People use the word ‘church’ for several different things: A building ‘he opened the door to the church’; a job ‘he went into the church’; a Christian meeting ‘they were late for church’; a denomination ‘I am in the Anglican Church’; a local congregation ‘the church were glad when the missionary visited.’
But what does the Bible mean by ‘church’? It is a gathering or people, a meeting. The word used for ‘church’ in the Bible is the normal, everyday word for a ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’. (There is more information on this over the page.)
What makes us come together? You may sit together with very different people from you on the tube. You have come together on the tube because you all want to go the same way. Why do such different people meet together in Christian church? What connects us? It is our shared trust in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus says he is building his church (Matthew 16:18).
What are some implications for us? Here are five:
1. So often what we call ‘church’ is a building made of wood or bricks or stone. That is not the church that Jesus is building. Jesus is making a gathering of people around him. We should look after our church building; keep it clean, maintain it. But our greater concern should not be for the building but for the people who meet. Some churches in hot countries meet in the shade of a tree. The Bible meaning of church is not a building, it is gathering of people.
2. So often what we call ‘church’ is not what the Bible means by it. Denominations (the Anglican Church or the Presbyterian Church) are not ‘churches’. They are organisations that help a number of churches. The real churches are the congregations or gatherings, where God’s people ‘assemble’. Denominations can be helpful, but they are not as important as the ‘church’ that Christ is drawing together.
3. We should try to keep the focus of church, of our meeting together, on what Jesus has done for his people and is doing to his people. In our songs and prayers and sermons and coffee time chat we should keep reminding each other of important things: The great work Jesus has done to rescue us; the way he wants us to get on with each other; that we must be looking forward and getting ready for the day he comes to judge all humans.
4. We can expect our local church to be a letdown. Why? Because it is a gathering of others with sin in their life just like me. Sin will show itself in selfishness, in laziness, in refusal to treat each other as God wants. All those things mean that church will be a letdown. We should not be surprised when it is a letdown. But we should be working to try to join in church in the way Jesus wants.
5. Jesus is building his church. What is he using? People who come to him. You may have been in church meetings for years, but you are not part of the church if you are not a Christian. Being a church-goer does not make you a Christian, but being a Christian should make you a church-goer, because you want to submit to Christ and meet with his people. You may be a person who should spend more effort on helping the church and not just ‘attend church’. How can you help out?
The meaning of ‘church’ – not a religious word
In Acts 19:32 Luke, the writer, tells us the assembly, is in confusion – who is this about? Look at v28. This is the Ephesian crowds. In Ephesus silversmiths who made models of false gods are worried because of the Christian preachers. They start a commotion, the whole city gathers or assembles. The gathering is called ‘the church’. But it is not translated church ….because a religious meaning is given to church today. They are called the church again in v41. The same word is used in verse 39 – ‘a legal church’. The Bible word that is translated ‘church’ in other places is not a religious word for Christians meeting. It simply means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’.