These familiar lines are part of “We are the Church,” No. 558 in the United Methodist Hymnal. The hymn by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh almost didn’t make it into the hymnal when the book was last updated in 1989.
As a member of the Hymnal Revision Committee, I advocated for the inclusion of children’s hymns. Having brought this one for consideration to the Hymns Committee, I listened to the arguments: “It’s not much musically.” “More appropriate in a songbook, not a hymnal.”
I countered, “But the children love to sing it.”
Nevertheless, when the vote was taken, it was rejected.
Seeing the disappointment on my face, Charles Webb, at that time dean of the School of Music at Indiana University, appeared by my side as our meeting adjourned.
“If it’s really important to you, I’ll bring this song up for reconsideration,” he said.
He did, and it was accepted into the hymnal, with the provision that the sixth stanza be eliminated. (“I count if I am ninety, or nine, or just a baby. There’s one thing I am sure about, and I don’t mean maybe!”)
Since the hymnal’s publication in 1989, I’ve been in countless worship services where children of all ages have joyously sung this hymn, proclaiming: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” This song is particularly appropriate for the season of Pentecost.
There’s no question that the gathered Body of Christ worshipping together, as the church has done faithfully for centuries, is an experience like none other. But I can’t help but be grateful for all the ways I see the church, the people, living out the words of this hymn, even as our hymnals gather dust in our darkened sanctuaries.
“We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colors and all ages, too, from all times and places.” The church (the people!) is finding ways to serve, connect and be in ministry with others in seeking to address the suffering and injustices exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sometimes the church is marching, sometimes it’s bravely burning, sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding, always it’s learning.” The church (the people!) is indeed learning new ways of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed, ways of doing and being church, ways that promote health and wholeness, as the Great Physician would have us do.
“And when the people gather, there’s singing and there’s praying, there’s laughing and there’s crying sometimes, all of it saying.” The church (the people!) has found ways that are respectful of human life, through online worship, Bible studies and meetings; through electronic communications, phone calls, and appropriate social distance gatherings; to join as one through the Holy Spirit, reminding all that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)
“At Pentecost some people received the Holy Spirit and told the Good News through the world to all who would hear it.” The church (the people!) is being used by God to proclaim a message of hope in a time of despair. Would that this Pentecost Sunday our churches could focus on the proclamation of the Good News, and what that might look and sound like for these challenging times!
While our in-person worship and singing may be silenced for a while, the words of this hymn and so many others are engraved on our hearts and proclaimed through our lives. It’s a reminder that it was never about GOING to a building; it was always about BEING the Body of Christ in the world! (“That’s one thing I am sure about, and I don’t mean maybe!”)
Mary Brooke Casad is a United Methodist layperson and author residing in Sulphur Springs, Texas. She is the former executive secretary of The United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table.
News contact: Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.