What is the Church?

What was your first thought when you read that question?

Is it possible that your fist inclination there was influenced by your denominational background?

Do you even have a denominational background?

I grew up in an incredibly solid Bible teaching, but not thumping, church. I spent more than a decade working in vocational ministry. I’ve taken classes at several different seminaries. My answer would have been:

The Church is the Body of Christ alive and active in the world today.

And while that is probably theologically accurate it is almost useless from any practical day to day perspective. Or is it? I’m not sure at the moment, hence this post.

Suddenly the question starts to get a little cloudy so we illuminate it with qualifiers: Do you mean the Church universal? Do you mean the local body of believers? Do you mean a group as defined by a denominational affiliation?


But which ever definition we land on will carry with it a set of expectations. Expectations that will be met or, in the failing of their being met cause significant grief. We EXPECT “church people” to act a certain way and if they don’t they hypocritical.

I remember our high school winter retreat my senior year. I was one of the “leader kids” in our church youth group. We probably had somewhere between 100-200 kids at our bigger meetings. On the retreat we may have had 40 or 50.

We were having that sharing and prayer time that anyone who has been on one of these retreats knows oh so well. That time when people actually open up and share stuff that is sometimes deeply buried.

So it came as a bit of a shock to a lot of the kids when I, the leader kid, the guy the younger guys looked up to, they popular kid, said, “You know a lot of times I feel a whole lot more accepted by my non-christian friends at school than I do here.” Let’s just say it opened a bit of a can of worms which I am sure the youth pastor was glad to be finished with at the end of the night.

Now, I’m not saying the kids in our youth group were hypocrites, they were great. But there was SOME set of expectations alive and at play there that night that differentiated church people and non church people and the church folks were coming up short.

I have a worrying feeling that “The Church” today is not being what it ought to be. I have a worrying feeling that we’re redefining what we mean when we say “The Church” so that we don’t have to stare that shortfall in the face. I have a worrying feeling we’re trying to get over failed expectations by redefining how we answer that question.

So I’ll ask again…

What is The Church? And…what expectations are engendered by your answer?


13 responses to “What is the Church?

  1. When I think of the church, several ideas pop into my head.

    The body of believers as a whole
    Our local churches
    Fellow believers that we meet with regularly w/o the context of a building

    • So then…
      If it is the body of believers as a whole do you think we act as a body?

      If it is local churches they do tend to act more like a body but how do they connect to the broader body?

      If it is fellow believers who we meet with regularly…same question, how well do we connect with the larger body?

      • I think we do a poor job of acting like a body any which way we slice it. There are so many divisions and factions it’s ridiculous. Often people want to be the center of attention so they break away from the larger body and create more divisions. It’s something the church has to work towards fixing.

      • That’s kind of where I’m headed here Joe, and I think the implications of that are more far reaching than maybe we realize.

        “Something we have to work towards fixing” typically ends up with one of two results. Either: That means nobody is responsible OR it means one group saying, “we’ve got it right just come along and agree with us.”…which then, unfortunately, starts to sound a lot like politics.

  2. Kimball Chase

    Any group of people who have put their trust in Jesus (the Savior of the world) and as a result have been forgiven, reconciled to God, and transformed. And that transformation is characterized by their unending love of all people and their adventurous pursuit to share the truth of the salvation Jesus offers with those who have not yet heard.

    • So does that result in multiple bodies?

      Or is it more a loosely affiliated body, made up of more closely knit groups, operating in co-opitition for attendance?

      Or are those more corporate representations that look like a group of people who meet at a specific building something less than optimal representations of what you’re describing?

      • Kimball Chase

        Yes it results in multiple bodies – differing locales necessitates multiple bodies, but all are(should be) closely knit and connected by the core essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Of course, that presupposes that the church is effectively teaching the core doctrines of the Christian faith – which is another subject entirely.

        Yes, I do think that the larger corporate church experience is something less that optimal. Sunday morning spectating with 4 songs, a pastoral prayer, and a 25 minute talk is not an optimal setup for the Body of Christ to BE the body of Christ in this world. Is there some fruit from this . . . yes. But the most effective larger churches have highly developed and intentional small group structures that allow for intimate fellowship, accountability, teaching, ministry and prayer – that’s where the action is.

      • On the surface I agree with you on small groups. I’ll even go so far as to say that is most healthy cases small groups roll up effectively to a larger local body.

        But…and I’m still thinking out loud here…

        Small groups cease to be effective when you look at evangelism. Evangelize too well and your small group becomes a church…which needs small groups. But the small group doesn’t want that, they enjoy the intimate fellowship…which leans back towards a consumer mentality, no?

  3. “The visible church is all the people who get together from time to time in God’s name. Anybody can find out who they are by going to church to look. The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except God.”
    Frederick Buechner

    • Hmmm…so the visible church might include people who don’t believe yet but merely get together with others.
      Which is interesting because it starts to draw a distinction between the visible church and the invisible church/body.

  4. Fletch, you seem to be on a journey. Perhaps it’s similar to the one Wendy and I have been on in the past five years.

    We’ve revised our view of church, arguably more akin to 1st century Christians. After a bitter experience with a most “perfect” church we belonged to, we delved into a study of the Body of Christ that led us to some counter-church-cultural ideas. Barna has been very influential, and we are now in a house church of 4 families who worship together weekly.

    Funny, some of our more traditional friends think we’re on a hippy-like sabbatical, praying that we get “back to church.” For us, we are reveling in the realization that we are more in church (fellowship, the Body, bearing one another’s burdens, loving one another) than we were in a building on Sunday mornings.

    Am I making sense? Wendy and I are still on the journey, God still working in our lives. We’re not all that cynical toward traditional church, but very much enjoying and growing in fellowship with dear friends.

    • We’ve done the house church thing too Chris, also as a result of a bitter experience.

      Ours got large enough we had people start talking about “forming a church”…which was weird.

      The smaller body fellowship makes absolute sense and it does conform to a 1st century model but I’m wondering how that ties into the body at large, if you will, and how we all should be functioning together.

      The fact that you have believing friend who hope you’ll get “back to church” points to some sense of division between what is happening and what “ought to be” which is really the same discussion/argument that starts denominations.

  5. I am the church. My family is the church. My church family is the church. All gospel-focused churches are the church. For me as the church, I impact all the others, so I start there with expectations. The Bible says to “above all guard your heart,” and so this is my first expecation. To guard my heart by pursuing Christ. Oh my, I think you opened up a pretty big topic. I could say more, but I’ll stop there.

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