If we were to play a game of word association, I wonder which word would be the first to come to mind when I said the word “church.” Play that game with enough people, and you will likely experience a colossal range of responses and emotions. But let’s make this more personal. I am most interested in what you think — or perhaps more importantly, what you believe. See, I’ve observed significant and pervasive untruths at the foundation of what many people believe about what “church” is. Those untruths can keep or drive people away, but they can also draw them into a terribly unhealthy dependence on, or understanding of, God’s definition of “church.”
So, that’s a pretty bold statement. What makes me the authority on “God’s definition of ‘church’?” Two words … The Bible. There is no shortage of mention of the word “church” in the Bible. By my research, the word “church” shows up 113 times in the New Testament (no mention of it in the Old), and appears most in the writing of the apostle Paul. You might be surprised to know who uses it the least … Jesus. Jesus uses the word “kingdom” almost exclusively. The word He uses (only twice) when He says “church,” speaks directly of one of the essential parts of the kingdom. The word is eklessia (aren’t you just thrilled when someone throws Greek at you?!), and it means … an assembly, congregation, church; the Church, the whole body of Christian believers. (Strong’s Concordance)
Church … the Church. I believe our understanding would be helped immeasurably by including that one small word, and say “the Church” rather than “church.” It is fair to say, the vast majority of words people would speak playing word association with the word “church” would fall into one of three categories. A close friend of mine once called them “the three B’s.” He spoke them in a conversation, where he was communicating a deep wrestling with his responsibilities as an elder in his church. “Buildings, Budgets, Bodies,” I remember hearing him say. Each word fell heavy as it escaped his mouth. It was what burdened his heart most. It was what the role of leadership in his church had become all about. Church had been reduced to the specific order things were done in the Sunday service, the project to re-pave the parking lot, the broken toilet paper hangers, the slick multimedia presentations, the weekly attendance relative to the number of volunteers. The church had been reduced to a physical thing – concrete blocks with a fresh coat of white paint, a tax-exempt ID number and a membership role.
The Church is us. It’s people. It’s individual relationships with Jesus and personal walks of faith colliding into each other and working themselves out in the form of community. It’s doing life together. It’s as mysterious as “kingdom” sounds … and is. It’s as practical and everyday as praying for each other, providing for each other, suffering and laughing together.
The most compelling definition of “the Church” I’ve found comes from the chorus of a song from a favorite band of mine (Cathedral Made of People by Downhere). The chorus begins, “We are a cathedral made of people, in a kingdom that the eye can’t see.” That doesn’t work very well as a response in a word association game, but I bet the apostle Paul would sing it loud! The Church … a sometimes wild and woolly, yet beautiful expression of God’s kingdom on earth. Broken, redeemed lives serving and loving others as Christ loves them.