The word church is quite common in our daily parlance. People talk about going to church or not going to church. People talk about joining a church or leaving a church. But what is a church, after all?
We talk about churches as though they’re locations on a map, sequestered to a particular geography by an address. Similarly, though not the same, we speak of churches as buildings, particular facilities with certain architecture. We even talk about churches as the programs or services that they provide.
But when Jesus first uses the word ekklesia, the Greek word for church, he’s not referring to a place with a zip code. He’s not referring to an edifice with steeples. He’s not describing a calendar of events of activities.
With the word church, Jesus is describing the people. The community that gathers together around the person and mission of Jesus is the church.
That’s the reason that many Christians are taught a song as children that declares, “The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is the people.”
Today, lots of people — including lots of Christians — have either forgotten that wisdom or never seemed to learn it in the first place, so there’s no shame in not knowing that a church, in its truest sense, isn’t a physical structure or permanently located at a particular address.
Just know that, in its earliest sense — and in its purest definition even still today — a church is the community of people who gather around the person and mission of Jesus.
This is why Rev. Dr. Cheryl Peterson, associate dean for academics and professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, titled her book “Who is the Church?”
Churches should ultimately be personal, relational entities.
This is why, in my eyes, it’s so tragic for churches to get distracted by facility needs, program costs, advertising campaigns, and the like. Don’t get me wrong. The people who are the church need a place to meet in, but people should always take precedence over the places.
The people need programs, but we must always remember that the programs are meant for people. The goal of sharing the church’s message isn’t to increase the budget, to support the facilities, or to endow the programs, but to meet the needs of the people that God so loves.
So the next time you hear someone say they’re going to church, press in. Ask them about their church, and more specifically, who their church is. If you’re a Christian, the next time you say you’re going to church, rethink your language. Consider what it would mean to say, “I’m going to be with the church” or even “I’m going to be the church in a particular way.”
As always, that’s theology for everybody.
The previous Theology for Everybody article can be found here.