re-defining "church"

blog redefining churchit was nice to have a little blog break, and when i get a little space and time i always end up back at some of the same questions-about-life like  “why do i still care so much about ‘church’“?  “why do i pour my heart & soul out every week for anyone to see?” “what in the $$^!&!*! am i doing with my life?”  “God, are you sure?”

many of you know that i have a very different definition of “church” than many.  i do not consider church a worship service or a building or a structure.   to me, church is:  people gathered together in some way, shape or form to learn & practice the ways of Jesus & pass on love, hope, mercy, justice, and healing in a broken, weird world.

like so many other christian words, the word “church” has a lot of heavy baggage with it these days.  so much got added to it over the centuries, but the original word, ekklesia, was centered on assembling together, congregating in some way, shape or form, and focused on our called-out-ness.  it had nothing to do with a building or a service or a structure. it was about being the church, not going to church.  

it’s my experience that many of us think that church means going to something official once a week in a building called church or being attached to something official–and because of that definition many people i know these days no longer go to church.  in fact, it feels like things have radically tilted in the circles that i am in and far more people don’t “go to church” than do.  the saddest part to me isn’t that they don’t go anymore. i completely respect the reasons; there comes a time in many of our spiritual experiences where we outgrow so many of the systems that we’ve once been part of.

the part that makes me sad, though, is that as a culture how little we value alternative forms of church–and not just unique worship services.

there are an awful lot of ways to grow, be challenged, and practice loving God, others, ourselves.  in fact, God’s awfully creative like that–showing up in all kinds of unexpected, ordinary, wild, beautiful places that have nothing to do with organized religion.

yeah, small dinner parties are church.
time with dear friends laughing & eating & sharing life is church.
online connections where we gather hope & are challenged is church.
intense theology conversations at the pub is church.
sharing burdens with colleagues at work is church.
offering cups of cold water to thirsty friends on the street is church.
recovery meetings are church.
neighborhood potlucks are church.
regular worship services are church (as long as you talk to someone, ha ha).

a whole long list of ways that people gather & find hope & share love are church.

to me, the only for-sure ingredient of “church” is people–beautiful, weird, flawed human beings,  some how, some way, gathering with other people, in the midst of the reality of God, giving & receiving love and hope.

we can worship by ourselves, connect with God by ourselves, do all kinds of things by ourselves.

but i don’t think we can do church by ourselves.

it’s why i’m a nut-case for relationship.  there are so many things Jesus calls us to that we can’t learn alone.  and we can’t learn them only through studying more, hearing more, absorbing more.  the only way we can learn them is through practicing them more. 

practicing humility.
practicing presence.
practicing grace & mercy.
practicing listening.
practicing giving.
practicing receiving.
practicing friendship.
practicing love.

to me, that’s the litmus test for “church”–are they relationships, gatherings, groups, places, spaces that help us practice these things?

i love what my friend jim henderson says in his recent post church and me – “i think i graduated from church.”  i don’t think we ever graduate from being with people, or loving God, but we can outgrew the need to go to a church service every week.

for me, i am still dedicated to this little nutty pocket of love called the refuge and privileged to be part.  it’s where i can practice things that need practicing.  intention is really important to me, and i love to be challenged & engage with God-stuff & people on a regular basis.  it is good for my soul.  but it’s also far from much of what i’d experienced in structured churches. in so many ways, it’s my dream of what could be (even though dreams are much prettier when they are just dreams!).  it’s messy, challenging, weird, inspiring, hard, and beautiful.   i do sincerely wish there were more containers for folks on the fringes of life & faith.

but it is just one form.

there are so many others, and that’s the beautiful part about the kingdom of God.

i know so many people who are living out their faith in ways beyond the confines of all-they-used-to-know.   they haven’t “given up the habit of meeting together” (hebrews 10:25); their meeting together just looks different.

they are still finding ways to be with others.  they are still finding ways to grow.  they are still finding ways to seek God & hope & change despite the obstacles.   they care deeply about the poor & marginalized and act on their beliefs in all kinds of lovely, tangible waysthey are learning the ways of love. 

church just doesn’t look like what it used to look like.

yeah, i hope we can keep re-defining church. 

we might find that a lot less people have actually left it. 


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • From another nut-case for relationships:

    A friend of mine is a member of a mega-church because her kids friends all go there, not because it feeds her soul in any significant way. When the wife of the lead pastor of that church was going to be in the hospital for a week, my friend was the ONLY ONE who came forward to offer to bring meals, to transport the kids, to babysit. Really? Ya. Sad.

    My friend’s “church” is more like a weekly free rock concert than a gathering of ones called-out to love as we are loved.

    Oh, Lord! Forgive us! Guide us. Lead us. Help us redeem what You meant by ekklesia.

    • yeah, i have so many stories like that. oh, it makes me so sad! but it is real and i suppose that many are getting something out of it that they want. i do like the idea of just calling it something different – a weekly service (or rock concert, ha ha) instead of “church”. and “speakers or CEO’s” instead of pastors. then it would feel more honest.

  • And another nut-case for relationships:

    One thing that I have noticed since I stopped going to big rock concert/country club churches is that I have a deep sense of FREEDOM and PEACE. I am free from needing the approval of a church institution or church leaders to validate my “ministry” to other people. Now I simply love on people that God puts in my life. I can now see how in the past I felt like I needed validation from organized religion to feel like my love and friendship with other people was legitimate some how! It seems so silly now, especially considering that 95% of the work that I did on church staff was to promote that particular church, that denomination, and the salaries of the staff above any real ministry. Real outreach was something we would do if we had money and time left over. We spent soooooo much time and energy keeping the show going and entertaining people all the while taking every opportunity for “ministry” photo ops…makes me a little nauseous now…I am forever convicted that I can’t be a part of a church that does that. I experienced my church family being lied to by senior pastors regarding some really big issues at all three churches I worked at. Some of the people had good intentions, they really did mean well, but others were out and out immoral crooks in leadership and they would get rid of whomever exposed their scams. I think that the bigger the church gets, the more difficult it is for its motives to remain pure…that has been my experience on staff at three different churches. Things need to change! I CHERISH the little pockets of LOVE and MINISTRY that I find with other people now. My faith is stronger than ever, I sleep like a baby at night, my dreams are so sweet, I am no longer am a part of that twisted system.

    I wouldn’t wish my traumatic church experiences on my worst enemy, but even as painful and devastating as it has been, I think it was probably necessary to get me to the place I am now…and that is a very good thing.

    Thank you for your ministry to those of us that are on this challenging faith journey. I agree with Jim above, Oh, Lord forgive us, guide us, lead us, and show us how we can BE His true church! Show us a new way LORD! AMEN!

    • thanks, laurie. freedom and peace are beautiful things–and i think God’s big idea. i know what you are saying about not wishing some of these experiences on anyone else but grateful in some weird way for them because they are part of leading you to where you are at. my friend pam hogeweide ( talks a lot about owning our story, no matter what it is, and the power in that. each of these experiences are just part of our story and keep shaping us into who we are today.

  • Loved the article. It made me reminisce about our former church St. Micheal’s that the Diocese of West Texas decided to shut down. It was a wonderful blend of people from all levels and backgrounds, that when we came together it was a great place to want to be and share in the worship of our Lord. While we were only able to experience it for a short time, it was wonderful. We had supply priests that would come each Sunday and it was wonderful to get fresh perspectives on any given Sunday. One of the few places where my family truly experienced the presence of God in its midst.

    • thanks, tom. beautiful. what happened that it ended up shutting down all the way?

  • This is a beautiful, hope-filled post, Kathy. I love it! This is why you are so good at what you do – leading and inspiring others to practice church in a way that looks so much like Jesus.

    • thanks, jeremy, for reading & sharing, too. i am grateful for compatriots like you in this crazy journey

  • You know, Kathy? You talk about being the church. I have a question. How can one be the church when one has been burned so badly by the church that he would not want to even talk about it anymore? I was judged and felt betrayed by my own congregation. I believe Jesus. I don’t believe in worshipping in a holier than thou building full of hypocrites that want to take my rights away as a disabled American. Going to church dredges up past memories. Negative memories. I don’t even know if I want to be a Christian anymore. Convince me to stay a Christian! OK?

    • I don’t know you and I don’t know your story, but I just want to say please don’t give up on Chrisitanity. Your relationship with God is worth so much more than the hurts you have suffered by those Christians who treated you in a very un-Christ-like way. Please know that there still are people out there who desire to, as Kathy put it, “practice the ways of Jesus & pass on love, hope, mercy, justice, and healing in a broken, weird world.” I pray He brings these kinds of people into your life. And that in the process, those negative memories become overshadowed by new, life-giving, hope-building, healing memories.

      • i would so agree, knowing even just one person makes a big difference in holding on to hope!

    • thanks for your honesty, steven. yeah, for so many of us there’s a lot of baggage related to “church”, especially when we’ve been burned really badly. one of the trickiest parts for me has been separating God from the system. they feel all tied up together, especially when systems thrive that do so much damage. it’s like “come on, God, you’ve got to be kidding me!” i understand that reality of wanting to walk away completely, and sometimes we need to in order to find God. i definitely can’t do any convincing but i can say that it’s possible to live in the tension of still following Jesus and rejecting some of the earthly-systems-built-on-his-name. not sure where else you’re hanging out online but you might really dig some of david haywards stuff ( or the free believers network ( i don’t have the greatest category system here on my blog but i think some of the posts at the bottom of this post could maybe help you feel less alone, too (the actual series might be too soon). peace.

  • How could I pass up commenting on this post? We have come to think of this as “Where do we find church?” Contrary to our expectations and hopes, it has been a very, very long time since we have found church in a building or with a group that calls itself “church”. We found religion , thinly veiled political ideologies and lots more, but not church.

    Personally, I do not find church in “regular worship services”, but otherwise identify with your list, and would expand on that list. Some of the additions, however, might be a bit over the top even for your readers Kathy.

    In addition to considering “Where do we find church?”, we have discovered that sometimes we “take church with us”. We take church to the streets and other places, some of which n-e-v-e-r see church otherwise. Our friend (you’ve met him Kathy), and often another friend join us. The religious folks usually don’t think it looks like church. Curiously, however, we repeatedly hear the comment from the non-religious who would never darken the doors of “church” that “this is what church ought to look like”.

    • i’d love to see what was on your list. we can hack it 🙂 after i hit publish i thought of one line i wanted to add that said: “wherever we go, we bring the church with us…” thanks for modeling what is possible. you are Jesus-with-skin-on to many.

  • Kathy, thanks for the great article. How, in your definition of “church,” does commitment fit in, if at all. What I see today is a lot of “Christians” who like to gather when they want and how they want, but have no commitment to the others who gather. Is this really church?

    • oh i hear you! and don’t get me wrong. i highly value and am-crazy-passionate-about-“the church” and ways to help people gather. otherwise, i would have bagged on the refuge a long time ago. i am still one of those people who believe firmly that we need intentional places to learn & grow & live out what we are called to live out and that doesn’t happen sitting in our living rooms watching TV. one thing i keep learning, though, is that there are a lot, and i do mean a lot, of burned-out christians. i always say that we’re catching a lot of people at the end of their christian careers. they are tired of showing up every week, of volunteering, of being consumed by “church stuff”. for those friends, i have so much grace because they need rest. they need freedom. they need to know that they are loved and accepted and valued no matter what they do. but i also know there are a ton of christians who want to do what they want, how they want, and that isn’t what it’s all about, either. following Jesus is about sacrifice. and that’s why i struggle so much with consumer-christianity-and-mega-church-nuttiness where we can go, get a fix, and go home. i do also know a lot of people who are really committed to nonprofits & other causes & other ways-to-live-out-their-faith-outside-of-church and are deeply committed but not to a local “church”. it’s a tough one for sure and i wrestle with it all of the time. at the refuge, the thing we are most desperate for are other brothers & sisters to help carry this load with us. i’m guessing you guys might be in the same boat. thanks for sharing, sorry for the ramble…

      • Kathy,

        Thanks for the honest response. We struggle with this exact same thing. For over two years now, we have worked our ass off to create an environment where all are accepted and loved no matter what and where all can rest (accept for those few of us doing the work, of course). However, many of the people don’t seem to be moving from rest to anything else. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people to be busy all the time, but I sure would like to see more sacrifice for others. In all honesty, I do see some of the people giving of themselves in beautiful ways, but because it often isn’t a traditional way of giving and often it is concentrated outside of the “church,” it is very difficult to measure. Also, I wonder how long we can continue to provide such a community with so few workers contributing to the community itself. And now, Kathy, I am the one rambling. Thanks for opening up and being honest. It is refreshing.

  • There are so many paradoxes in life and “church” may be one of the biggest. It’s outward, but it’s also inward. We are one in Christ, yet we struggle with carnality. We are a people, yet we are a “building” of which Christ is the cornerstone. We are eternal, yet we change in many ways through the ages.

    I often struggle within Christianity, my particular congregation, my particular “denomination”. But I cannot let go of the belief that God is faithful wherever we find ourselves.

    We need more voices like yours, Kathy. Thank you for the mercy and grace you bring to us. I only pray that I can somehow pass it along. So many of us (paradoxically, those of us who are followers of Jesus) need to hear this message!

    • yeah, embracing paradox has been one of the best things that ever happened to my faith and one of the hardest, too! i am so glad i know you out here.

    • hey beth, somehow my comment to you didn’t make it over in the transition but thanks for sharing. and yes, five kids is a lot of kids. i am always happy to know other people who understand what this nutty, chaotic, beautiful life with-all-these-kids is like!

  • I did not realize that my daughter and I were “doing church.” I wonder how she would feel about since she is a pagan. Long ago she rejected God, the Bible and the church. I think it is really the church she has rejected. This is the first time since she was a teenager we have been able to sit down and discuss these things. I am just loving her and not saying much about her beliefs. The more accepting of her I am the more willing she is to talk.

    By the way, I no longer go to institutional church. Well, except to check out places in hope of finding what you describe above. I would love to find a community of loving, caring, non-condemning, Jesus loving people. Maybe I have been looking in all the wrong places. Thanks for this article.

    • thanks for taking time to share, linda. i think there are so many who never really wanted to leave “God” but unfortunately felt like they had no choice. God-church is so intertwined that it is confusing. i am glad you guys are talking, that alone is a beautiful thing!! it’s amazing what acceptance and openness can do to open lines of communication in a relationship and make it safer. peace to you from colorado.

  • Kathy thanks for an amazing blog. My question happens to be how do you do church when no one gets the relationship you have with Daddy nor is willing to meet or include you in their lives?
    I’ve been at 5 “church” groups in my 43 years in the family and never felt like I was wanted or included. We invite people in and never do they return the gesture. We try to establish friendships and they end in ruin, criticism
    And judgment. Pastors fear me because I fully embrace Christs finished work and his anointing on my life in all 5 fold ministries. I live in a mega city and can’t find a gathering in 4 million plus people that is where we’re at.

    Any suggestions, I’m drowning in the mire of solitude 🙁

  • Why try to re-define something that doesn’t need re-defining, why can’t we let church just be what it is….a building, why can’t we just leave the word church where it belong with religion.

    • hey stephen, thanks for sharing your thoughts. i definitely think it needs re-defining; t was never supposed to be a building or another set of religious rules. we’ve screwed it up royally over time and i think there are many people who are hoping to participate in some small way to redeem it.

  • Love this blog Kathy. I have only just been introduced to you via a Facebook friend. Fully agree with all the different scenarios of ‘what is church’ and I have been expressing similar thoughts for some time myself. We Be Church!!! I have now subscibed to your blogs and look forward to your future posts. Be blessed.

    • nice to meet you, mick, and thanks for taking time to say hi and share a little. the more perspectives, the better, so we can learn from each other.

  • Expressed well Kathy. I see church as us, we carry the presence of God in every situation, gathering, work place, close relationships where we face day to day decisions, choices, heart attitudes, in bringing heaven to earth. Set free from legistic religion , passioantely in love with Jesus, be part of church communities, share with eachother and not get entangeled by politics that some establisments can bring. I have seen been involved, experienced both postive and negative aspects of church as establisment, to me its all about Loving the unlovable whatever label one needs to see themselves as, seeing being with this beautiful inner transformation of healing, partnering with Christ in all expressions of Life. Bless you :>)

    • thanks for sharing, julie. “bringing heaven to earth…” i think that’s the idea! i appreciate your heart and taking time to share it.

  • allot of great comments and desire to truly serve God. I just have a question are all these thoughts, emotions, and actions following what the Bible says?

  • reason for saying this is we are living in the same state as when Jesus lived here on earth and the disciples of Jesus successfully lived out the christian life in the midst of hipocracy and where the leaders of the church were morally corupt, but this never stopped Jesus nor his followers to not stop ministering to the church, even on pain of death, where the pastors put them to death.

    • hi clint, thanks for sharing. i’m not sure exactly what you mean about “are all these thoughts, emotions, and actions following what the Bible says?” but what i do know is that there are a lot of very sincere and dedicated-to-God folks who are trying to live out the gospel in ways that look different from traditional church. i am so with you, no matter what, despite all the wackiness & weirdness & hypocrisy & human-flawed-ness, Jesus’ spirit at work has prevailed.


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