It’s not about meaning

In an exchange elsewhere on the Internet recently, someone told me that the purpose of church was to help us find meaning.

As someone who lived well into his adult years without being a part of church, I can tell you, you don’t need church for that. Saving baby seals and planting community gardens can do that quite well. Having children or writing poetry will give you lots of meaning.

Church is not about helping more-or-less comfortable middle-to-upper class Americans find meaning. I’m not even sure anyone can say what “finding meaning” means. It is one of those empty phrases that you can fill up with any content you like. It is a verbal empty bag.

John Wesley defined the purpose of church this way:

This is the original design of the Church of Christ. It is a body of men compacted together, in order, first, to save each his own soul; then to assist each other in working out their salvation; and, afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all men from present and future misery, to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and set up the kingdom of Christ. And this ought to be the continued care and endeavour of every member of his Church; otherwise he is not worthy to be called a member thereof, as he is not a living member of Christ.

There are various ways people object to this definition, but it is helpful to my point here. Whatever else this definition has wrong, it has this going for it. Its purpose is recognizable as something that God wants.

I’m not familiar with the Bible anywhere expressing God’s desire that we have “meaning” in our lives. Holiness? Yes. Mercy? Yes. Love? Yes. Justice? Yes. Compassion? Yes.

So I understand if someone says the purpose of the church is to make us more loving or more holy or more merciful. But I don’t understand what people mean when they say the church is supposed to help us find meaning.

Am I wrong here? Aren’t we seriously off base if we say the purpose of church is to help us find meaning?


9 thoughts on “It’s not about meaning

  1. I think you are right on target. I wonder at times if even our mission statement- to make disciples – isn’t really about finding meaning. When some bishops say we need to return to making disciples I’m often asking, what does that mean? Are we just another United Way?

  2. It’s not seriously off base. It’s probably mostly semantics.

    Salvation is meaningful. Justice is meaningful. Loving your neighbor is meaningful. I think of the abundant life as inherently meaningful… And Jesus was specifically interested in that.

    1. Jesus is interested in salvation. I sincerely have no idea what it means to say Jesus is interested in the meaningfulness of salvation. It may be clear to you. It is fog to me.

      1. I think if you’re going to insist that Methodists use Wesley’s terminology, you’re going to be disappointed. Isn’t translation and interpretation a large part of evangelism?

        1. I don’t think we have to use Wesley’s terms, but I find his definition to have actual positive content. I happy to dispense with Wesley terms in favor of better ones.

          If when people say the church should provide meaning, they mean it should provide purpose to our lives, I can understand that, but the purpose the church gives us is not just any purpose. Saying the church exists to give us meaning does not strike me as translation but rather as substituting vague terms for terms with actual, specific references.

          You may not find it that way.

  3. Another way Wesley talks about the church is that it’s a hospital for sinners. I think this is correct. I don’t go to a hospital to find meaning in my life, I go to be cured. Granted, not everyone who enters church thinks they have a disease. But they will never believe they do, and this receive the cure, if we are merely dispensing “meaning” like a YMCA.

  4. I find meaning in the church. The key is what type of meaning I am looking for and how I define meaning.

    First, I define meaning as “my purpose for existence” and the purpose I’ve found is a Wesleyanized version of the answer to the Westminster Catechism’s Question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” The answer? “To love God and enjoy God forever.”

    I have found this is the type of “meaning in life” one is to find in the church and the church also nourishes us and teaches us how to share this meaning with the world.


  5. I came across this article a couple of weeks ago, didn’t assess its worth, and then went on about my life. Since then, I have returned to the question several times. Probably daily. Because I’m one of these guys who, even though I try to keep my language in keeping with the scriptures and my Wesleyan heritage, I still find myself imposing words and terms onto faith that the primary sources don’t always suggest. ‘Meaning’ is one of those words. And I have used it a lot because the notion of meaning has a lot to do with why I turned to Christ. For many years I believed that I could create my own meaning in life: that I could simply assign meaning to my life and it would therefore gain meaning. But I found emptiness. Subjective meaning is nothing. Objective, ontological meaning is what I needed. And I think that is why Christ, as the Truth, affords us when we root ourselves in him.

    This is why I have a hard time with the ‘every individual is of sacred worth’ language in our Discipline. I don’t read that in the NT. Rather, I read of our absolute depravity and meaninglessness until the moment we are born anew in Christ. At that moment we gain worth; at that moment our lives have meaning and purpose. And those things are derived from the holiness intrinsic in Christian life. I think we have to be clear that holiness is the end of Christian life, but I think we also have to give that connecting tissue for folks who aren’t necessarily interested in what they see holiness to be. If holiness is just self-righteous jerks sitting around and patting themselves on the back (which it the primary image many people have in their heads when they think of the holy), then they aren’t getting it. If holiness is the ontological reality of a life dedicated to God as known through Jesus the Christ, then I think we have a foundation to stand upon. I think ‘meaning’ is a helpful connector between the world and Christ. But please add wisdom to this offering of mine, even if it means you need to rebuke me.

    1. No rebuke from me. It sounds like the word “meaning” is filled with specific connotations for you and ones centered on Christ. My problem is that the word is prone to being filled up with all kinds of different connotations. When someone says the church exists to help us find meaning, some hear that as a bland and generic thing, not a specific reference to being rooted in Christ.

      Or so that is my concern.

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