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What is “Church”? (Hint: It’s not what you think it is)

What is “Church”? (Hint: It’s not what you think it is)

Several terms are found in Scripture to define “church”:

Nowhere in the Bible is “church” defined as a physical structure or the leadership/staff of an organization.  All of the terms above make clear that “church” is by definition either all Christ-followers or a subset of believers.  In fact, every instance of the word “church” in God’s Word is implicitly plural because it is understood that “church” always and only applies to people, not a place.  For example, the Book of Acts, where the Church was launched and proliferated, leaves no doubt as to the personal nature of the word “church”:

Physical structures don’t pray, gather or welcome.  And pastors and staff weren’t the only ones praying, gathering and welcoming.

Church Is Not…

Not every church in America is a biblical church.  The prevailing church growth model (Invite, Involve, Invest) has redefined the word “church” to mean something that would be barely recognizable to Jesus’ disciples and leaders of the early church.  The following are common characteristics and perceptions of churches today, none of which correspond to any of the terms used to define “church” in the Bible:

  1. …a Place – Somewhere Christians go
  2. …an Event – Something Christians do (with “CEOs”, Christmas & Easter Only, joining them twice a year)
  3. …an Institution – A legal entity operating in (underutilized) buildings, with significant labor and maintenance costs
  4. …a Social Club – Fellowship and fun without commitment or obligation
  5. …a Business – An organization that will have to close its doors if it doesn’t meet budget, therefore carefully measuring “nickels and noses”, with members essentially paying for pastors and staff to usurp their rightfully responsibilities
  6. …a “Hospital” – …for “sinners”, inviting non-believers into an assembly intended for worship rather than holding believers accountable for being the personification of “church” within their circle of influence between Sundays
  7. …Easy – Minimal expectations and no requirements, allowing congregants to abdicate the Great Commission to “professionals” by simply inviting friends to services next weekend
  8. …Quick – A one-hour experience designed to be as convenient and enjoyable as possible
  9. …Scripted – Sermons and songs that are carefully planned, yet with discipleship and sanctification left to chance
  10. …Segregated – Functioning wholly apart from other churches outside (and even within) a denomination, and outsourcing compassion responsibilities to external ministries

Do any of those sound like your church?  Do you know anyone who thinks many of those 10 items accurately portray your church (or America’s churches)?  If so, then it’s likely misaligned with “church” as God intended.

Church is…

To determine whether your church conforms to the biblical definition of Church modeled by Jesus and exemplified by the early church, consider how well it espouses and practices the following principles:

  1. …YOU – Church is not somewhere Christians go, but something Christians are.  It’s not a place, but is taking place wherever and whenever believers are gathered for worship, teaching and discipleship.
  2. …Disciple-Making – During His earthly ministry, Jesus invested His time primarily in personal discipleship and service to those in need.  We are only His Church when we’re following His example of (intensive, 1-on-1) discipleship and (internal and external) compassion – on a continual, ongoing basis rather than as a series of events.
  3. …Decentralized – Church is mobile, because its members are the hands and feet of Jesus wherever they live, play and work.  Their dependence is on Christ and one another, not on an institution.  Yet, in their efforts to build an entity, pastors have redefined “church” and thereby failed to equip and empower the true “church” for ministry.
  4. …Evangelistic – As the embodiment of “church”, each of us should be going OUT after the “lost”, yet churches advertise and members invite them to come IN (and join our social club), requiring they enter a building to find Jesus.
  5. …Compassionate – Jesus demonstrated His love before telling people who He is, so a true church invests (heavily) outward in serving its community rather than diverting nearly all funds to attracting and retaining, terms typically associated with businesses.
  6. …Believers – Since Christ-followers are the “church”, worship services should not be designed for those who don’t worship the Lord.  Christ wants His bride to be undefiled and holy, meaning you and I (as the living, breathing church) should take responsibility for leading people to Christ and then welcome them to join other believers in worship.
  7. …Risky – The Christian walk is not intended to be easy or safe, yet that is the “M.O.” of modern church growth models.  As the body of Christ, each of us should be challenged to “eat right” and “work out” (prayer, care and share), making the collective church healthier as it loses weight, dropping perennial fence-sitters and church consumers who will never commit to giving their lives fully to Jesus.
  8. …Loving – Love is the essence of our faith.  Our love of God extends to fellow believers and all mankind.  Love is patient and enduring but consumers (who see church as a place and not as themselves) shop and hop, looking for the best “experience”.
  9. …Transformative – Attending weekly services, joining a small group and repeating the Sinner’s Prayer are not inherently life changing.  Expectations for radical obedience are replaced with cheap grace when evangelism, discipleship and sanctification become optional.
  10. …United – In our last blog post, we looked at how defining church as a place or event separates churches and ministries into small factions, whereas properly viewing church as “called out ones” and “those belonging to the Lord” unites us all as one in Christ.

Is this list or the prior one (of what church is not) a more accurate depiction of your “church”?

It’s Your Turn…

What other perceptions or characteristics of churches would you add to either of the lists above?


11 Responses

  1. Thanks for a great post. I couldn’t agree more. I might add that church is not close-minded or uniform. God seems to embrace variety and chaos. Every local congregation needs to find ways to make Jesus known in their community. And we might expect each community to be different, so the methods employed by each community might also vary. Instead, local congregations today keep trying to eliminate the variables and create manageable, measurable, repeatable processes. Thanks again!

    1. I’m not sure what you might have in mind when you say ‘chaos,’ but the Bible is clear that God embraces order not chaos or confusion – 1 Cor. 14:33, 40; Col. 2:5; Titus 1:5

    1. “I think that the author has absolutely wrong thoughts on this issue. Pay attention online attention, it is freely accessible.”

      I think I am confused, what did you say? “I think” is never backed up by scripture.

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