Rethinking our Thinking about Church

Posted by Steve Kemp | Published February 26, 2018

Rethinking our Thinking about Church

“Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see all the people.”

What is a church?  The rhyme has it right, the church is really the people.  However, it also assumes that the church has a steeple.  If asked explicitly, no one would say the church is a building.  Yet, in practice, most of us have fundamentally bad habits in how we think, talk, and act about church. 

I would like to challenge you to examine yourself to see if you are thinking correctly about the church.  The Apostle Paul taught many things and addressed many church issues, but in his culminating thoughts for the Corinthian church, he demanded that they “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).  The stakes for thinking correctly about the church are very high. 

Examine Yourself

Here are several questions to ask and issues to address that may help you to identify incorrect thinking and build correct thinking. 

  1. What comes to mind when you hear the word “church?”  Is it a church building?  A church service?  A denomination?  If it is anything other than a group of people called by God to be on mission for His Kingdom, then you have a faulty foundation.
  2. “Where is your church?”  Do you ask this question?  If so, then you are revealing a fundamentally flawed understanding of the church as location.  How do you answer it when others ask you?  If you give the location of your church’s building, then you are reinforcing a flawed understanding.
  3. “Where do you go to church?”  This question reveals an understanding of the church as church services.  A church may have church services, but it is not essentially events that are attended. 
  4. Is the church a worshipping community?  Indeed, a church is characterized by worshipping together, but also by so much more.  For instance, passages that address what the church gathering is like emphasize other things, such as being an equipping community, a serving community, and even a forgiving community (Eph. 4:32).  Worship services, even ones that emphasize confession before God, rarely facilitate confession and forgiving one another for sins in the community.
  5. “When does your church meet?”  If you answer with “Sunday morning,” then you may be still operating from a church-service-building orientation.  If you answer with “Sunday night” because your house churches meet primarily on Sunday night (or if you answer with a reference to your small groups or missional community groups), then you are probably honoring the biblical passages that actually describe the gathering of a church (Heb. 10:23-25).
  6. Do you tend to think about the church a single congregation?  Or a network of congregations?  Both are true.  However, if they aren’t well-linked in our thinking, then we probably don’t have a proper understanding.  For instance, if your church is largely isolated, then it is probably not properly engaged in the global progress of the Gospel.  Or if you identify yourself primarily by your denominational affiliation, but aren’t rooted in a local congregation, then you are probably being robbed of the “one another’s” of Christian community.
  7. Are training programs (classes, mentoring, assessment, etc.) things that churches do in the midst of other things?  Or are training programs core to what the church is?  If the church is designed to bring people to maturity (and the church itself is to be mature), then equipping must be core.

So, as you (or those around you) have struggles based on the questions and issues raised above, what can you do?  More importantly, what should we do? 

Make Improvements

Here are some recommendations about how to think, talk, and act in a manner that is better aligned with biblical teaching:

  1. Don’t ever ask someone, “Where do you go to church?”  This is difficult because the question is deeply entrenched in our culture.  Let the unbiblical assumptions of the phrasing of the question haunt you so much that you no longer use it. 
  2. Rather, ask them, “Of what church are you a part?”  And, “What is your part?”  This may be a little awkward sometimes, but it allows you to have a conversation that is much more proper in light of biblical teaching about the church.
  3. When someone asks you, “Where do you go to church,” tell them about the church of which you are a part.  Don’t mention anything related to your building, but tell them about the community and your part in that community.
  4. Use “church” as an adjective, not just a noun.  If you are talking about your church’s building, refer to it as your “church building,” not your “church.”  If you are talking about your church’s worship services, refer to them as “church services.”  If your local congregation is part of a network of congregations, refer to it as a “church network” (or “church of churches”).  If you are talking about your house group, missional community, or small group, perhaps you should refer to it as your “church community” or “church family.” 
  5. Prioritize descriptors that flow from the biblical teaching about churches.  For instance, referring to your church as an “equipping church” clearly emphasizes development to maturity. 
  6. Study the biblical teaching about what the church is and does.  Key passages include:  Acts 2:42, Ephesians 4, Hebrews 10:23-25, and Philippians 1:3-5.
  7. Embrace multiple meanings for the word “church” that are indeed biblical.  For instance, “church” is an individual congregation.  It is also proper to use the term “church” to refer to a network of churches, particularly when you are thinking of a local set of house churches.  And “church” can be legitimately used to refer to a large network, such as an association or denomination that shares beliefs, administration, mission, and authority. 
  8. Maintain the connection between the life of a church and the progress of the Gospel.  This is much more than merely emphasizing individual evangelism.  It is primarily about the connection between local churches and the global apostolic work.  The Great Commission is primarily a movement of planting and establishing churches (Luke 24 is followed by Acts 1).

Hopefully, this blog has done more than make you feel bad for using the word “church” inappropriately.  Hopefully, it has helped you understand how to make improvements in the way you think, talk, and act about church. 

As a smart-alecky child, I had my own parody of the traditional church rhyme that was unfortunately true about most church services I attended:

“Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and see all the people . . . sleeping!”

Rather than end on a critical note, perhaps it will help to conclude with a new version of the old-time rhyme that is more biblically appropriate.  It isn’t that everything needs to change.  However, the way we think, talk, and act does need to change.  It isn’t wrong for a church to have a steeple, if it uses it properly for the ministry of the church according to the Way of Christ and His Apostles.

“Here’s the church, it is the people, they're on a mission, even with its steeple.”


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