Lately I have noticed that a number of colleagues no longer use the definite article "the" when referring to the church. In fact, at last evening's meeting of our presbytery the majority of references to the church were to "church" rather than "the church". People spoke of "doing church" and "being church" as they sought after language to express the future of the church. I am wondering about the reasons for this shift in language. What does it seek to express? What gains or losses are there in dropping the specificity that is provided by the use of the definite article?
I am no expert in English grammar but I sense that the loss of "the" from church turns the noun into a verb. It is now not a place or an institution so much as it is an activity. "Doing church" reminds me of "doing lunch". There is something about this that feels right. The church is more a social movement - a Jesus movement - than it is a location. The church is a people whose life is marked by the ways of life that it is learning to practice. Since the name for God in Hebrew - YHWH - is a verb ("I am up to what I am up to") it seems fitting that God's people would also be know by what they are up to, what they are doing and being.
Yet if there is something to be gained by this seemingly minor shift in language there is also something to be lost. I notice that when we speak of "doing church" that the word church becomes synonymous with "faith community". It feels more generic, less specific. Harder to pin down, more nebulous. Now the focus is on a way of being together and not on which particular church we are speaking of. My friend Doug reminds me that the official name of The United Church of Canada includes the word "The" with a capital "T". When we speak of "The Church" we are talking about The Church of Jesus Christ. I hunch that it is becoming fashionable to drop the definite article when referring to the church because we are increasingly uncomfortable with being at home in the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ across the generations and across divergent theological and denominational locations. We notice all of the trouble that comes with the flawed witness of the church. We hope that we can somehow escape the trouble by freeing the idea of "church" from all the problematic specificity of being the church that has a history and a location and an identity. Well, maybe I am overstating the case but, after all, it's scribbling.