defining “church”

What exactly is a church?

It seems to me that this would be an essential task for those of us that say we belong to, or work for, a group of people that gather in a place for the purpose of “church.” What we realize as soon as we begin to consider this question, however, is that the term “church” has become very ambiguous. It is one of those words we use assuming that everyone around us automatically knows what we mean, even though we may not be exactly sure what we mean. This collective uncertainty shows up very quickly as we consider a few questions that clarify the conversation further like:

  • How would you distinguish a church from a group of friends, a family, or a tribe?
  • What would an organization need to exhibit to be characterized as a church rather than a charitable organization, service club, or religious institution?
  • Is a church a specific kind of gathering, a specific location for that gathering, a person or group of people gathered for a specific purpose, or something altogether different?

At first glance, finding an authoritative description of this term should be very straight-forward. We should be able to open our Bibles to a specific chapter and verse that defines this entity in the same way we can define a Christian understanding of love (1 John 3:16), or faith (Heb. 11:1). If we can’t find a specific definition of church in a single location, we should be able to identify quite simply the essential tasks or functions of the church in a verse or two in the same way we can with the most essential commandments (Matt. 22:36-40) or the cost of being a disciple (Matt. 16:24). The frustrating truth of the matter is that I find no such objective definition in the text.

What we do have to guide us in this work are the descriptions of the churches in the NT. Using these seminal witnesses, we can glean the organizing principles and essential functions that these early followers of Jesus used to form their community expressions of the faith. Once we have harvested these “churchy” traits, we are left to the fundamental task of embodying these characteristics in a faithful, localized manner. We will get some of this incarnating work right, and we will get much of it wrong. We will need an epistle or two to correct the “embodiments” we are making… but the most important part of the conversation to this point is that church is not a static “thing” you can nail down and define. It is, rather, a living, adapting, incarnating lifeform.

From here, I think we are safe to assert the following essential components gleaned from the witness of the NT church.

  • the presence, energy, counsel, and conviction {both meanings intended here} of the H.S.
  • the intimate and unified community that forms around the organizing principle of living our lives as Jesus would if He were us, shaped by the Gospels and informed by Epistles {not the other way ‘round}
  • the passionate pursuit of the Kingdom of God
  • the embodiment and incarnation of the values of the Kingdom of God
  • the intentional commitment to teaching/learning, worship, service, and fellowship with the maturity of all its members as the expressed “end” of this work

At this point in my exploration, I am willing to say that if a group of people does not exhibit {at least} these 5 characteristics, they are not a church.

What are your “core components” of a church?