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Reclaiming “church” as the people of God

The term church is often used as a building people go to, or in reference to a particular gathering time of God’s people.  I want to discuss some reasons why it is important to reclaim the Bible’s definition of church as the people of God.

Here are a couple of references to the use of the word church from the New Testament (you can look up more uses here)

In Acts 11: 22 (NIV) it says this: “News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.”  Notice that “they” refers to the church. People.  Not a building or a gathering time.

In Acts 14:27 (NIV) it says this: “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”‘  They gathered people together.  Not buildings.  People. And the people gathered was the church. The gathering moment didn’t make it church.  They “gathered the church.”  They were already the church.

Why is this distinction important?

  1.  Since the church is who God’s people are, we are a 168 hour per week “church.”

Not a Sunday morning, or Saturday night event or gathering.  What we do and how we live all week is the life of us, the church.  When we speak of “going to church,” we limit what we are as the church to a 2 or 3 hour block of time when we gather.  Perhaps not intentionally, but by our use of words and expressions we do create this false view of the church.  We must realize we need each other and need life together and ministry to each other through all of life, not just in a 2 or 3 hour block of time.

For application: that means the gifts God gives us are not just expressed in a building we call the church, but in us the people of God.  Those gifts are not just expressed during one 2 or 3 hour block, but during 168 hours of every week (all the time).

    2. The needs of the people of God are not met each week in a 2 or 3 hour gathering time.  

Let’s face it, just as if a person tried to live on one big meal a week would have serious nourishment issues, any one who tries to live on one spiritual meal from a church service, or youth service, or children’s church time, is going to have nourishment problems spiritually.

When we speak of church as what we go to or when we gather, the pressure is increased on that time to fill the functions of what we perceive church as.  Many people view “church” as their spiritual nourishment time.  If church is simply that 2 or 3 hours, then we view it as of supreme importance for our spiritual nourishment.  It is not of supreme importance. We as God’s people are the ones God loves and cherishes as His children, and our needs as His children are always present.  We need nourishment from God’s Spirit and His word every day.  We need to abide in Jesus all the time.  Encouraging and caring about and helping each other follow Jesus is something I would urge to always have on our hearts.

Getting a certain teaching in during one particular gathering will not make or break a person’s week spiritually, but many view the worth or value of their “church” based on just that view.   It’s a false view of church and life together as God’s people.  Beginning to see all of US as the church can help to free us from this narrow perspective and allow us to look for other times and ways to meet our spiritual needs. Deciding to be a part of particular local church (people who follow Jesus) or not based on what they do together during one particular gathering time (by saying that is what they offer as a “church”) is not a good way to make that decision.  That is only a very small part of who THEY are as a church.

    3.  The value of God’s people does not decrease when they miss a gathering time.

In many people’s thinking, if someone is absent from “church”, then they are somehow less spiritual or perhaps have issues in their life that need correcting.  In the true definition of church it is not possible for someone who is a Christian to miss “church.”  They are in the church whether they gather or not, because the church is the people and not the building or a gathering.  But our use of the term “church” creates the impression in our minds of a problem when people don’t attend our favorite gathering time.   We should care for each other over all hours of a week, and look to see that we are helping each other be faithful to Jesus whether they come to our favored gathering time or not.

“But what about those verses that say we should not stop getting together as the church?”  Let’s look briefly at that passage from Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV:  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Where in this verse does it say that getting together has to be on Sunday morning?  If someone is neglecting his brothers and sisters in Christ, and never meeting with them to spur them on or to encourage them, then yes, there is a concern.  And that is what should be addressed.  Not whether or not someone is absent from a particular service or bible study.  And what is the true focus of these verses? Is it the gathering together, or is it the spurring on to love and good deeds and encouraging each other?  It is the latter, not the meeting together.    So let’s help each other as much as we can toward love and good deeds, let’s encourage each other, and let’s stop focusing on our specific meetings as the key issue.

4.  The building we gather in is not the church.

Some people still use the phrase “house of the Lord” to refer to the church building.  This is based on the Old Testament view that the temple was the location where God’s manifest presence was made known.  But the New Testament corollary to the temple is NOT the place the church gathers, but it is the people of God.  It is God’s people in whom His Spirit now dwells.  Listen to this phrasing in Ephesians 2:19-22:  “19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

These verses are referring to the people of God, including the Ephesian believers, and us, as the building that becomes the temple in which God dwells by His Spirit.  It is US who is the house of the Lord.  Not a building.  You don’t meet in the house of the Lord. You ARE the house of the Lord, you who know Jesus. This is true both corporately and individually of believers in Jesus. Listen to 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NIV describe how each of us is God’s temple: “1Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”    Each believer’s body that can sin sexually is a temple of God’s Spirit, and this is the reason to flee sexual immorality, so each of us can honor God with our body.

I realize that “church” buildings where Christians gather are dedicated to God, and I am not trying to indicate they have no value as a special place dedicated to Him.  They do have value.  And we should take care of them.  But they are not the house of the Lord, they are not the temple of God, and they are not the dwelling place of God’s Spirit like the temple or tabernacle of the Old Testament was.  The people of God are! The reason all this talk is important, again, is to help us think more accurately about what we should value and in whom and where and when God wants to work and meet His people.  It is all the time, wherever they are, including when they gather, and when they are in their homes or places of work, or at the building we call the “church” building.  Deciding to be a part of particular local church (people who follow Jesus) or not based on how nice the building they gather in is or other factors about the building (by saying that building is their “church”) is not a good way to make that decision.

Our use of language matters and reflects our thoughts about reality.  I encourage you to drop all language about God’s people that poorly reflects on the truth of who they are.  Don’t use ideas about a particular gathering time, or the building.  Open your mind to the reality that the church is God’s people, and the church has needs 168 hours per week, and the discipling of the church happens wherever and whenever and however God’s people help each other follow and obey Jesus.  Let’s view our whole life together as the life of the church.  Here is a link to view the references in the NIV where the term church is used in the Bible: the use of the word CHURCH in the New Testament.

I would also encourage believers today to move away from choosing which local church you will attend based on solely a Sunday morning review of that particular gathering, or of a review of the building itself where they do gather from time to time. Better factors to consider are based on what the church actually is. This does include how they express themselves  and who they reveal themselves to be in one gathering, but 2 hours is about 1.2% of a week. Keep that in mind.

Better factors to consider could include:

Looking at how God meshes you together with a particular people, and how they are learning to serve God together

at what gifts you have to offer that group that they might need, and where you might be able to help offer mentorship to some of them,

at what gifts they have that you need, and who might be able to help mentor you,

at how you might work together for God’s kingdom, and if the people have a kingdom focus or not,

at the love and values they have expressed throughout a whole week that resonate with your heart and God’s heart,

and certainly at how your view of Scripture resonates with their views of the same.

Perhaps you could add to this list in any comments you make.  God bless you as you live out life together with others who together make up the church.