What is Church? Part One

by Lloyd Rankin

"The church” is a very easy and soft target for any criticism of Christians, and any group of Christians. Yet the church is the visible sign of Jesus’ presence on earth today. Together we are the church, and any criticism of one is a criticism of all. Any success of one is the success of all. We are the church and we stand or fall together. The church is not an “it” it is an “us.”

The church is Jesus’ idea, and He builds and nurtures and grows His church. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28 TNIV)

A few years ago God reminded me to not get my “orders” mixed up. It was one of those dark moments when life gets a bit much, and people can seem to be the problem. (Perhaps I am alone in having these moments??) I was wanting Jesus to look after loving people so I could get busy building His church. He firmly and lovingly and gracefully reminded me that I had it the wrong way around. “You love the people, and I will build the church!” He won’t do our work, and we can’t do His work. Jesus said ““And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18 TNIV)

As Vineyard churches in Aotearoa New Zealand we are focussed on the mission of helping lost people find their way to Jesus, and we do this through the planting of churches around our country. Churches are redemptive missional communities of faith hope and love. We are stretching and encouraging each other in this mission by working towards having 40 Vineyard churches in NZ by 2020.

We want all sorts of churches: small churches, house-churches, middle sized and large churches, mega-churches and multi-campus churches.

When we read the word “church” in the Bible it is normally an english translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which simply means a gathering of people for a shared purpose, or “called out ones.” In the scriptures it was used to describe something as big as the people of Israel, and it was used to describe something as small as a town council meeting. What Jesus and the apostles did was to invest the word with special meaning for followers of Jesus

The church (ecclesia - called out ones) exists at several levels

  • Two or three gathered in Jesus name (Matt 18:20)
  • Church in your house (Rom 16, Acts 2)
  • Congregation (neighbourhood church - e.g. house with internal walls removed) - larger than a house church, smaller than a city church
  • Church in a city - e.g. Church at Ephesus
  • Regional or national church - e.g. Church in Galatia
  • Worldwide church - every believer.

In this series we are looking at six attributes of a church. As we plant and develop churches this is what we are working with. Martin Luther wrote about the distinguishing marks of what makes something a church, as distinct from simply a being a group of people with similar ideas or purposes. We can summarise them in to these six attributes

  1. A gathered group of believers
  2. Worship and fellowship
  3. The preaching of the Word of God
  4. Practice of the ordinances
  5. Proper discipline - moral oversight
  6. Church government / rulership - Biblical leadership

So I am briefly working on the first - that church is a gathered group of believers. Many of us will know people who have been hurt, disillusioned or just frustrated with church, and have made the decision to disconnect from church. There can be valid reasons, which can easily be understood. When you gather with a group of fallible human beings feelings can be hurt, mistakes can be made, things can go wrong. Yet the very nature of our relationship with God calls us into family, and family groupings. Someone who has removed themselves from a gathering of Christians may still have a faith, but it is not a biblical faith. Biblical faith calls us into relationship, into deliberately connecting with others.

Church, at it’s most fundamental understanding, is a community of people who have chosen to arrange their lives together around 3 commitments:

  1. A commitment to the Person of Christ - Christ
  2. A commitment to the People of Christ - Church
  3. A commitment to the Passion of Christ - Cause

While there is no promise that gathering together to deliberately do life together will be easy (it isn’t!!) it is actually the only way forward. Through our gathering together on a regular basis (at least weekly) we accomplish more than we can ever hope to accomplish alone, and we grow in maturity, because God designed us to be social creatures who flourish when brought together, and the act of being together enhances and enlarges our individual lives.

The church exists in the act of being gathered together with Christ in the centre. We become the church when we come together. Never forget the incredible power and miracle that occurs every time we gather together as church. We have the incredible privilege of working together to make our gatherings as wonderful and life giving as we possibly can.

“On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27 TNIV) The church exists in the act of being gathered. We become the church when we come together. Never forget the incredible power and miracle that occurs every time we gather together as church. We have the incredible privilege of working together to make our gatherings as wonderful and life giving as we possibly can. 

So can I encourage everyone of us that loves and follows Jesus to regularly, deliberately and wholeheartedly gather with our church community, and grow and serve together. Come to the gatherings with the expectation of using your gifts talents and abilities, and in so doing you will receive as you give. Welcome to the adventure of being the church.

A wonderful book to read further on this topic is “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.