When is the church “the church”?
There are some who like to talk about “The Church,” by which they mean the sum total of any and all Christians anywhere in the world.
While this is a biblical concept, it can have the unfortunate consequence of allowing some Christians to think that they don’t have to be a part of “a church” because they are a part of “The Church.”
But “The Church” only does something when “a church” does something.
It is typical to think of the church being the church whenever Christians gather, typically for worship, Bible study or prayer. Indeed, the church gathered has the Lord’s blessing (see Matthew 18:20).
Hebrews encourages Christians to “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
It appears that there were some Christians who were content to “love and do good deeds,” but didn’t feel it necessary to “meet together.”
Hebrews was written to a church in persecution where it was dangerous to meet together, much like the Christian church in China today.
Meeting together – or not – was an issue of survival. The safe thing to do was to be the church as individuals, doing the mission of the church without meeting together as the church.
But the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that meeting together was so important it was worth dying for because individuals are not provoked to love and good works without the regular encouragement and accountability that comes from gathering together.
The church needs to be gathering together, but I wonder if we have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way, such that we define being the church primarily as the church gathered.
When viewed that way, whatever else the church is doing – or not doing – it is still the church as long as it gathers together, even if it really isn’t engaging its community and world.
Some have defined the church’s mission as trying to get as many people as possible to come to our gathering.
This creates a continuous feedback loop centered around the church gathered.
Yet there is a growing movement of Christian leaders who are saying that the church is only being the church when it is on mission out in the world by ministering to the poor, the suffering and the hurting.
The church gathers in support of that mission, but if it only gathers and does not minister out in the world, it is not being the church. The church is a group of people with a common mission out in the world.
The emphasis is on “out in the world,” because these leaders are not talking in any way about the church’s mission being to gather in the church building – or even in our homes.
Equally as important, they are also not talking about the church “scattered” as each individual Christian seeks to fulfill their own unique – and solitary – calling from God. That would be Christian individualism run amok.
They are talking about the church gathered out in the world in order to minister to hurting people.
I don’t believe there is a dichotomy between the church being gathered in buildings and homes and the church being gathered out in the world on mission.
However, if we had to choose I believe we are called to the latter – gathering out in the world, ministering among the lost and hurting of our world and bearing witness to the good news that they are not alone.
In Isaiah 1:13-17, God tells Israel that he is tired of all of their gathering for worship because it is not coupled with justice.
“I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood,” God declares through the prophet.
God then instructs them, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Or as James 1:27 declares, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
This is the church being the church.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.