What Is Church?
I have often heard Christians repeat the phrase, “You can’t go to church because the church is you.” I have always liked this little slogan, but have not always felt like it accurately represented how Christians view church. What exactly is church? Many would say that it is the event held on Sunday mornings in their church building involving music and a sermon. If this is true, then our current COVID-19 crisis would have successfully destroyed the church…and it has not. You can breathe a sigh of relief. In fact, in the past several weeks, I have seen some pretty incredible incarnations of the body of Christ.
I have been in contact with several Brethren pastors in the Midwest region and across the country through phone, texting, Zoom video chat, Facebook, and even had one over for dinner last week. You will not be surprised when I tell you that not one of these leaders in our tribe has also hinted that their church has been annihilated because of the crisis. I had one pastor tell me this week that he is very excited about what is going on because it forces us to reexamine our definition of church. Another pastor celebrated, “I believe this will strengthen the core of our church!”
Now, this does not mean the abrupt transition away from our standard worship services has been easy. I have heard comments from several different people about how watching their church service online this past Sunday feels like a poor substitute for actual church. These comments are encouraging to me because the body of Christ realizes that we need to commune in fellowship with one another to exist. Church is not a spectator sport or a show that we go to for entertainment. Though the teaching/preaching time is core to our faith, it cannot become the only thing we do. There is a reason we call ourselves The Brethren. We do need each other!
These conversations have me thinking about my definition of church. As I prepared to start a new church about a year ago, I looked up every occurrence of the word “church” in the New Testament to gain a better understanding of what our new church should look like. What I found was that church is not an event; it is a community, a body of believers that passionately love God and are committed to supporting one another as they walk through life. A body that reaches out to the lost and introduces them to Jesus. What is even more incredible is that church is not something that we can build or create; it is something that Jesus builds, and it is not overcome by anything, let alone the Corona Virus.
“…And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18)
With all of this in mind, it appears that the Sunday worship service is not the entirety of what church is. It provides an opportunity for Christians to accomplish essential aspects of the church, such as worshiping God and learning more about him, praying for each other, sharing the gospel with those who do not know God, and discipling those who do. Can we still be the church if we are not able to gather in groups of over ten people physically? As a pastor of a house church that has averaged between 10 and 20 people over the past year, I would say, “Absolutely!” There are Christians all over the world who are forced to meet in secret in their homes with one or two other families.
As I searched out a definition of church, I was pleased to find that someone had done the leg work for me. In Tony Webb’s book Gathering to Movement, he shows his in-depth research of the Bible that has led him to a concept called the 3/5 Focus of Church that looks like this:
Who church is:
- Focus on Jesus’ Mission- Matthew 29:16-20 (Jesus Christ focus)
- Communing with God. (God the Father focus)
- In spiritual community together (Holy Spirit focus)
What the church does:
He pairs this with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” to say that a group of three families that are fulfilling the 3/5 Focus of church are…A CHURCH! This idea was mind-blowing for me and caused me to reflect on all the ministries I had started up to that point and redefine many of them as a church.
Be encouraged that even when we are not meeting in the sanctuary, with the pews filled, we are still the church. I have seen so many creative ways that we, as Brethren, have embraced new ways to tackle “What a church does” in the middle of the current crisis. Some churches are using YouTube, Facebook, and other media to broadcast their teaching and preaching to their congregations while encouraging them to worship God in their homes as a family, and to serve others through phone calls, visits, watching their kids, picking up their groceries, etc…. We are getting to the core of who we are in Christ, letting God stretch us, and it is working!
We often look at spiritual growth as an individual pursuit. I believe that we are currently in a time of communal spiritual growth as an organization. We are forming healthy mental habits right now that should not be thrown out once life returns to normal. We, as a denomination, are being molded more into the character of Christ through this experience, and our churches are becoming more of the Church that Christ has called us to be. Let’s take advantage of the lessons learned during COVID-19, and integrate our renewed definition of church into who we are as the body of Christ.