I’ve been surprised by people who, in conversation with me, refer to the church I pastor as “your church.” I’m surprised because they’ve been attending for years. Why are they still saying “you” instead of “we” and “your church” instead of “our church?” It’s not as if they are upset about something. They usually say it favorably and in the context of a complement: “Your church does such a great job with funerals!”

“Your church is so caring toward people in need.”

“Your church is really friendly and accepting.”

All the while, I’m thinking: “What do you mean — it’s your church too, isn’t it?”

That got me wondering: What components (attitudes, behaviors, relationships, etc.) characterize people who think of the church they attend as “our church” and differentiate them from people who attend the same church but think of it as “your church”?

This is a critical issue from a pastoral perspective, because a healthy spirituality will always include an “our church” mentality. More than that, from a theological perspective, the church does not simply belong to a person; the person belongs to the church. It is with this understanding that St. Paul writes, ”...so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (How contrary to the American individualist mindset.) So, what traits distinguish people who say, “our church,” from those who say, “your church?” A number of characteristics come to mind and, while these are based on soft data (conversations, observations, and pastoral experience) rather than hard data (surveys, giving receipts, and attendance figures), I strongly suspect the hard data would support these conclusions.

First, “our church” people have established meaningful relationships within the church. They have a circle. They see each other outside of church and talk on other days than Sundays. “your church” people, on the other hand, are often either alone or are part of a closed circuit — a family or an exclusive friendship.

“Our church” people consider the church to be very important. They don’t need to think about where they’ll be when the church gathers — they’ll be right there with them. For them, the Christian life is unthinkable without the church. They may or may not be able to articulate a biblical or theological understanding of the church, but they know it is not optional.

“Your church” people, on the other hand, believe that Christianity is a “God and me” thing. It’s good to “go to church,” if you have the time and if you like the people, but of course it is not necessary. “Your church” people tend to speak deprecatingly of “organized religion” and see life after death as the primary (and perhaps even the only) reason for faith.

This leads into the next characteristic that distinguishes “our church” people from “your church” people: “Our church” people think of their Christian faith as a way of life while “you church” people think of it as a religion. “Our church” people are serious about the implications their faith commitment has for their home life and work life, their relationships and their leisure. “Your church” people tend to think about church the way some people with coronary artery disease think about their cholesterol lowering medication: Take it and forget about it, and then you can do whatever you want.

I have also noticed that “our church” people tend to think differently than “your church” people about needs. The “our church” people feel a responsibility to meet the church’s needs. “Your church” people believe the church is responsible to meet their needs. This means that “our church” people are invested in the church, in time, thought, and money and, as Jesus taught us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” “Your church” people are much less likely to give time or money, or especially thought to the church. They don’t treasure it.

“Your church” folks never derive the kind of benefit their “our church” counterparts receive, and they don’t even know it. They may even think they need to go to another church when really, they only need to make the church they attend their own.

— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.