God Says...

What is Church? The answer might seem obvious, especially for those of us who grew up as Christians attending religious services every Sunday. But for more and more people in our increasingly secularized culture, that’s not the case. Since fewer and fewer of our neighbors grew up with a Judeo-Christian background, we can no longer assume a common understanding of the word “Church.” What’s more, within Christian circles we use terms like micro-church, home church, and mega-church to describe a wide variety of Christian communities and gatherings. The sheer number of definitions can be daunting, which brings us back to our initial question: What is Church? Now more than ever we need a solid understanding of what Scripture teaches about this subject.

God Says, Church is Not…
Before we talk about what Church is, let’s talk about what it is not. As we examine the pages of Scripture, we’ll discover that many of our own assumptions and expectations about Church are just plain wrong, mainly because the Church is not another man-made institution. So, what is the Church not?

The Church is not a building. Nowhere in Scripture do we see the Church defined in terms of brick, wood, stone, or mortar. The buildings we worship in, which we commonly refer to as “churches,” are in fact only church buildings. That’s an important distinction. A building is not a church, though a church can (and often does) gather in a building.

The Church is not yours or mine, but God’s. Possessive pronouns are dangerous when we’re talking about Church because they appeal to our old sin nature. My ministry. His program. Her project. The witness of Scripture tells us that every square inch of the Church is God’s. He created it. He died for it. It is his Bride. And “unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

The Church is not a country club. In a country club, members pay dues and expect certain benefits. It is exclusive, elite, and its mission is oriented toward pleasing its constituents. God’s Church is categorically different in its aim to please God and in its outward posture (see Matthew 28:18-20), inviting the outsiders—the last, the lost, the least—to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

The Church is not a social service organization. Such institutions provide crucial services like clothing, housing, and medicine with the goal of improving people’s earthly lives. The Church’s ultimate goal, however, is eternal. Our concern is not with bodies alone, but with souls (Matthew 10:28). The Church’s mission includes physical welfare, but it also eclipses it. The humanitarian work we do is never an end in itself, but points to a greater spiritual reality: Jesus, the living water (John 4:10) and the bread of life (John 6:35).

God Says, Church is…
So what is Church? In its simplest form, the word used in the New Testament for Church, ekklesia, simply means “called out ones.” Whether it’s the church in Corinth, Philippi, or the seven churches of Asia, a local church is an assembly of people who gather regularly to celebrate God’s promises. One of our foundational documents (the Augsburg Confession) defines the Church as “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” The Apostle Paul, in his greeting to the church at Rome, writes, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7, ESV).

First and foremost, then, the Church is God’s beloved, blood-bought children—adopted sons and daughters who trust in Jesus alone for their salvation. Church is not a place but a people. The dwelling place of the Holy Spirit is no longer limited to the walls of the tabernacle or temple (see Exodus 25:8). Instead, the Spirit is present in God’s people, the Church: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22, ESV).

So the Church is the “called out ones,” but what exactly are we called out for? Jesus’ last words to his disciples give us a clue (Matthew 28:18-20): “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to make disciples.

Here’s what that means: If you are a Christian, then you are God’s missionary. Wherever you live, work, and play—that is your mission field. You don’t have to cross oceans to be a missionary. All you have to do is enter your local Starbucks to find that God has brought the world to our doorstep.

We serve a missionary God with a missionary heart, and he sends us out to proclaim his kingdom in both word and deed. With one hand we point to Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and with the other we love our neighbors by seeking justice, clothing the poor, and working toward the flourishing of our local communities. God is on a mission to redeem and restore a lost and broken creation, and you and me—aka, the Church—are his primary means of accomplishing that.
LUKE KJOLHAUG serves as pastor of Elim Lutheran Church, Osakis, MN.

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