Over 2000 years ago, Jesus boldly declared that he would build his ‘church’ (Matthew 16:17-19). The church was his idea and there is nothing else that he said he would build. It is his master project and all of his energies are focused on completing it. It is part of his eternal purposes (Ephesians 3:10-11). But what is the ‘church’ and what did Jesus really have in mind? There are many different opinions about what the church is meant to be.
Today when people use the word ‘church’ they are most often referring to a place of Christian worship or to the institutional aspect of the Christian community. We say things like, “Let’s go to church” or “Look at that nice old church” OR newspaper articles might refer to “The Anglican Church” or “The Catholic Church”, in which they are talking more about an organization than anything else. As a result, most people today think that a church is a building on the corner with a cross or a steeple, or an institution that you belong to. These meanings have strayed a long way from Jesus had in mind.
When Jesus chose the Greek word ecclesia (which we translate into the English word ‘church’) to describe what he was going to build, he was taking a pre-existing term and investing it with new meaning. It literally means “the gathering of called-out ones”. It was used to referto a gathering of people who would meet regularly to discuss and deliberate over a variety of social and even political dilemmas facing a community. Today this would be similar to a meeting in a local town hall of a group of community leaders and members. It was a gathering of people, brought together by their common vision for the harmony and well-being of the wider community. Jesus is saying that he is going to build his own community, yet it will be a community of people who have a mission and a purpose to carry out in the wider world.
Let’s re-imagine the church by going right back to the beginning – to our origins. The book of Acts tells the story of the beginning and expansion of the church of Jesus Christ. As we read it, we start to get a clearer picture of exactly what Jesus had in mind. I see the church as:
A community of Christ-followers empowered by the Spirit to participate in God’s mission in the world.
This describes what the church is and what it exists for. If you were take a tour around the world today and visit a variety of churches, you would experience amazing diversity – quiet and loud, informal and formal, traditional and contemporary, small and large in size, and meeting in all kinds of different buildings (traditional, homes, cafes, auditoriums, stadiums, even pubs).
So what is the right expression of church and are ALL of these, or ANY of these, what Jesus really had in mind? Of course, no church is perfect today, just as there wer no perfect churches in the first century (churches in the first century faced many challenges including false doctrine, immorality, disunity, and false teachers). However, I believe that if any of these so-called churches today are “a community of Christ-followers who are being empowered by the Spirit to participate in God’s mission in the world” then they truly are an expression of the church of Jesus Christ, as imperfect as it may be.
Let's celebrate the diversity! After all, it takes all sorts of different churches to reach all sorts of different people. The form that the church takes will be different in different cultures and contexts but these ingredients are the essential ones. We'll unpack this definition further over the next few days …