have said, 'wait a minute, there are different ways to meet. There are different ways to be accountable; there are different ways to encourage each other.'"

An important takeaway has been that the elements of church do not have to be big, commercial, grand or expensive for it to have an impact on people.

After 16 months of isolation and lockdowns, people have realized their faith need not be contained within the four walls of a building to reach the ears of God.

Especially with the modern ability to hold sermons, Bible study groups and prayer circles via smartphones, computers and the internet, Peyton said that the sense of togetherness behind the word "church" has become more prominent than ever before.

Out of the pandemic, a new type of church has emerged, he said, with house churches, which are thriving in different parts of Asia, Africa and India, bringing the fellowship and accountability of a church to its congregation right in their homes.

When he retired from pastoring at a church for 20 years and began to explore the new world of home churches, Peyton began to wonder where his "spiritual life" came from and, like a sunflower hungry for growth, can it reach the light best from where it was planted?

"It's a very personal thing," he said. "You realize that you really only share it with a very small handful of people, even though you can think that, when you're in a big crowd, that's where you're getting nourishment. You find out it's much more beneficial to your soul, or at least it has been to mine, to have that more intentional, intimate environment with a few friends."