Doing Church Without a Church

By Graham Glover

I live in a strange world. It’s a world that on the surface makes little sense. A world that without context seems theologically problematic.

In my world, I do the things of the church without a church.


Come again?

In my world, I do church without a church.

How is this possible you ask? I’m not altogether sure, as I’m still trying to figure it out.

For the record, I am an ordained clergyman in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). For the past 13 years, I have served my church in this capacity. For the past 9 ½ years, I have been an Active Duty U.S. Army Chaplain. This means for the past 9 ½ years, I have fulfilled my vocation outside of the typical churchly realm. That is, I have been a pastor without a parish. And in so doing, I have done churchly things without a church.

Confused? Don’t worry, I am too.

In some respects, I’m like those ordained clergymen that serve the church in the classroom or in some administrative role. These men don’t have parishes either and yet faithfully fulfill their vocation as pastor. I’m also somewhat like a missionary that has been sent to a foreign land, who oftentimes do not have a congregation from which their ministry is based. What makes things especially interesting is that as a Lutheran chaplain, I am called to do word and sacrament ministry (the very things that make up what the church is supposed to “do”) to men and women that are, for the most part, not Lutheran and at times, not part of any church.

So how is it that I can do these churchly things without a church?

The easy answer is that the LCMS has called me to serve as an Army Chaplain and that my ministry is an extension of its mission. I remain a rostered church worker that is under the supervision of the Director of the Ministry to the Armed Forces of the LCMS. This supervision also extends to my geographical Bishop (District President), whom I submit regular reports of my ministry and who maintains an administrative/personnel file on me.

But it still seems theologically odd that a Lutheran pastor (chaplain) can do so many churchly things without a church. I don’t have a Board of Elders, a parish counsel, or a voters’ assembly. Sometimes I don’t even have a regular pulpit from which I preach or an altar from which I preside. This isn’t to say I don’t do these things. I most assuredly do. I preach. I preside. I baptize. I absolve. I catechize. I just don’t do them in a way or a place that we typically expect. In short, I do them without a church.

And that’s ok. For while the church is, properly speaking, “the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered”, the church is never confined to a specific locale. The church may be best realized in the local congregation, but her mission and her gifts are much more complex. For the church is universal – in both time and place – encompassing something far greater than a particular congregation.

Which is precisely how and why I have done and will continue to do churchly things without a church.