What is a “Church” Anyways?

As many of you know, I have 3 children; each different in their own way, yet all helping to fulfill God’s great plan of making me a more kind and patient man.

Jessica and I are currently in the throes of teaching our oldest daughter, Gracie, to ride her bike. She initiated this endeavor when she demanded I remove her training wheels about 6 weeks ago with not much in the way of practice rides prior to this.  She is incredibly passionate and stubborn (just like her daddy.)

Last Saturday we loaded all 3 kids up, bikes strollers and everything and trucked over to the biggest emptiest parking lot we could find so Gracie could practice turning, weaving concentric circles, figure 8’s and the like on her purple Huffy—with handle bar streamers waving in the wind. Upon our arrival it began to sprinkle a bit followed by an out-and-out downpour, yet Gracie continued to ride, unaided and unhindered by the drops accumulating on her and the bike or on her mother and I! At first we huddled from the aquatic onslaught but then we all burst forth and ran together, with the drops from the sky creating a beautiful double rainbow. We laughed, we got wet, we made memories.  This was a great day to make memories, yet some of my favorite memories of our three kids and of Jessica surround the time when Jessica ushered them into this world, screaming, angry and covered in alien goo. (Now lets be honest, they don’t look that great upon first arrival).

I always envied midwives, those tasked with the responsibility of helping usher this new life into the open air.  In many ways, that is like one of my great joys as a Church Planter Catalyst, to serve as kind of a Kingdom midwife during the birth of new churches.  To be able to walk beside, coach, hold hands, laugh, cry, get water, sleep in a bad chair, talk, provide support, find resources, and encourage is a blessing that is at times difficult to describe. Yet, one thing that I constantly wrestle with in this work is the question of “When is a church a church?”

Unlike our understanding of what constitutes life for a child, our understanding of what constitutes life as a church is a bit more murky, and can be the source of just as much contention as our ongoing struggle for the sanctity of life.

Is a church a church when buildings are bought, budgets are briefed, and butts are assembled?  Can a church continue to be called as such if there are no baptisms to report, no outside giving to show, and no identifiable community presence?

In SBC life, and in my work as a CPC specifically, a church is considered an SBC church when we request and are issued an SBC ID number.  Regardless of attendance numbers, time spent gathered, giving, etc., this is the defined moment when a church comes into existence!  While this may work for our denominational bean counters, (blessed and needed, all of them), this alone leaves us wanting.  With that in mind, I propose the following definition of church, with a brief bit of elaboration to follow

The Church is the blood-bought people/family of God, who in its gathered and scattered states, serves as a Sign, Instrument, and Foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

 This Kingdom has been inaugurated through the death, burial and resurrection of King Jesus.  The Church, in this way, functionally serves to alert others to the presence of this Kingdom through the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel.

In it’s local and universal context, the Church is constructed from people of every tribe, tongue, and nation who proclaim allegiance to King Jesus in this life by placing saving faith in the sacrifice of Christ for their sin and who commit to aligning their life under the Lordship of King Jesus. In short, they proclaim allegiance to King Jesus and commit to life in His Kingdom, under His righteous reign and rule.

In coming posts, my hope is to build on this definition of church by expanding the conversation as to what constitutes Sign, Instrument and Foretaste.

In the meantime, what say you?  Is this a good definition of church? What would you change and why?


7 thoughts on “What is a “Church” Anyways?

  1. Clark Kent Reply

    Cute story about your kids.
    Interesting illustration of midwife.
    But a theological (Christianese) definition of church.
    I don’t have much idea of what you meant.
    Lutherans teach that the church is “the assembly of believers where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered.” I don’t know that I’d agree but it sure seems a lot simpler and easier to understand.

  2. Alan Jay Locke Reply

    The church is the people who make a committment to Jesus. The catholic church (little C) is the universal grouping of believers, as you said, King Jesus is the head. The local gathering place can be anywhere the body meets. In a home, a school, a building or just on the ground, we come together to praise and worship our risen Lord and King.

  3. Doug Post authorReply

    I find it very interesting that the Gifts of the Spirit were given “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7-11), that is, for the good of one’s local body of believers = church. Maybe that offers the basis for a definition … We’ve all grown accustomed to being “in” church, centered on worship and praise, and fallen away from being of direct assistance to each other, being “a” church.

  4. matt Reply

    @Clark–Thank you so much for responding! I too think the story about my kids is cute, but they are even cuter in person!

    I am very familiar with the “Lutheran” definition of church, as it and similar definitions from our mainline brethren have done much to shape our contemporary view of church as a place where certain things happen. Namely, church is the place where we observe ordinances, hear the Word rightly preached and even sit under church discipline.

    This view of church, which one author calls the Reformation Heritage view, in our time has now morphed into a Contemporary view or church which is sadly, nothing more then a vendor of religious goods and services. In this view of church, people have come to see the church primarily as an institution that exists for the good of its own members.

    My hope in putting forth the definition of church I did, was for us to begin seeing, experiencing and living church as people more than place. To begin seeing and living life in the body of Christ more in a sense of mission than consumption. In fact, if I have one edit to make of my above definition it would be to say we are a body who exists in both a gathered and “SENT” state serving as Sign, Instrument and Foretaste.

  5. Doug Post authorReply

    @Matt – Sadly I know just what you’re talking about in your comment about the “church as a vendor.” We’ve many times heard folks remark that they’re looking for a church that “meets my needs.” As if any order of service or amount of special music could take the place of the Holy Spirit’s working within His people!

  6. Richard Taylor Reply

    A few years ago a man by the name of Wolfgang Simson once mockingly summarized the church as holy people coming regularly to a holy place at a holy day at a holy hour to participate in a holy ritual lead by a holy man dressed in holy clothes against a holy fee.

    I believe he was sarcastically saying that church (in our culture) is a regular performance-oriented enterprise. Years ago it was just part of the church’s program that we called “worship service”. Either way it still requires a lot of organizational talent and administrative bureaucracy to keep going.

    A traditional 1-2 hour “worship service” is very resource-hungry enterprise. But it actually produces very little fruit in terms of discipling people, that is, in changed lives. Economically speaking, it might be a “high input and low output” structure.

    This not only ignores that Christians are called to “worship in truth and in spirit,” not in cathedrals holding songbooks, but also ignores that most of life is informal, and so is Christianity as “the Way of Life.” I think we need to change from being powerful actors and start “acting powerfully?”

    Please don’t mistake what I am saying as worship services being irrelevant. They are very important to the balanced life of followers of Christ. I am saying that if we narrow down the term or work of the church to “worship services” we are in big trouble

  7. Jeff Cokely Reply

    For whatever it’s worth, I’m with Richard. However, the fact that I agree with him may cause him to rethink his response!

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