Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple…

By Jen Gillan

Here is the church, here is the steeple…

…open the doors and see all the people!

This is a rhyme, accompanied by hand motions, that I used to recite when I was a little girl. The hand gestures really bring this idea to life, as you learn to make a church with your fingers and then open them up in such a way, that your wiggling fingers are the people of the church.

Growing up in a Christian home, I remember being taught that the church was really the people that met in the church’s building, but often the way I would hear the adults talk about “church” was in reference to the actual building. And so an innocent children’s rhyme about the church, a steeple, and the people inside of the church made perfect sense to me.

Sometimes I wonder about that idea and how that is affecting us today. I still hear people, including myself, say that “we’re going to church.” “I’ll see you at church.” “Let’s meet at the church.” Or even, something to the effect of, “Now we don’t do that at church.” And so on…

On one hand, we know and teach children and new believers that the church is the people, and on the other hand, we continue to talk – and sometimes believe and act – as though the church is the building.

Perhaps, it’s just as simple as changing our language. Or perhaps a deeper work is needed. A work that convicts us and instills in us that the church not only just a group of people who call themselves Christian, but rather the church is the united community of disciples of Jesus called bear witness to the Kingdom of God. The church is called to be a force of power that pushes up against the powers and principalities of our day and that is so strong, that not even death can stop the church (Matthew 16:18).

Is there a nursery rhyme that helps form this idea in our children’s minds?

Is there a nursery rhyme that shapes our thinking and our actions to actually be the church?

To be the church that lives into the story of Jesus, by sharing meals with the poor and marginalized, healing the sick, and proclaiming good news to the poor. To be the church that lives into its identity of being a reconciling community, learning to listen, repent, confess, forgive, be forgiven, and that is learning to embrace and be embraced by those deemed different from us or considered “other.”

Is there a nursery rhyme that helps all of this to sink in and that sends us out to be little witnesses that become part of a much larger, much more powerful witness to the breaking in and coming reign of God in the world?

I believe there is such a nursery rhyme, if you will, and it is called our corporate worship, “the liturgy after the liturgy,” as our Orthodox family describes it.

What are our modern day nursery rhymes, both for children and adults that send us out to be the church, the church that has left the building?


13 thoughts on “Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple…

Add yours

  1. Jen – thanks for your creativity! I’m with you 100%, and still I’m left wondering what is this building we are talking about? I’m conservative – actually historical, or both – on the liturgical front, and so I want a building to gather. If I were to be more Wendall Berry-ish – I’d say, I want place, deep rootedness, etc. I want the building, the steeple, etc. So, my question for you is very basic. Can the church be a witness without a building, place, steeple? I don’t have an answer – just the question…

  2. While it’s not a nursery rhyme, your post made me think of the last stanza of Bryan Jeffrey Leech’s (a Covenant hymn text writer) “We Are God’s People,” (I know, a hymn text, surprise, surprise):

    “We are a temple, the Spirit’s dwelling place,
    formed in great weakness, a cup to hold God’s grace.
    We die alone, for on its own each ember loses fire;
    yet joined in one the flame burns on to give warmth and light, and to inspire.”

    It reminds me not only of the necessity of the corporate nature of the body of Christ, but also how that community is formed in order to bless others (like the blessing of Abram in Gen. 12).

    I guess my question would be similar to Michelle: so, what is the importance of the actual building in the church? I know this isn’t your position, but I’ve heard people use similar strains to argue for the warehouse church building devoid of beauty and stripped of the rich Christian symbols. Again, I know that isn’t what you’re saying, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on the connection between the church as the body of Christ and building in which they meet. Thanks for a a great and thought-provoking post!

    1. Dave and Michelle – thanks for tracking with me on this and raising the important point on the purpose of the actual building. It’s interesting that you raise this issue. I’m in the middle of watching the Ken Burns documentary series on the National Parks, and after having had a short, but impactful camping/hiking experience recently, I’m feeling sympathetic toward a Wendell Berry type of response – that perhaps the greatest temples of worship are these majestic and awe-inspiring places in creation, such as the National Parks and wilderness areas – places that lend themselves toward awakening the senses toward the Divine by virtue of their inherent beauty, their wild nature, vastness, power and so forth. On one hand, I agree that those are the most immaculate temples that evoke praise and thanks to their Maker. But I also think our buildings/sanctuaries/places of worship should move us in some way toward God. Perhaps in the aesthetic nature of the design, the art that is used, the rootedness in the history of the church, and in the symbols that are used – all of those (and other elements that I’m sure I’ve missed!) should draw us toward paying attention to God and to the worship and praise of God. Those are just some ramblings… what do you all think?

      1. Thanks! My point was more that we preserve the regular communal gathering with the purpose of praising/glorifying God, so yes wilderness works. I taught on the trinity today, and one of the points was that if we focus only on saving history, mission, revelation and forget God’s power, glory, mystery (or the economic without the immanent), our mission becomes precisely that – ours. So people need the steeple :). Thanks Jen for your thoughtful response.

  3. Jen, I like your challenge to the distinction between “church” and “its people” in the kids’ rhyme. (Did you also say the 2nd stanza–“Close the church, let ’em pray. Open the church, they all run away!”? Awful theology!) And I agree that it’s important to challenge one aspect of that somewhat antiquated view that churchly-ness only occurs inside a specific structure, i.e., as kids we had to behave better at church, because it was, well, church! That felt forced and false and hardly church in the sense that Jesus talks about it.

    Yet it concerns me, as Michelle and Dave might be hinting, that we seem to be swinging to another extreme…i.e., a perspective that says, “Who needs to be in church? Real church only happens out in the community, or serving people in need.” That attitude implies–or says outright–that gathering together as the people of God to worship God is somehow insular and self-serving, and that such gathering to worship is somehow less good than going out into the world to serve the Lord. It’s a perspective that seems to be permeating many corners of the church without much pushback…yikes.

    1. Agreed, Cathy! So glad that you all are bringing this up. I think robust service/community outreach/shalom seeking efforts (or however you want to describe this) go hand in hand with a robust worship life in the faith community. But we humans have this propensity to go to extremes or to react by throwing the baby out with the bath water. In addition, this also brings up another important characteristic of the church – that we have a priestly duty to bear witness in our corporate worship to the Triune God. That is a good in itself, but it partners with this idea of being sent out. I like how you put it, about “real church.” Real Chruch is both/and – regularly worshipping corporately in a particular place and way and going out and practicing being a reconciled people. Just doing one isn’t the full expression of the church.

      1. Jen, this is a lovely and powerful summary of the tensions within which we hold our understanding of church–thank you!

  4. I love high church. I love pomp and circumstance. I love tradition. I also love the red letter christians, the dream centers and the push for the church to out in the streets “being” love. What confuses me is that the Jesuit University that I did my master’s at is where I saw that in action at its best! Experiential faith, social activism, High church, love of Father God and Mother earth, respect etc. And yet, it was non-salvific! Where is that beautiful blend in the Evangelical church?

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