What do you think of when you hear the term church?As a child, I thought of a specific building, a small sanctuary at the intersection of two roads in the heart of my boyhood village. The building even had its name written on it in large, black letters.

No doubt about it–the building was the church. As such, the very building was considered holy space. Everything within it commanded reverence. If you forgot this, someone would remind you!

Later I learned to think of the church as ecclesia, the called out community of Christ. The Apostle Paul provided the concept. I saw the church not as building or an organization but as people God called to himself, both now and in all of history. The church was God’s creation. He made, sustained and guided it for his own purposes. When I spoke of the church as “holy,” I meant it had been set apart by God, both as the haven of his people and a missionary outpost in the world.

I’ve known persons with other concepts of church. For example, I remember being surprised by the candor of an older woman. She said to me: “You preachers get plain silly when you talk about church. The rest of us know church is the place you go to make friends and have fun.” The church and her bridge club were much the same thing in her mind, only one met in a larger building.

Over the past few decades, I’ve known quite a few people who like to think of church as God’s army. Sometimes they think the army’s mission is to capture America for God. Others talk as if the mission is to man to the cultural borders against rival ideological armies.

The medieval church often portrayed church as the ark, a great ship that would carry its passengers safely through life and deliver them to heaven.

Obviously, we can create many, even conflicting, images of church. For my money, family may prove the most enduring. The parable of the loving father informs my take on church. God, the father in the story, owns the farm and the house and has all rightful authority. Yet he consistently treats both sons gently, refusing to override their humanity even as he calls them to acknowledge and embrace their kinship and turn the house into a family home.

That’s how church feels to me. In church, we come together in the presence of God. We know church belongs to God, and we know God is the parent of us all. To tell the truth, most of us know God’s heartfelt desire is that we accept and treat one another as beloved family members. Yet in each local church I know, we often treat one another as rivals.

On a bad day, church resembles nothing so much as a children’s playground, complete with clashes over toys, sand kicked in someone’s eyes and evolving coalitions squaring off against one another. On such days, the church family acts like the dysfunctional family in the parable.

But that’s not the entire story! Each day in the life of the church family, some of us forge new relationships, pray for someone else, go out of our way to minister to another or celebrate the gifts and work of a fellow Christian. People shell out hard earned money to provide food and shelter to someone down on their luck. Someone kills a fattened calf and throws a party for the rest of us, even those of us who might be considered prodigal.

Church is most nearly like a family, with all the liabilities and benefits, joys and stresses, tragedy and wonder that comes with the territory. We are at our best when we embrace and strengthen the special family we call church.

Mike Smith is pastor of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appears on his blog.

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