How Do You Define “Church”?

Skye Jethani
header for How Do You Define “Church”?

There are four different ways we use the word church in English. First, we can mean a building where religious activities occur. (Did you see the new church being built on Main Street?) Second, it may refer to an event. (I missed you at church last Sunday.) Third, we use church when speaking of an institution with leaders, budgets, programs, and structures. (How much did you donate to the church last year?) Finally, the word church is used to identify a community—the women, men, and children redeemed by Christ living in unity with Him and each other. (The church helped us through a difficult time in our marriage.)

Which is the right definition?

That’s not really the best question. Depending on the context, any one of these four definitions may be appropriate. The better question to ask is: How did the writers of the New Testament define the church?

“People are the vessels of God’s presence, not programs.”

Anyone who has read even portions of the New Testament probably realizes Jesus and His apostles never equate the church with a building or an event. As an unrecognized and illegal religion, there were no buildings dedicated to the worship of Jesus Christ in the Roman Empire until the fourth century—well after the New Testament was written. And while the early Christians did meet weekly for prayer, teaching, and encouragement, these events were not called “church” but rather were understood to be gatherings of the church.

It’s the other two definitions of church that we have a much harder time distinguishing between today. Contemporary Christians often confuse and conflate the institutional structures of a local church and the spiritual community of God’s people. It is very possible to dedicate your time, treasure, and talents to an institution called a “church” but never know the mutual love, joy, hope, and support that comes when united with God’s people. Likewise, organizational structures are important. We see these begin to take shape very early in the New Testament, but confusing the church with the structures designed to support it can lead to very dangerous things.

For example, the Bible is clear that the Spirit of God dwells within and among Christ’s people, not within institutional structures. People are the vessels of God’s presence, not programs. When we lose sight of this truth, it becomes all too easy to devote ourselves to the perpetuation of a particular ministry rather than to the people the ministry was intended to serve. Or we may come to believe God cares most about a certain structure, and then see His people as instruments for maintaining it when in fact it’s precisely the opposite. God cares most about His people, and the structures of ministry exist to serve them.

As useful and important as institutions are, we must not forget that they exist only to foster the incarnate human connections through which the work of God is ultimately accomplished. In our highly systems-oriented, institutional age we need the discernment to recognize the difference between serving the church, serving the church through an institution, and merely serving an institution.

For Further Reading:

What If Jesus Was Serious About the Church?

by Skye Jethani

Researchers have uncovered the following three trends: First, distrust of institutions, including the church, is at an all-time high. Second,...

book cover for What If Jesus Was Serious About the Church?