What is Church?

The most basic definition of the Greek word translated into English as “church” would be “a public assembly of people.” Whether it was an official town meeting or a crowd gathered at a market watching someone perform, that assembly was called a church. This is the word Jesus chose to identify the assembly of people who would be His followers (Matthew 16:18). Right from the beginning we see that the church is the people, not the place or the building where the people meet.

In the early days of Christianity, the church (the assembly of people) met at the temple in Jerusalem, in homes, in rented schools, just about anywhere they could. And while all Christians, no matter where they were, were considered to be part of The Church, their own local gatherings were also referred to as a church. The church in Rome, the church in Ephesus, the church in Galatia, and so on. These were not references to buildings but to groups of people.

Why we call the buildings where Christians meet “churches”? Probably out of convenience. If you say to someone, “Meet me at the church.” they know exactly where you mean. It probably just became a habit to call the building “the church”. But in reality, it is the people that make up the church, not the steel and concrete.

Something else that has come to be referred to as “church” is the Sunday service. On Sundays, we go to church. “When is church?” “It’s at 10:00.” “How was church today?” “Oh man, we had church today!” While it may be more convenient to refer to that time together as “church”, that also is a misconception that has crept into our everyday thinking.

So what is the point here? Church isn’t the building, and it isn’t the time spent together, it’s the people. Now what? There is a subtle yet important shift in thinking that needs to take place. Many churches today have become based around the building and the programs used to draw people in and gather them together. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with buildings or programs, there is something wrong when the people, the church, exists to serve the building and the programs and not the other way around. One of our goals at Calvary Chapel Forest Grove (CCFG) is to try and set things right.
If the people are the church, then wherever the people are, that’s where the church is. There is no need to go to a special place that is decorated in a certain way so that it feels like “church” in order to have the experience you are looking for. Too many people have become reliant on the place and the time as the means by which they have their Christian experience. It’s not about experiencing a feeling, it’s about experiencing a real relationship with Jesus Christ every day.

Back in the day, the Christians got together to do what it says in Acts 2:42. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” They learned under the apostles’ teaching, studying God’s word in such a way as to live it out. They prayed together for each other. They lived their lives together. As they grew in their relationship with Jesus they also grew closer together. This is one reason Paul refers to a group of believers, to the church, as the “body of Christ.” A body is composed of cells that are interconnected and interdependent. When each cell is healthy, functioning as it should, and working with the cells around it, the body thrives and grows. When a cell is unhealthy and functions only for its own good, we call that cancer. Cancer is not good!

What we see happening in Acts 2:42 is what we are after. But we don’t live in the first century, we live in the 21st century. Our culture, our society is different from theirs. Therefore, what we do today will look and feel different from what they did then, but the essentials and the goals should be the same. Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be broken.

As you study the early church you see that the people didn’t serve the organization, the organization served the people. For example, they didn’t start a singles’ ministry then try to get singles to plug into it. That would be the people serving the organization. Instead, we see in Acts 6 that there was a need to help distribute food to a specific ethnic group in the church. They started a program to meet the need that already existed. That’s the organization serving the people.

The early church was more of an organism. That which works and serves a purpose is supported so long as it works and serves that purpose. If it stops working or if the purpose is no longer relevant, it should be stopped. When a tadpole grows into a frog it absorbs its tail. It doesn’t need the tail anymore so the energy and resources that went into maintaining the tail go into the rest of the frog. Too many churches are hanging on to their tails. 🙂

Our goal as CCFG is not to do church, but to be the church. Our goal isn’t to build buildings or to have loads of people. We want to be whatever it is Jesus wants us to be. We want to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. That’s what the church is for. What does that look like today? Let’s find out together.

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© Corby Stephens 2005-2018